Music Monday: More Sun Ra Notes

This weekend, I spent a bit of time reading Anthony Reed’s provocative and challenging Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production (Duke 2021). The book is complex and I’m not sure that I have the chops to give it even a superficial summary. It considers the relationship between race, free jazz (broadly construed), and poetry particularly over the course of the “long Black Arts movement (1950-1974).” 

The book prompted me think about my Sun Ra project differently. From the onset, I had imagined that whatever I ended up writing would look to unpack or understand the relationship between Sun Ra’s music and poetry and the archaeology of the Near East and Egypt as filtered through his eclectic imagination, Afrocentrism, Afrofuturism, and mysticism as well as late-20th century attitudes toward race. This is a fine approach, I think, but it tends to see the context for Sun Ra’s work as more important than the work itself. In other words, it suggests that to understand what Sun Ra was trying to do, we have to find his influences which will offer a key to unpacking his work.

After reading Reed’s book, however, I’ve started to wonder if a more productive (and certainly more provocative approach) might be to read Near Eastern archaeology in the context of Sun Ra? Instead of assuming that Sun Ra’s vision of blackness, Africa, history, poetics, and music exist as a distorted mirror of a social, cultural, economic, racial, political or archaeological reality, it seems at least as valid to assume that Sun Ra’s creative work can provide insight into how we understand Near Eastern archaeology and the distinctive character of a black past.

Of course, I’m not entirely sure what an archaeology and history anchored in forms of expression shaped by Sun Ra’s creativity would look like. Moreover, Sun Ra’s creative vision was not static or even consistent over the course of his long career. At the same time, it is easy enough to suggest that Near Eastern archaeology and our understanding of Egypt, the Levant, and archaeology as field have also not remained stable. In other words, assuming that our academic knowledge of the past should take priority over knowledge generated through creative works reifies key elements of colonial, racial, and class-based ways of seeing the world. This isn’t to say that academic forms of knowledge are inherently bad or problematic; after all, they support professional disciplines that have the potential to liberate individuals and communities by mitigating privilege and revealing the workings of power.

At the same time, a significant body of archaeological theorizing has shown, the ways that we narrate, analyze, and interpret the past produce powerful institutional and cultural structures that consistently mitigate efforts to produce radical knowledge. In this context, the radical black knowledge of the Near East produced by Sun Ra and other contributors the Black Arts movement in the 1960s and 1970s offers an often contentious position of critique that reveals way in which our academic forms of knowledge limits the use of archaeology to produce socially useful identities. 

Reading the ancient Near East through Sun Ra (and his fellow travelers) creates a way of thinking about class, race, colonialism, nationalism, and even technology across 20th century Black communities.

Reed’s book pushed me to consider the relationship between jazz and poetry across the pluralities of Black identity and a range of Black communities in the United States. By situating Sun Ra’s efforts to imagine new pasts and futures within this shifting discourse, we can understand his efforts to navigate a relationship to emerging calls for post-colonial African nationhood (It’s Nation Time!), a Black middle class seeking to construct a past for itself modeled partly on the efforts of various middle-class white groups to celebrate their own ethnic and national identities (see: From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement), and the pressures to commercialize his artistic output while also critiquing the uneven benefits of capitalism.  

Of course, right now, I continue just to scratch the surface of the growing body of work on Sun Ra and the larger Black intellectual movement of the mid-20th century. As I develop a broader understanding of the goals and approaches of this movement (notwithstanding its development and the idiosyncrasies of Sun Ra himself), I’m hoping to turn its critiques back toward the Near East. While my grounding in Near Eastern archaeology and history is probably not substantial enough to do anything more than to propose a bridge between two interpretative moments. Even that, however, might be productive and rewarding.

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