Jazz giant Sun Ra is the patron saint of Afrofuturism. He ruled over his far-out band Arkestra for 40 years, creating almost 200 albums. Anyone who can do that can’t be insane, said one psychiatrist when asked for his opinion. Why would anyone seek a psychiatric opinion?
Sun Ra insisted, with a straight face, that he had not been born on Earth. He came from Saturn; he was on a rescue mission. His “slave name” was Herman Poole Blount (1914-1937), but he became Sun Ra (c.1937-1993). He had a vision.
My whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn’t in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me … They talked to me … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.
Sun Ra came to earth to use music to transport blacks to a new planet, for a new start. Whether he was a UFO abductee, a visitor from Saturn or an angel is irrelevant. He was on message for the rest of his life.
In the arch but curiously moving prologue to his 1971 movie Space Is the Place, Sun Ra explains his vision:
The music is different here. The vibrations are different. Not like Planet Earth. Planet Earth sounds of guns, anger, frustration.There will be no one from Planet Earth we could talk to who would understand. We’ll set up a colony for black people here. See what they can do on a planet all their own, without any white people there. They would drink in the beauty of this planet. It would affect their vibrations, for the better, of course. Another place in the universe, up in the different stars. That would be where the alter-destiny would come in. Equation-wise – the first thing to do is to consider time as officially ended. We’ll work on the other side of time. We’ll bring them here through either isotopicteleportation, transmolecularization of better still, teleport the whole planet through music.
After Sun Ra moved from Chicago to the Big Apple, his Arkestra commandeered Monday nights at Slug’s Saloon in the northern part of the Lower Eastside, just as it was turning into the East Village. Albums he did for ESP Records hit the charts. By 1969, he was on the cover of Rolling Stone. He toured America and Europe. He and his Arkestra “family” even visited Egypt, the romanticized black homeland.
Certainly he was a showman — those space-age costumes, those five-hour concerts with dancers, his “girl singer” June Tyson chanting Sun Ra proverbs (“You made a mistake. You did something wrong. Make another mistake, and do something right!”).
But he was also a mystic, Cabbalist and a poet.
Sun Ra proposed Africans and those of the African diaspora were, like himself, extraterrestrials or stranded angels.
In the cult movie Space Is the Place, dressed up as a chubby, dime-store Egyptian king, here is what Sun Ra says to two black youths in an Oakland pool room:
I’m not real, I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths. I do not come to you as a reality, I come to you as a myth. because that’s what black people are, myths. I come to you from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago.
But here’s the irony: Sun Ra and his Arkestra achieved their greatest popularity through rock concerts, which had mostly white audiences, and with the urban, white-hipster intelligentsia.
“Open your ears so that you can see with the eye of the mind.”
— Statement accompanying the first Sun Ra recording, 1956