Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism by Paul Youngquist

One of my favorite moments of personal cognitive dissonance goes back to my time at Michigan State in the mid-1970s when at brunch at IHOP one Sunday morning I looked over to see John Gilmore, June Tyson, and Marshall Allen seated a couple of tables over from me. They were dressed in what might be termed astronaut duty fatigues as they worked on breakfast. Gilmore was the trio's fashion plate in a skull cap resembling a model of subatomic particles circling the nucleus of his cranium. The night before, this troupe, along with the other members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, paraded around The Stables bar in full intergalactic regalia, transporting the audience into deep space, with Ra himself embracing everybody individually, exhorting them with: "Anyone can give up their life, a bird or tree; give up your death for me." I was an art student then, making paintings that referenced celestial phenomena, a white wannabe Afrofuturist, avant la lettre.

I don't know if he was inspired by a similar experience, but University of Colorado-Boulder English Professor Paul Youngquist has published an excellent critical take on Sun Ra's creation myth and its relation to broader currents of America's postwar social imaginary. Simply put, Sun Ra's nearly eight-decade sojourn on planet Earth was a model of self-determination and emancipation through the sheer transformative power of relentless creativity.

Sun Ra's outlandish public persona and stage performances, and seemingly esoteric output in music, poetry, and film, might suggest the profile of a serious eccentric. Instead, Youngquist shows Ra as a highly focused autodidact from his earliest days in the Deep South to his final years in Philadelphia before having to return to his familial home in Birmingham, Alabama, after suffering from the prolonged complications of a stroke. His lifestyle and his multifaceted art were a deeply considered response to the repressiveness of a segregated America.

The narrative of A Polar Solar World is basically chronological, but it is organized around key concepts that explain the sources of Ra's aesthetic philosophy and demonstrate the range of his influence. Youngquist wisely doesn't try to replay or substantially revise the story told by John F. Szwed in his definitive biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Rather, he leverages those details to serve as the foundation for higher flights of critical analysis and cultural observation. What he does do is expand upon and significantly deepen the basic thesis of Graham Lock's book Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and Anthony Braxton. 

Youngquist provides specifics to flesh out Lock's take that Sun Ra represents the opposing pole from Ellington within the dialectic of the Emancipation Narrative in African American cultural history, between separatism on the one hand and assimilationism on the other. The latter, which is the earlier current, dates back to the anti-slavery Abolition movement and takes up the millenarianism of Christianity to claim African Americans' rightful place among God's children. The former charts a path for black liberation that is separate but equal, as it were. Ideologically, it marks the difference between, among others, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Lock, Youngquist understands Ra's interest in Egyptology—a re-visioning of a glorious Nubian past—in separatist's terms, harkening back to a utopian ideal prior to the birth of Christianity, which even in its emancipatory aspect is still the religion of the white Master. (Szwed observes that Ra, born Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount, came to believe in later years that he may have been distantly related to another Poole, first name Elijah, who changed his surname to Muhammad and founded the Nation of Islam.) Youngquist adds to both Lock and Szwed in his discussion of Ra's involvement in the early 1950s with the secret society of black activists on Chicago's South Side named after Thmei, the Egyptian goddess of truth and justice.

In addition to Egyptology, the black intellectuals of Thmei investigated a range of esoterica, from ancient numerology to theosophy to occult religion in search of hidden wisdom that would counter the abject condition of African Americans under the dominance of white society. The members of Thmei Research published broadsides and leaflets to spread their ideas of black self-determination and took their place alongside other black activists in the public square of Washington Park on the South Side in order to foment change, if not materially in the present then at least in mindset for the future. This chapter, as with the rest of the book, draws heavily on the Alton Abraham Collection of Sun Ra now housed in the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago. This vast trove of primary source documents and ephemera once owned by Ra's longtime business partner, who died in 1999, only became available to researchers several years after both Szwed and Lock published their books.

Youngquist, of course, spends considerable time dissecting the music of Sun Ra and its inspiration not only in black separatism but postwar American popular culture more broadly. The 1950s when Ra first began recording with the Intergalactic Arkestra was the time of the Space Race and its vision, on the positive side, of an American manifest destiny of a new cosmic variety. It was the time of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and its suburban expression of cosmopolitanism on Earth termed "exotica," named after the 1957 Martin Denny album of the same title. These passages of the book are not only insightful on Ra's aesthetic but constitute an astute mapping of America's social imaginary during the period.

There is also Ra's influence on several generations of musicians in jazz, obviously, but rock, R&B, hip-hop, and electronica as well. That progeny ranges from John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock to the MC5, NRBQ, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and George Clinton to the DJs of Detroit Techno and Chicago House and even to Lady Gaga. Ra was an early adopter of the electric piano, the Moog Synthesizer, and other electronic keyboards. He was also a pioneer of incorporating non-Western musical instruments and compositional forms, particularly of Africa, into American music.

An area where Youngquist makes an important contribution is in bringing Ra's writing, and in particular his poetry, to occupy a more prominent place in his body of work. Published mostly in obscure DIY formats and appearing here and there on record jackets, Ra's writing articulates his beliefs as a conscientious objector to the world as it is and sets out a vision for a world as it might be, freed from exploitation in all its forms. It is the storyline, essentially, for which the music is the soundtrack, brought to life first and foremost in performance. The significance of Ra's poetry was recognized initially by Imamu Amiri Baraka, who published it in important Black Arts Movement anthologies such as Black Umbra (1967-1968), Black Fire (1968), and The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20th Century (1973). A comparative literature scholar, Youngquist is at his best drawing connections between one of his areas of expertise, Romanticism, and close readings of Ra's literary production in order to tease out the aspirational aspects of Ra's Afrofuturism (which he invented in music, at least, decades before Mark Dery coined the term in 1993) and its tropes as the fount of his 60-year output in various media.

The are a couple of misses worth noting. One is more curious than anything else. Youngquist does an excellent job of contemporaneously situating Ra's early forays into outer space music with the spate of science fiction films that began to appear in the postwar era. But, he fails to draw a similar connection with the obvious influence of the sights and sounds of Hollywood epic spectacles set in whole or in part in Egypt, such as The Egyptian (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Cleopatra (1963), whose depictions of Pharaohs also influenced the stage persona of another musician who has acknowledged inspiration in part from Sun Ra, namely, Iggy Pop.

The other is quite surprising in this otherwise exhaustively researched book: jazz musician Ravi Coltrane is Alice Coltrane's son not her grandson. That makes him the son of tenor saxophone colossus John Coltrane, as well, a fact that seems pretty important to get wrong or not think to verify.

Another slightly sour note is struck by Yougquist's reference to Ra as a "confirmed bachelor," an anachronistic euphemism for homosexual, in discussing the hiring of the Arkestra's first female member, vocalist June Tyson, who joined the band in 1968 and performed with the ensemble until her death from cancer in 1992 at age 56. There are a number of writers and musicians who afffirm Ra's apparent gay sexual orientation, even if he wasn't quite "out" about it, as a reason for his diffidence at assigning women permanent spots in the Arkestra's line up over the years. There doesn't seem to be a need to be obscure about it.

Sun Ra left the planet in 1993, but the Arkestra continues to travel the spaceways with nonegenarian Marshall Allen at the helm. With a Pure Solar World, Paul Youngquist provides additional fuel to help boost the spaceship along in its exploration of the sonic cosmos, an all-important mission with America in retrograde under Donald Trump.