Sun Ra and the Origins of Afro-Futurism

Le Sony’r Ra (Professionally known as Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blount) led an interesting life, to put it mildly. In addition to being one of the single most prolific recording artists of the 20th century (he recorded over 1,000 compositions on over 120 albums, according to Ra scholar John F. Szwed), he was a philosopher and mystic who worked with Amiri Baraka, in addition to many others, was possibly (probably?) the first person to integrate the concept of a “light show” into a live music performance, and was also possibly an alien abductee.

While we’ve spent quite a bit of time in class with text by Amiri Bakara, we haven’t actually touched on his role in founding the Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and 70s very much (if at all). To provide some quick context, the Black Arts Movement sought to create cultural institutions, such as the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) that would allow black artists to express themselves and create without being overshadowed or governed by traditional Western (and white) critics and tastes. Sun Ra was an important member of this movement. Not only did he write many essays and pamphlets that helped to define his particular aesthetic that would crystallize into Afro-Futurism, he lived his aesthetic and philosophical ideals every day, according to everyone who knew him. Bakara wrote in his Autobiography,

“Sun Ra and Albert Ayler were always on the scene. For some, Sun Ra became our resident philosopher, having regular midweek performances in which he introduced the light-show concept that white rock groups later found out about and got rich from. When Ra would play his Sun-Organ, when he played low notes, deep blues and dark colors would light up on it. When he played high notes, oranges and yellows would light up, and we sat, sometimes maybe with fifteen or twenty people in the audience, and thought we were being exposed to the profundity of blackness” (Bakara 204).

The albums The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra vol. 1 and 2 (which are bundled into one album through the database) carry good examples of the developments Ra made to jazz as a genre. For example, Ra was the first person to utilize two string basses in a jazz ensemble instead of just one (according to Szwed), and this album is an example of that.

Ra’s philosophy is a little tough to grasp. Not only did his views profoundly change over time (which is to be expected with many philosophers, so that isn’t quite the point) (he initially identified with sentiments of Black Power and Black Unification, but later started to identify less and less with any race and identified more with divine beings such as angels), his philosophy has heavy esoteric influence and is written in almost a “beat prose” style. In his essay Lucifer Means Light Bearer, he argues that the Bible was not written for black people, and that african Americans allow themselves to be rendered complacent by white power structures that utilize religion as a tool for this purpose. (Ra 133-137)

Sun Ra is a fascinating figure within the context of the Black Arts Movement, and in my opinion, he has enough of his own writing as well as scholarship about him to merit a place within the MUS 345B curriculum. Hopefully a future class will have a chance to study him.

Works Cited:

Bakara, Amiri. The Autobiography of Leroi Jones. Freundlich Books, New York, 1984.

Ra, Le Sony’r. The Wisdom of Sun Ra. Compiled by John Corbett. WhiteWalls, Chicago, 2006.

Sun Ra. The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra. Recorded November 15, 2010. ESP Disk, 2010, Streaming Audio.

Szwed, John F. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Pantheon Books, New York, 1997.


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