In the 1930s, a young man from Birmingham named Herman Poole Blount underwent a conversion experience and emerged Sun Ra, a member of the Angel Race. Sun Ra claimed he was a superior being from outer space who was sent to Earth to save its people through music. For four decades, he led his band, the Arkestra, through multiple iterations and diverse styles.
This year we celebrate the late Sun Ra’s 100th anniversary.
Sun Ra is considered one of the most influential and innovative musicians and artists of the 20th century for his contributions to jazz and his pioneering use of electronic instruments. He is remembered for the alien identity to which the musician remained faithful for his whole adult life.
For Sun Ra, that otherworldly identity was rooted in very real, earthly issues, including the deeply alienating experience of growing up in the Jim Crow South.
“He began to think of the Earth as a place where evil had been turned loose at some point, and everything got worse and worse,” John Szwed, Sun Ra’s biographer, said.
His philosophy and response to a brutal world were inspired by the vast body of literature he read, including science fiction and Egyptology.
Ytasha Womack says a science fiction narrative appealed to Sun Ra because the genre provides the possibility for radical transformation: “People create entirely different worlds that provide a lens to reimagine ourselves.”
Craig Harris, who played in the Arkestra, said the musical innovations Sun Ra pioneered were all in service of his philosophy.
“We’re looking at the same box, but we’re looking at it from different angles,” Harris said of Sun Ra’s musical process. “You’re looking at it from 354 degrees and I’m looking at it from 360 degrees. And that was the whole concept with [Sun Ra]… You can choose your own reality. There’s no limits.”
Featuring the voices of Ytasha Womack, filmmaker and author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi and Fantasy Culture and Rayla 2212;” Hank Shocklee, music producer and co-founder of the hip-hop group Public Enemy; Craig Harris, trombonist and composer who performed with Sun Ra from 1976 to 1979; John Szwed, professor of music at Columbia University and author of Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra.
This audio piece features unheard archival audio courtesy of writer Mark Sinker, who interviewed Sun Ra for his essay in The Wire, “Loving the Alien.”