Sun Ra’s Creativity| Afrofuturism

Sun Ra was such an intricate and thoughtful creator. He made sure that what he created had meaning. His lyrics in his songs, poetry, the powerful sound of his music shows off his seriously he took his craft.

During my research on Sun Ra, I was so happy to find out that he wrote poetry. I have always been a huge lover of poetry and I thought it would be interesting connecting his poetry to Afrofuturist novels. I mean, Afrofuturist poems are incredibly interesting. To grasp the powerful vastness of space and otherworldliness in poetry is phenomenal.

At this point, I’m not even surprised to say how well Sun Ra pulled off Afrofuturism in his poetry. I will use the poem The other otherness (1972). He wrote two other versions of this poem in 1920.

The poem goes like this:

The Other Otherness (1972)

When one understands 

There is no ego involved

There is no communication

In the supervised state of distances

For we who are

Know we are to is

To be

To rise above an evoluted eternity

To feel our worthless pricelessness 

Invaluable similitude

A separate only onliness

Only on

Movement out to behold kindred outerness

An other-otherness

That is not like them

If they are a non-similarity vibration

Now let’s break this up and A N A L Y Z E

When one understands 

There is no ego involved 

There is no communication 

In the supervise state of distances

 

Sun Ra has a vision of being an alien on earth to preach peace, forgoing negativity and hate in order to bring forth love.

He IS the other of otherness (Black). He is choosing to bring peace and love from Space with “no ego” and no communication for those who were made with love will bring forth love and its stated in the following lines:

For we who are 

Know we are to is 

to be 

to rise above in evoluted eternity

Sun Ra being such an outrageous and out there black man, he truly was the other of other mess and living in his truth, he is separate, living in “onliness” for he is the only one living this life. Not only was he deemed crazy or on drugs because of his truly out there behavior, but people would also run away from his performances. People who did not understand that this jazz musician wasn’t just playing Jazz. 

 

The poem continues:

To fill our worthless pricelessness 

invaluable similitude

A separate only onliness

Only on

Movement out to behold kindred outerness

An other-otherness

That is not like them

If they are of a non-similarity vibration 

 

Our “worthless pricelessness” this poem begins by discussing being “the other of otherness”, so far removed from a society, truly living in the outskirts of everything. He writes that in order to become this other, you must forgo your ego and not communicate because those who are other naturally know how “to be”. He writes as if there are more people who are on the same plane as he is he uses “we” and “our” but then uses “only” and “onliness”. The loneliness of not being seen by the majority but how rewarding it must be to have traveled with so many people who were living in the same plane. His world, his people seem to be in a bubble. Free and out there creators.

Throughout his entire career, he never got the success he deserved for being so far out of societal norms. My family who was around during his rise give me mixed comments. My parents loved his work but I have older cousins who judged his work and assumed he and his Arkestra were all in drugs. His work was dismissed and most people didn’t understand his vision. He was around before many well-known jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Miles Davis but his work wasn’t as appreciated. Most people don’t even know who he is or that his Arkestra is still performing to this day.

I believe his space persona was his way on alienating himself. He knew that his vision and his sound will place him out of the norm but he followed his dreams anyway. He lived as an outsider with a passion, a dream. He grew up with his family alienating him because he chose not to continue his education in school or go into the military. Instead, he chose to leave his family and create.

Sun Ra wrote different versions of this poem and it seems to continue in different moments of loneliness , in version one written in 1980, he finishes most of his pieces with dots trailing after, “to rise above the earth’s tomorrowless eternity…..” Which sounds like he’s saying that he is trapped in some sort of endless cycle. His onliness is leaving him in a world with a “tomorrowless eternity”, living with no end. Sun Ra once wrote, “If death is the absence of life, then death’s death is life”. A circular idea of what life and death may be (there may be something here, or I’m totally over analyzing anyways. Let’s move on)

His SOUND! I’ve mentioned before how my dad felt about his music but this is a slightly edited stream of consciousness while listening to the 21 minute Space is the Place song, on his album Space is the Place. Please listen to it before or after reading this in order to get the gist.

Space is the place… a lot of insane and funky sounds. Many instruments being played and throw in at once. To indicate which instruments are being played is a challenge. There are a few women signing “Space is the Place” all through the sound of the instruments. With all of its intensity, it’s a bit calming though I can see how the sound is a bit anxiety-inducing. 

There is so much happening in this. 

It is a 20-minute song that just continues having intense and disastrous sounds. My cat is going insane just listening to this. She is running around the room fighting her imagination. 

By six minutes in with so much sound. I am truly wondering if there will be some kind of turn down because from the very beginning of this song, there was just sounds bombarding each other. What does Space is the Place mean? That is what I’m wondering now that I am almost 8 minutes in.

Now there is a man saying “Yea, space is the place. don’t you want to go outer space.” He is joining in with the women singing. Even when most of the instruments drop out, there is still so much going on. 

His (Sun Ra and his Arkestra)  sound has no end, there are so many webs just in this one song. So much happening. This sound makes me feel like I am stuck in a web or falling down the rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland. I can see myself falling down a black hole with wildly vivid colors and having no end to this hole. Just falling for all eternity. 

“OUTER SPACE”

My cat is still losing her shit.

It’s toning down around 13 minutes. It’s calming down. There is this strange sound that sounds like someone screaming or laughing but I bet you twenty bucks it’s an instrument. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised because Sun Ra’s mind is insane (In the greatest way possible). Totally a genius. I just can’t imagine screaming and making a sound like this for that long. It is starting to sound like a tea kettle when it’s ready. My cat has chilled out.

15 minutes now and it toned down again and it sounds pretty classical jazzy.

My cat is now fighting a bottle. I think she wants to be a musician.

Around 17 minutes, it sounds like it’s toning out. All the vocalists are saying space is the place and riffing off of each other.

As their voices tune out, there are horns and other instruments being played calmly to match it

and we get another vocalist. OH! now the space is the place female vocalists are back. The instruments are coming back up now. We are coming back into space.

19, is it zoning out? no, we still hear a vocalist singing space is the place.. I think we are coming to a close at 20 minutes. OH NO! another loud sound to override her voice but then he sings louder.

This song took me on a whole ass trip. It is ending with a piano I believe but not your average piano sound because. What the heck?

All in all, listening to his music was an amazing experience and I have never had an experience like that while listening to music EVER. I definitely understand why he was criticized. Just hear me out, if you listened to his music, you would hear how insane it sounds and the fact that there is no sound like that ever. There is no artist, even today that is as genius as Sun Ra. Artists today will copy Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald etc. but Sun Ra’s sound is unheard of!

In the next and final post on Sun Ra, I will again delve into his life as a creator using his poetry and music. After that, we will be getting into N.K. Jemisin! Let’s go!

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Sun Ra and His Arkestra| Afrofuturism

Hello, my kids! Gather around and let me tell you another story about the Great Sun Ra!!

So, if you don’t remember where we left off in the last post, click here.

For four decades, from the early fifties until his death in 1993, Sun Ra and his Arkestra baffled, dazzled and aggravated jazz fans with an uncompromising and unpredictable musical style that wandered the spectrum from finger-popping bebop to the harshest of atonal free jazz (sometimes in the same piece), and a mythology that often kept audiences off-balance and guessing. Sun Ra didn’t sell many records in his lifetime, but along with the Arkestra, he nevertheless became the stuff of legend.

Angels and Demons at Play written by Jim Knipfel

Today, we will start roughly ten years from where we left off. In those ten years, Sun Ra was finding his footing.

He actually didn’t even change his name until October 20, 1952. It was apart of the movement where many black people were changing their names to something that wasn’t linked to slavery just like Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X. My dad even changed his name a few times.

During those ten years, he was doing a lot of soul searching. He devoted himself to his music and was trying to find his sound. He was drafted for the war and chose not to go and then was arrested.

After all that he finally packed up and moved to Chicago where he really found himself.

August 1946, he ended up in Club DeLisa working under a man named Fletcher Henderson who was a composer and bandleader, on his last creative dregs. When Sun Ra joined them, he was their pianist and tried to throw in his bebop spin on their sound but none of the members were having it.

The beginning of Sun Ra’s Arkestra all happened in the amazing Chicago but it took some time for things to settle in. He tried starting something with Tommy Hunter, drummer, and Pat Patrick, saxophonist. Both were very accomplished musicians and two of Sun Ra’s close friends.

Tommy Hunter, unfortunately, got drunk and had sex with a white woman after an impromptu party. Now if you know anything about American history, you’d know that these were some crazy segregated times. Black people were killed far more often and for stupid things like having sex or even whistling at white women (Emmett Till). Sun Ra made sure that he immediately got Hunter out of Chicago and to New York.

Pat Patrick moved to Florida with his new wife but eventually, he came back and joined the group. Patrick has been in and out of the group until his death.

Along with Pat Patrick, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore and Marshall Allen were constant members of the group.

By 1955, Sun Ra finally settled on the name Arkestra for his group. By them, dozens of musicians have come in and out of the group and Sun Ra was truly born. He was the embodiment of a Science Fiction tale. He spoke in riddles and got the other fellow musicians to follow the space sounds he had in his head.

Sun Ra would create the entire sound of his music and in his Documentaryone of his members even mentions not understanding what sound he needed until years after being in the Arkestra. (the link starts where he says that he didn’t get the sound. Don’t worry, you don’t have to watch the hour-long documentary… unless you want to.)

“Somewhere in the other side of nowhere is a place in space beyond time where the Gods of mythology dwell,” Ra said. “These gods dwell in their mythocracies as opposed to your theocracies, democracies, and monocracies. They dwell in a magic world. These Gods can even offer you immortality.”- Sun Ra

Sun Ra and his Arkestra made their way to New York City in 1961 and with their intense sounding music, they mostly scared off their audiences. As my dad said in the last post, “people would leave his performance holding their ears, heads, whatever in fear because his sound was too much.” My dad even called his sound as “a dissonance and cacophony of sound”.

I love how wicked it is that I have actual people who went to see him perform and give a review and I’m living in their home!

At that time, they couldn’t really get a true audience because their music scared most people. People at that time were used to traditional jazz music and not the out of this world jazz that Sun Ra orchestrated.

The group traveled to Philidelphia in the late 60s which ended up being their base of operations. When they first arrived, their neighbors complained about their music but after some time, they became praised members of their community. They played for free for their neighbors, Danny Ray Thompson, saxophonist, owned and operated the Pharaoh’s Den, a convenience store in the neighborhood. They were friendly and drug-free and were great with the kids in the neighborhood.

Their home in Philidelphia was the home of the Arkestra until Sun Ra’s death.

The tour traveled all around the world, even to Egypt to perform.

I started losing my fun momentum. I think I sound like a wiki page so please go to Wikipedia for more information.

My next post will be all about the fun stuff. I really wanted to take you all along with my journey finding out all these amazing new things about this man.