Music Monday: Science Fiction, Jazz, and Urban Myth

This weekend, I listened to Nicole Glover’s latest album, Strange Lands. It’s pretty great. I wasn’t particular familiar with Glover’s work, although I knew her as part of the Eric Dolphy inspired group Out to Dinner and have found the music of that group intriguing, but not particularly compelling (but I’d have to listen to it more to say for certain).

Glover’s album is more interesting to me. She not only shows off her saxophone playing chops throughout — and a number of critics have associated her tone with late Coltrane — but more importantly and interesting she demonstrates a pretty deft hand a lyrical passages. From the sound of dusky smoke filled bars on “Twilight Zone” to agile and attentive playing with George Gables on Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and the lyricism of her version of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” Glover’s performances are just fantastic.

More importantly, for my current projects, she’s an huge science fiction fan and her most recent album is full of allusions to science fiction classics. The title of album, of course, is a nod to the Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land. Her reference to “Strange Land,” “Twilight Zone,” and “Hive Queen,” evoke classic science fiction motifs. The result is an album that blends an occasionally nostalgic sound with glimpses of a future that now feels just a bit threadbare.

While enjoying this album (and Play On by the aforementioned Out to Dinner) I read Yusuf Nuruddin’s 2006 article titled “Ancient Black Astronauts and Extraterrestrial Jihads: Islamic Science Fiction as Urban Mythology” in Socialism and Democracy 20.3. I don’t usually blog about 15 year old articles, but Nuruddin’s piece brought together a bunch of loose ends that I had been struggling to tie up lately. He explores the development of various kinds of urban myths that involve science fiction, UFOs, Afrocentric themes, and various interpretations of Islam and Christianity starting in the early 20th century. For Nuruddin the persistence of certain themes in Black urban culture for over 100 years suggests more than just a set of recurring popular ideas, but the emerging structure of an urban mythology that consisted of a “scathing social critique” that sought to redress many of the longstanding inequalities that face Black, poor, urban residents. The Moorish Science Temple (1913), for example, the Nation of Islam (1930), and (I’d add) various strains of Black Masonic experiences, contributed to the development of the Five Percenters (1964) and Nuwaubian Moors (1970) in the post-war period which attracted both formal acolytes and a whole range of more casual adherents who have adopted various aspects these groups’ believes and cosmology. While it is easy enough to dismiss these groups, and particularly troubled history of the Nuwaubian Moors, whose former leader is now serving a prison term for a range of sexual and financial misconduct, Nuruddin makes it clear that these groups continue a process of re-imagining Islam by incorporating science fiction motifs including ancient aliens to create a new form of urban mythology. For Nuruddin, these ideas did not exist in a vacuum, but drew on long-standing motifs, stories, and ideas shared across the Black urban experience. Their status as myth was not meant to dismiss their importance, but to validate their formal significance as a set of religious ideas worthy of formal study. Just as ancient myths derive meaning, in part, through the social milieu in which they circulated, so did these Black urban myths which seek to offer hope and history to communities alienated from their past first by the Middle Passage and the Great Migration in the 20th century and enduring poverty, racism, and political disempowerment in the present.    

David S. Anderson’s far more recent piece in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religion, “Crafting a Mysterious Ancient World: The Effects of Theosophy and Esotericism on Public Perceptions of Archaeology,” likewise takes the experience of mystical, esoteric, and New Age searchers seriously as a way to engage with a public whose interest in archaeology is often met with contempt and ridicule. More significantly, Anderson suggests that some of our ham-fisted efforts at re-education reflect fundamental ignorance of the values, practices, and interests of these groups. This, in turn, obscures the relationship between long held beliefs among these groups and popular culture which both reflects and, as Nuruddin argues influences, their attitudes toward antiquity.   

The value of these two articles to my work on Sun Ra (see here for a recent summary) is that they bridge the gap between popular culture, especially science fiction, esoteric beliefs, and the antiquity in the contemporary world. Against this backdrop Sun Ra becomes less of an idiosyncratic (pseudo?) intellectual and more of a fellow traveller who makes visible world views that academics rarely encounter, much less understand. The fruitful intersection of jazz (and more popular music, as the influence of the Five Percenters on hiphop is widely known), antiquity, religion, and Afrofuturism (or more broadly science fiction, as in the Nicole Glover album) represents one avenue through which Black, poor, and otherwise disenfranchised groups presented a social critique of academic, religious, and social institutions that they saw as repressive.

As archaeologists we should be aware of these connections and they should make us a bit more careful and deliberate with how we talk about ancient aliens and other popular beliefs in public.

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