A people without wisdom will surely perish. How very careless has America been with its willful neglect of true art and beauty.
— Sun Ra, from liner notes to Jazz In Silhouette
MUSIC, LIGHTS, ACTION!!!!
Atonal reality and blended rhythms. . . .
Imagination . . . . . .!
With wings unhampered
Like a bird
Through the threads and fringes of space and time
Into a better To-morrow. . . . . . . .
Loosening the chains that bind. . .
— Le Sun-Ra (excerpt from the poem “Tone Pictures”)
“It’s more than just music. It’s interpretation.”
One of the least well-known aspects of Sun Ra’s tenure in Chicago was his activity as a writer and street-corner lecturer. Recently, a cache of his early writings was discovered, including previously unknown broadsides and manuscripts, written by Ra and proclaimed aloud — often in Washington Park — or handed out as mimeographed sheets. Before these works were discovered in 2000, only one such document had been circulated, a sheet titled “Solaristic Precepts” that Ra gave saxophonist John Coltrane in 1956. Ra’s investigations, undertaken as part of the secretive Thmei Research group, was related to broader cultural trends of the 1950s, including a fascination with outerspace — leading up to Sputnik and the moon-landing — but Ra’s alignment of the notion of African-American alienation with a utopian vision of interplanetary transplantation qualifies him as a visionary proponent of Afro-Futurism. These early manuscripts also show Ra’s curiosity with language, his playful and paradox-ridden approach to etymology, his attempt to decode the Bible, and his intense scrutiny of the lexicon and social roots of racism.
As far as Sun Ra was concerned, the past was passed. “Yesterday belongs to the dead/Tomorrow belongs to the living.” The past was violence and “the chains that bind.” But imagination could usher in a better tomorrow, one full of pleasure and freedom and discipline. Freedom and discipline were not contradictory. As far as Ra and his peers were concerned, these ideas went hand-in-hand. And music was the method, the primary means for unleashing these positive vibrations in order to build a more promising world.
Sun Ra did not leave the past completely behind. He and his colleagues excavated many ancient concepts and texts, central among them the Bible and Egyptology, mining the past in order to formulate the future. Evidence of Ra’s integration of past and future, as well as various cultural traditions, appears on the cover design for a Saturn brochure, which mixes a Buddhist lotus with Egyptian ankhs and spaceships. Ra’s imagined tomorrow incorporated transformative music and outer-space clothing, futuristic technologies and various mysticisms, Utopian community, extraterrestriality and a belief in the possibility of immortality.
The year Ra left this planet, cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term “Afro-Futurism,” broadly defined as “African-American voices with other stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come.” Ra is now recognized as a key figure in Afro-Futurism. Through his writings and lyrics, record titles and cover designs, and especially his provocative music and otherworldly presence, Ra established himself as a visionary and innovator. He reached the most people via bigger launching pads in New York, California, across Europe, and Philadelphia, but he built his first solar boats, metaphorically speaking, in the Windy City, and his music and persona first took shape and was tested in the African-American community of this great Midwestern metropolis.