Sun Ra and Afrofuturism: A Basic Musical Grammar

An exploration into a musical and cultural movement that you’ve definitely been influenced by, even if you didn’t realize it.

by Naomi Kavka

Afrofuturism’s timeframe: 1950s to the present

Artists you might recognize: Bootsie Collins, George Clinton, Eryka Badu, Jean Michael Basquiat, Renee Cox, Parliament-Funkadelic, Andre 3000.

There are many distinct aspects that characterize the culture and aesthetic of Afrofuturism.  As a movement, it is visual, aural, and literary. Its mediums range from the grafitti of Jean-Michel Basquiat, to the grooves of Parliament Funkship, to the cultural theorizing of Kodwo Eshun. 

Based on a mix of both futuristic and mythical imagery, as well as philosophies of magic realism and sci-fi, Afrofuturist narratives examine current issues faced by people of colour, while empowering them with technology and spirituality. In music, it can involve references to starchildren, angels, pyramids, Motherships, 3-D vision, all enveloped in the endless world of electronic sounds and old gospel standards. Turbins and nemes headdresses are combined with ray guns, and robotic appendages. Afrofuturism can look and sound like many things.

Afrofuturism serves to produce a movement that is not merely aesthetic, but philosophical.  University of Chicago graduate and blogger Arrianna Marie Conerly Coleman said that Afrofuturist music “appeal[s] to my desire to embody a state of consciousness that transcends the tragedies that my eyes perceive.” This transcendence affords the ability to project oneself into the future. In a media world so overwhelmingly Eurocentric, Afrofuturism provides alternatives. It is an artistic home for African diasporic communities that provides new histories and infinite future trajectories that don’t have to involve black’s long (and continuing) history of oppression.

Though the term was first coined in 1993 by Mark Dery, examples of Afrofuturist ideas long predate its naming. One must look back as far as the 1950s, to Sun Ra; the artist whose name and reputation is ubiquitous with the movement. Sun Ra (1914-1993) was a scholar, poet, musician, and film maker. As a person he was, in a word, eccentric. Claiming he was not of this earth, but rather a descendent of the “Angel Race” from Saturn, he preached his cosmic philosophy of peace and awareness.

His music, which he performed with his ensemble “Arkestra” in Chicago, drew from hard bop trends, and elegantly mingled the 1950s obsession with space exploration with links to Africa and Ancient Egypt. His ideas were further embraced in the 1970s by George Clinton. Mothership Connection, Parliament’s p-funk concept album, is the raw package: flying saucers, pyramids, and Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley (former members of the J.B.’s). The album is an invitation to the craziest funk party in the universe. Hugely influential, this album is regarded as one of Parliament’s best works.

These two examples are simply cornerstones of a many sided polygon. Afrofuturism’s influence broadened through the 20th Century, and continues today. From the electronic scene of 1980s Detroit, to the broad musical palette of OutKast, to Kanye West, the music of Sun Ra continues to influence jazz artists in search of a transcendent musical and cultural aesthetic.