TABLE OF CONTENTS
0. “This World Is Not My Home”: An Introduction
1. The Decoding of Religion and History: Everything Open for Negotiation?
1.1 The Misinterpreted Starting Point: The Exodus
1.2 Revising (White) History
2. Techniques of Self-Narration & the Prominence of Myths
2.1 Mythic Past [Trauma]: Egypt, Origin, Slavery and Discipline
2.2 Mythic Future [Alienation]: Utopia, Science Fiction, Technology, and Space Travel
3. Hitting the Mainstream: The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. I, II, and III (1965)
4. Conclusion: Is He for Real?
5.1 Primary Sources
5.2 Secondary Sources
0. “This World Is Not My Home”: An Introduction
We hold this myth1 to be potential
Not self-evident but equational
Of another kind of Living Life
- Sun Ra (Ra 2005, 231)
How do you know I’m real? I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did 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 came from a dream that black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a present sent to you by your ancestors.
(from: Space Is the Place, 1974)
Towards the end of his life Sun Ra was often photographed with a dyed red goatee beard. As anthropology teaches us, this is a well-known cosmetic ritual in India, the Middle East and Africa as sensitizing men for their mission on earth (compare Geerken 2005, 7). Undoubtedly, Sun Ra was aware of his extraordinary mission on this planet since the early 50s but maybe, in his forbearance to old age, he wanted to make sure once again. It certainly helped to signal his mythic identity externally.
As a ground-breaking pioneer of African-American experimental jazz, bandleader, composer and extraordinary visionary of his time, Sun Ra not only challenged contemporary musical theory, but also created a multi-layered and equally perplexing alternative universe whose mythology and intergalactic narrative navigated between ancient Egypt and outer space. Declaring himself “a brother from another planet” (essay title of John Corbett, 1994) namely from Saturn, not from planet Earth, Sun Ra cheerfully embraced the impossible – announcing in the 1960s that it attracted him because “everything possible has been done and the world did not change” (both cited in Lock 1999, 3) – and spent the rest of his life travelling the space ways, “from planet to planet” not only promoting but enacting a vision of a future utopia: “The impossible is the watchword of the greater space age. The space age cannot be avoided and the space music is the key to understand the meaning of the impossible and every other enigma” (cited in Lock 1999, 26).
The vehicle to fulfil this mission was the application of myth in his music. In chasing the impossible, Ra freed himself of everything not having to do with the infinity of outer space and claimed that whatever myth he brought back to life (respectively invented) could be a possible potential – and as such needed to be seriously considered like a mathematical equation that cannot be ignored (“We hold this myth to be potential / Not self-evident but equational”). Correspondingly, his lyrics, music and poems differed from anything Western culture was accustomed to in form and content (compare Geerken 2005, 8). It was simply “out there” and had immediate qualities.
Contemporary music critics did not know how to respond. For instance, Benny Green expressed his confusion about Ra’s art in the Daily Mail in 1993, the year of Ra’s death: “The trouble has always been to know where to draw a firm line between the tomfoolery of an entertaining charlatan and the sincere missionary beliefs of a considerable musical pioneer” (quoted in Lock 1999, 13). This seems to be the inevitable core of the matter: Ra’s extra-terrestrial approach to envision the world is not just a question of belief or non-belief (see later on when Ra is confronted with the question “Are you fo’ real?” in his 1974 film Space is the Place. Rather, the attempt seems rewarding to probe the circumstances, which lead him to such a complex personal system of metaphysics.
Therefore, we can only get to the bottom of Sun Ra’s ideas, by rooting his seemingly outlandish ideas of space, origin, myth and the impossible within the history of US racism and segregation. Consequently, this paper will illuminate the social environment and historical background necessary for understanding Sun Ra’s beliefs and conceptions. Methodically, the paper will move from the outer spectacle and Ra’s beliefs to the analysis of a single album which first gave him commercial success in 1965: The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. I, II and III.
The first chapter marks the beginning of this enterprise by fathoming a deeper understanding of Ra’s initiative to form an alternative to the existing slave narrative: The Christian Exodus story seen as a frequently misinterpreted myth, in Ra’s view, which has been largely adopted by the African-American society where it serves an important mission. This common misconception had led slaves and future generations to believe that the Promised Land, ‘Canaan’, will be reached through the Saviour. Sun Ra’s understanding of this inherited story is completely different. He offers an alternative to the spirituals and the reduction to the Old Testament and claims that African-Americans have accepted this lie as a means to accept and justify their depraved lives. The second part of this chapter lays the groundwork for fathoming the topic of identity and Ra’s spectacular – or rather, as will be shown, quite plausible – response to the madness of his times. To him, history was an obvious lie, an illusion, deception and imagination in the interaction between power and opportunism. This will be discussed by referring to the book Stolen Legacy by historian G. M. James. Like Ra he is convinced that history is not written down, but instead invented, created and faked (and if that is the case, one may add, you might as well invent your own history). Hence, Ra repeatedly disassociates himself from commonly agreed upon “white” history.
Chapter two, the main part of this paper, focuses on modes of self-narration and the creation of myths, which represent Sun Ra’s attempt to form a language for something, which doesn’t have a language yet. His assumption is that black people have been disconnected from their history, hence, they have to construct an alternative past as well as an alternative future, which intentionally moves away from the Christian notion of heaven. For Sun Ra myth is a way of experience, far away from Western rationalism and a means to a holistic explanation and an order of things (Geerken 2005, 10). Myth, science fiction, technology and space travel are the leading principles upon which his theory is built. Hereby, the space metaphor is a representation for exclusion on the one hand and reterritorialization on the other, of claiming the ‘outside’ as one’s own. Tying a revised and corrected past to a claimed future becomes exceedingly important for Sun Ra. References to Ra’s film Space Is the Place will further point to this context.
With these tools of analysis, chapter three will briefly investigate Ra’s first commercially relevant album, which hit the mainstream in 1965 and gained him musical recognition: The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Vol I, II, and III. For the first time a large audience listened to Ra’s music. Certain labels were attached to him, ranging from wunderkind to charlatan of free jazz in several music magazines, hinting at the variety of bewilderment his persona and musical style must have caused at the time. The fact of the matter is, his music was for all people, with the division being between those who look for the truth and those who chose to live a lie (compare Dunbar, 2005).
As will be discussed later, the apt term “Astra Black Mythology” (coined by Graham Lock) seems to be at the centre of the Sun Ra cosmology. It is the creation of an alternative mythic past and a mythic future for African-Americans. Astro Black Mythology refers to Ra’s song “Astro Black” (1973) and emphasizes Ra’s conscious creation of a mythology. It conveniently encapsulates the two dominant facets of that mythology, the Astro of the outer space future, and the Black of the Egyptian ancient past. Ra’s concern with ancient Egypt for instance, can be approached by means of both its immediate musical context and the broader African American intellectual context. Following this argumentation it is my thesis that as eccentric, puzzling and pompous elements of Ra’s work appear to be, they are grounded in a very factual cultural context. And it is this context that needs to be scrutinized thoroughly to follow the trajectory of Ra’s Astro Black Mythology.
1. The Decoding of Religion and History: Everything Open for Negotiation?
The adoption of myths into real life and thereby, the creation of identity is of central significance when it comes to understanding African-American identity in general and particularly crucial when trying to rethink the world from Sun Ra’s perspective. The following chapter takes a closer look at the construction, practice and the de-coding of religion and history and its multi-layered complexities, which lay the groundwork to Ra’s universe by opening the stage for what Ra called “Mythocracy”2.
Sun Ra was born on 22 May 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, called Herman Poole Blount and was raised as a Christian. He spent a year majoring in teacher training at the State Agricultural and Mechanical Institute for Negros in Normal, Alabama, while also working as a professional musician, playing around the South and Midwest in the mid- and late 30s under the names Sonny Blount and Sonny Lee. He was a conscientious objector against military duties during World War II. After spending some time in jail for refusing public service, he was thereafter excused on medical grounds. In 1946, he settled in Chicago, later moving to New York in 1961 and then to Philadelphia in 1968, where he lived until his death in 1993. It seems that soon after his arrival in Chicago he called himself Le Sony’r Ra, the name he legally adopted on 20 October 1952. Nevertheless, nearly all of his recordings and poems appeared under the name Sun Ra (compare Lock 1999, 45).
1.1 The Misinterpreted Starting Point: The Exodus
In the 1950s Sun Ra issued pamphlets in Chicago that reinterpreted parts of the Bible, which he insisted was not the Good Book but the Code Book. He further claimed that, although its real truths were suppressed by orthodox Christianity, they were still available to those who could unlock its secrets (compare Lock, 1999, 19). His anger at the Bible did not particularly derive from the Christian church itself, but from the role it played in African-American society. Especially the Exodus3, the most famous liberation narrative, as Albert Raboteau also refers to it, represents the slaves’ creation of a mythic past:
Slaves prayed for the future day of deliverance to come, and they kept their hopes alive by incorporating as part of their mythic past the Old Testament exodus of Israel out of slavery. The appropriation of the Exodus story was for the slaves a way of articulating their sense of historical identity as a people (noticeable in routines, prayers, spirituals, etc.). That identity was also based, of course, upon their common heritage of enslavement. The Christian slaves applied the Exodus story, whose end they knew, to their own experience of slavery, which had not ended. In identifying with the Exodus story, they created meaning and purpose out of the chaos and senseless experience of slavery. Exodus functioned as an archetypal event for the slaves. The sacred history of God’s liberation of his people would be or was being repeated in the American South (Raboteau 1980, 311).
Raboteau goes on to quote a Union Army chaplain, working with freedmen in Alabama, who in 1864 wrote disapprovingly of the ex-slaves’ religion:
There is no part of the Bible with which they are so familiar as the story of the deliverance of the Children of Israel. Moses is their ideal of all that is high, and noble, and perfect in man. I think they have been accustomed to regard Christ not so much in the light of a Spiritual Deliverer, as that of a second Moses who would eventually lead them out of their prison house of bondage.
Evidence of such sentiments can be found in numerous spirituals, such as “Go down Moses”, “Didn’t Ole Pharaoh Get Los” and “Ride On, Moses”, just to name a few. An interview lead by Graham Lock in 1990 yields some evidence of Sun Ra’s opposition to Judeo-Christian mythology:
GL: I’ve read that from an early age you rejected Christianity and were opposed to gospel music, the spirituals?
SR: I wasn’t really opposed to it. I looked at the condition of black people in America and I judged the tree by the fruit. I knew that (inaudible word or words) good for them couldn’t possibly be good for me because they don’t deal with progress. They back in there the past, a past that somebody manufactured for ‘em. It’s not their past, it’s not their history… and all that enslavement and all that ignorance and whatever they got, they was forced to have it and it became a habit. They got a habit of being ignorant.
SR: Moses said, fear the Creator. Why should a person fear the Creator, be afraid to express themselves? They talk about Hitler; the worst dictator was Moses… They call him a wise man – what’s wrong with them? That man was a murderer, a liar, and a deceiver. Moses wasn’t good for this planet, I don’t care who sent him. The Egyptian government, they contributed so much to humanity – he ain’t left no art, no beauty, no alphabets. Nothin’. All he did was go out there and kill people… He was a magician. He learned magic along with the Ra priests and then he took it and used it against them. Bit the hand that fed him. Turned against the Pharaoh. He was a thief too, he took a book out of the Bible, the Book of Jason. I researched it, cause I’m a scientist.
This extraordinary attack on Moses takes us to the core of Sun Ra’s disagreement with the church and its Judeo-Christian mythology: “that by causing Afro-Americans to identify with the Old Testament stories of the Israelites, it has trapped them in a false history and, in doing so, cut them off their true historical legacy, the black civilization of Egypt, which first gave beauty and culture to the world” (Lock 1999, 21). Of course this appropriation of the Egyptian myth calls for critique, as it not just seems blown out of proportion, but it also shrugs off slave culture and terror of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Chapter 2.1 will elaborate on this particular critique. For now, Ra’s statements warrant closer attention. For Sun Ra everything, or rather, civilization, started in Egypt, “Egypt had the culture. It had the truth too” (Ra in 1990, Lock 1999, 20). Ra feels a deep connection to the achievements of the Egyptians, especially since America in the 1950s did not grant African-Americans much more than rape, murder, stealing and the general decay of American culture expressed by the Ku Klux Klan or the 1876 enforced Jim Crow Laws4. Ra wanted to reclaim this forgotten connection between black culture and cultural achievement through a process of identification.
Furthermore, the figure of Moses has to be illuminated at this stage: Moses had to undergo some criticism already in the late 18th century, for instance, by deist Thomas Paine, who commented in length on Moses’ Laws in his work The Age of Reason that “the character of Moses, as stated in the Bible is the most horrid that can be imagined” (Paine in 1794), giving the famous numbers 31:13-18 as an example. Here, Moses meets the Jewish army after its return from conquering the Midianites:
And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp; and Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle; and Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him; but all the women-children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves (Exodus, www.biblegateway.com).
The brutality of his behaviour in certain passages casts doubt on his reputation as a just and compassionate leader. Both Paine and the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins have made this point. Dawkins, in his 2006 work The God Delusion, commented that Moses was not exactly “a great role model for modern moralist” (Ibid., 2006). Consequently, Ra’s anger about the in his eyes “black folks worshipping the wrong thing” (Lock 1999, 24) acquires a clearer context. Sun Ra despised the palliative effects of religion and the way it led to the resigned acceptance of the status quo (compare Lock 1999, 19). At the same time, the identification with a Chosen People destined for a Promised Land has remained a potent force within African-American culture.
Moreover, Ra’s statement already points to the rather puzzling fact that Sun Ra considered himself a “scientist”. The emphasis on science seems to hint at an understanding of science that not only is flexible but also claims authenticity. These semiotics invoke an area in which jazz musicians are not traditionally familiar. The word “scientist” claims legitimacy. Since Ra was quite a word-juggler himself, one could argue that he simply expanded the meaning of the word “scientist” not only to generate another layer of identity, but as an attempt to deconstruct, in a post-structuralist manner, the body of meaning coming with the word “scientist”. This could be regarded as the idea that language does not only depict ‘reality’ but that language itself creates some kind of ‘reality’ by appropriating differences and categories. Thereby, one could argue, Ra generated his own truth, on his own terms – not “premanufactured”, but totally in control over meaning and sense – against the daily nauseating experience of being watched and regulated on the grounds of your skin colour.
Take two major examples of the Exodus myth in action: Firstly, the great black migration of the South of the interwar years. As historian Jon Michael Spencer pointed out, the great black migration was often described in terms of an exodus. He argues that from the very beginning the Chicago Defender, which constantly encouraged blacks to leave the South, was the “movement’s Moses, personified by its editor, Robert S. Abbott”. He concludes: “from the beginning, the great migration was given a religious interpretation by the movement’s Moses, who saw it as an “exodus” from pharaoh’s land of oppression” (Spencer 1993, 106). But Sun Ra’s reality was quite different: after leaving his native city of Birmingham, Alabama, and, briefly working in Nashville, he settled in Chicago. There he would spend the next fifteen years. But rather than a Promised Land, he found himself scrabbling for a living in a sleazy underworld of gangsters, burlesque shows, and strip joints. John Corbett reports him playing piano “behind a curtain at whites-only strip joints in Calumet City” in 1951 (compare Lock 1999, 22). At this very time, individual Ku Klux Klan groups in Birmingham began to resist social change and blacks' efforts to improve their lives by bombing houses in transitional neighborhoods. There were so many bombings in Birmingham of African-American’s homes by Ku Klux Klan groups in the 1950s that the city's temporary nickname was "Bombingham" (see McWorther 2001).
Secondly, the Exodus myth was an adoption of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and 60s. It quickly developed into the primary metaphor for the civil rights struggle. The resonances of this “past that somebody manufactured for ‘em” continued to sound through the 1960s, up to and including the final speech “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” of Martin Luther King Jr.:
1 Poem cited in Szwed 1997, 23.
2 “Mythocracy“ is a term coined by Sun Ra himself. The resulting “mythocracy” might perhaps be a lie, Ra would acknowledge, but a lie that was possibly of more use and that offered more potential to the planet than the lie on which reality was based. “Your only hope now is a lie. In fact, the Christian Church is based on a lie. They’re dealing with Paul , and Paul said, “If you believe my lie… “ He was smart enough to see that the truth couldn’t help. So then the white race took the lie and the kingdoms they got are based on Paul’s lie. But I don’t call a lie a lie. I call it a myth. I’m telling people that they’ve tried everything and now they have to try mythocracy. They’ve got a dem ocracy, a the ocracy – but they should try a myth ocracy. The mythocracy is what you never came to be that you should be” (Ra in 1979 in the film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise).
3 The Exodus, deriving from the Greek, meaning ex - ‘out of’ and hodos ‘way’, is the second book of the Bible and describes the departure of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, their journey across the Red Sea and through the wilderness led by Moses, and the giving of the Ten Commandments.
4 The Jim Crow laws were racial segregation laws enacted between 1876 and 1965 in the United States at state and local level. They mandated legal racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy, with, starting in 1890, a "separate but equal” status for African Americans. The separation in practice led to conditions for African Americans that tended to be inferior to those provided for white Americans, systematizing a number of economic, educational and social disadvantages.
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