Music Monday: Whither Sun Ra?

I’m racing the calendar to get my various little projects done before the end of the summer writing season. I’m feeling just a bit hectic and a bit tired, but with a little luck, things will come together in time for a little vacation before the start of the semester.

This morning, I’m working on the conclusion to my little review of recent work on Sun Ra. I’ve ended up adding sentences and paragraphs throughout the review to flesh it out a bit and give it more cohesion. Now, I need to bring it in for a landing.

You can read versions of part 1, part 2part 3, and part 4 here.

Whither Sun Ra?

Sun Ra’s fascination with the impossible might seem irresponsible in light of urgency of the BLM movement, the rise of a strain of toxic and racist populism, and the persistent threat of violence. More than that, his appeals to Afrocentric ideas might seem naive and unsophisticated and his Afrofuturism too abstract and mystical to contribute in a meaningful way to contemporary society. After all, even modern Afrofuturist heroes like the Black Panther derived his powers from extractive industries organized by the state of Wakanda and performed his acts of daring in a world populated nation states and neatly etched notions of good and evil. In contrast, Sun Ra’s view of the future as the domain of the impossible distances it from our current fixation on the real potential of science and narratives set amid lightly reimagined contemporary institutions. In some ways, Ra’s fascination with a lightly defined impossible suits may suit our modern situation as we grapple with global crises of COVID and climate change. These challenges with distributing the COVID vaccine (and convincing individuals to receive it) reveals the limits of the possible when defined by scientific solutionism. Likewise, for all of our scientific understanding of climate change, economic inequality, the politics of nation states, and the rise of crass populism has hampered meaning global action. Sun Ra offered no easy solutions to the world’s problems. By situating the present at the intersection of myth and the impossible, he offered a view of the future decoupled from burdens of the past. The mythic power of Blackness produces a future that flagrantly defies the pragmatic gradualism of so much of the contemporary struggle for rights. In some ways, Ra’s blurring of the Black past and the impossible future anticipates Paul Gilroy’s famous reformulation of W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of the Black double consciousness. In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and the Double Consciousness (1993), Gilroy argues that Dubois concept of double consciousness continues to define the experience of Black people as they work to negotiate the tensions between being European and Black. Ra reconciled this tension by rejecting the temporal division between pre-slavery, pre-colonial, and pre-European Africa and the future.

The influence of Sun Ra’s music continues to flow in contemporary jazz and improvised music. The cosmic themes present in saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s music and performances certainly draw inspiration from Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and their mutual respect came out during a shared festival performance with the Arkestra’s Marshall Allen and Pharoah Sanders in 2016. It may be, however, that the resurgent London jazz scene is where Sun Ra’s influence is the most visible today. Literal manifestation of Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, the diaspora Black jazz community in the UK continues to explore Black music and identity with ensembles like the Heliocentrics making direct reference to Ra’s iconic 1965 album, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One. More obviously, however, is Shabaka Hutchings’ various projects which drawn upon both Afrocentric and Afrofuturist themes. His ensemble Sons of Kemet has produced two albums of music that blends scathing political critique with tightly arranged music influenced by Caribbean sounds, Afrobeat rhythms, and traditional jazz. The title of their 2018 album, Your Queen is a Reptile, evoked the reptilian conspiracy theories drawn from science fiction stories of alien invaders and bizarrely popular among Q-Anon followers. Hutchings’ ensemble, The Comet is Coming, is blends his saxophone with programed drums and keyboards. Its millenarian name, science fiction inspired song titles, and exuberant use of electronic instruments evokes the Afrofuturist sound of Sun Ra. Their 2019 album, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, hints at the potential mystical underpinnings of their endeavor.

While there is no doubt that Washington, Hutchings, and others continue to lace their music with themes influenced by Sun Ra’s work. This complements recent interest in Sun Ra’s music and broader thought in contemporary society. For a world increasingly constrained by the limits of technological solutionism, Sun Ra presents a figure even more foreign than he did to his time. He offered few solutions to problems that he traced with cosmic dimensions. As we confront a series of existential challenges in the 21st century that seem to exceed our imagination, it may be that we need Sun Ra now more than ever.

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