“Black people, think about space … f–k the ghetto, think about space!” said Jon Sinclair with excitement in the recent Brother From Another Planet BBC 4 documentary about Sun Ra. He was summing up the jazz legend’s complex mission on this planet in a way we can all understand.
The idea for this article came about in an interesting way, I was hard at work, wasting hours of my day scrolling through Tumblr. After enjoying some ridiculous gifs, a particular photoset caught my eye. Artists like Andre 3000, Ishmael Butler (Palaceer Lazaro of Shabazz Palaces) and Erykah Badu were pictured wearing African/Egyptian/futuristic-styled garments. Below was an excerpt and a link that I believed at the time lead to an article about afro-futurism. So here I am looking at this, and the only thing that came to head at that moment was “Where the heck is Sun Ra?” I ended up “liking” the photoset anyway and went about my business.
A few days pass, I finally decided to see where that link attached to that photoset headed to. It turned out the author did in fact mention Sun Ra by providing necessary resources. It was a jerk move to assume that an author who has obviously spent time to share information about afro-futurism would blatantly disregard Sun Ra’s contributions that are still prevalent today. What the mishap did for me was help piece together something I never surprisingly thought of before. Many of the artists that I enjoy would have probably never made the albums I cherish very much because of the absence of a self-proclaimed, Saturn-born angel.
“Where were you born Mr. Madlib?”
“Like Sun Ra?”
Madlib: “That’s my pops basically …” – Madlib with RBMA, 2002
In the late 1930s, Birmingham, Ala. native Herman Poole Blount (the name just sounds like an intergalactic visionary, doesn’t it?) was an aspiring pianist who fell victim to an extraterrestrial experience—it involved a force that wasn’t Earth-like whatsoever. That particular supernatural event in Poole’s life was monumental enough to begin what would be a constant-growing, revolutionary mark that will effect music forever. Fast forward to 1952, that dud of a name “Herman Poole Blunt” was replaced with something with a little more pizazz. The then-Mr. Blount was now Le Sony’r Ra (stage name being Sun Ra), making Mr. Blount obsolete, or in straightforward terms a man that never existed. The newly arrived Ra stated that he wasn’t from Earth like all of us—the planet Saturn was were he called home.
Sun Ra – “Outer Spaceways Incorporated”
Sun Ra then recruited a reliable number of jazz musicians, dancers and singers who weren’t afraid to showcase their talents under his peaceful, yet stern order. What made Sun Ra such a magnet for talent was his many beliefs: the cosmos, balance in one’s life and peace were some of the subjects of his many philosophies. They accompanied Ra gig to gig while dressed in sparkling, colorful robes, eye-masks and extravagant animal-head shaped headpieces—not the usual tuxes and top hats. Those key parts of the band’s uniform made for a sight to behold and were loosely similar to what Ancient Egyptians are primarily depicted wearing. Ra and the Arkestra could be considered the media’s first major visual glimpse of the term “afro-futurism”.
Sun Ra – “Astro Black”
The band didn’t only look the part, they played the part too. The 1956 album Supersonic Jazz was Sun Ra and the Arkestra’s first LP. Handling a non-stop workload came with creating music with a being not of this world, the band would follow-up Supersonic Jazz with a hundred plus, highly collectable releases under Ra’s label Saturn (Talk about intimidating, I had no clue where to begin when I first gained interest in him.) One album after another, Sun Ra found new ways to aid his music in evolving to sounds never before performed including adding new forms of technology (i.e. synthesizers).