[Reflections on Sun Ra, Afrofuturism and music as liberation]
I recently attended a packed-out late night screening of the 1974 film Space is the Place, shown as part of Bristol Watershed’s Afrofuturism season. For the uninitiated, the movie showcases the unique talents and perspectives of one of the twentieth century’s most significant musical innovators – Jazz musician, mystic, prophet, and space traveller Sun Ra, who became the key philosopher of what would later come to be termed Afrofuturism. This cultural movement, which evolved against the backdrop of the struggle for black liberation in the 1960s and ’70s, is heavily influenced by sci-fi, various forms of mysticism and Afrocentric ideas. Along with Sun Ra, the ‘holy trinity’ of Afrofuturist innovators were funk pioneer George Clinton and dub revolutionary Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – three outsiders operating in completely different sonic and cultural contexts, yet all of whom incorporated the theme of space and space travel as a key element in their outlook. The infinite possibilities of outer space came to be seen as offering uncharted territory for musical and cultural exploration, and a reimagining of possible futures to offer alternatives to the alienation experienced by humans in general, and the African diaspora in particular.
Space is the Place, shows Sun Ra divesting himself, by the means of his Ra Ship, of the shackles and oppression of Planet Earth, its sounds of ‘guns, anger and frustration’, and visiting other planets where ‘the vibrations are different’. He then returns to Earth, touching down in Oakland, where he offers the young black people he meets a choice between the more harmonious frequencies available to them through his teachings and the music of his Arkestra, or to remain ensnared in the poisonous realities of addiction and violence, presided over by the nefarious, Mephistophelean Overseer.
In the context of the film, the FBI, who ineptly bungle an assassination attempt on Ra, understand very well the significance of what an ‘African Space Programme’ could mean: a psychic shift that could alter the spirits of African Americans, thereby threatening the very basis of American society, with its origins in white supremacist violence. Space is the place precisely because its potentials are infinite. In a limitless void belonging to no one, up and down do not exist and Earthly hierarchies become irrelevant. Space becomes a canvas and laboratory for exploring alternative ways of being. Devising an Outer Space Employment Agency as part of his recruitment drive to find fellow-travellers to explore these realms, Ra explains: ‘everything you desire upon this planet, and have never have received, will be yours in outer space’.
Not only is the film an amazing and frequently hilarious cultural landmark, but it illustrates a unique way of thinking about music. In the Sun Ra cosmology, music is both means and end: a method to communicate to Earth-bound creatures that their myopic understanding of reality is entirely defunct, and also an expression of a higher mode of consciousness – a guide to a different way of existing altogether. Music is therefore not a mere appendage to daily life, a temporary relief from its tribulations, but an essential element in the expansion of human capabilities and the traversing of alternate realities.
Sun Ra – who throughout his entire adult life maintained that he was from the planet Saturn – has long since returned to his home planet without leaving us a physical vehicle to explore the realities that he mapped out for us; our technological capacities for teleportation are still sorely lacking. Meanwhile, the oppression he sought to dissolve through music continues: many of us still lost down on Planet Earth are ruled by oligarchs and distant political classes, who enrich themselves while the populations beneath them writhe in limbo-states of anxiety and frustration. Even the racial oppression which Ra surely hoped would come to an end within his lifetime, continues, as the recent slaying of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, reminds us. Yet the Afrofuturist impulse for music to be a vessel for expansion, experimentation and liberation, is as strong as ever.
Unsurprisingly, the LA Beat Scene, where the foundations of hip hop are being stretched, scuttled, dissected, and rearranged in multiple ways, is one of the primary bastions for this kind of sonic exploration. Brainfeeder founder and psychedelic electronic visionary Flying Lotus, has long been assimilating and reconfiguring Afrofuturist ideas. While his recently released album You’re Dead! Takes death as its central motif, his previous album Until The Quiet Comes is arguably an exploration of the idea of inner spaces – subconscious realms, dream states – as a starting point for re-envisioning life aboard Planet Earth. Likewise, LA beatsmith Ras G takes more explicit cues from Sun Ra’s ideas, taking up the mantle of the Afrikan Space Program for the 21st century.
Still stateside, Erykah Badu, Shabazz Palaces and Janelle Monae are exploring similar territories. But one of the lesser-known but no less talented proponents of modern Afrofuturist music come from Southeast London: United Vibrations have been exploring Sun Ra’s legacy for several years, rooting themselves in jazz, funk, afrobeat, but expanding ever outward, beyond definable genre. In an age where music is largely becoming a cheap and disposable commodity, a lineage of musical explorers continue in their quest to remind us that music is far more important: when created with the proper intention, it is a means to transcend our realities, to rethink what is possible, and to be a tool in our own liberation.