Today we showcase an artist who is probably vibrating through a speaker on every continent as you read this article. This artist has not only inspired other musicians but the entire human collective. Their space funky alienesque music will take you somewhere you’ve only dreamed about, and when you land we hope you’ll share with us your journey.
Sun Ra, legendary jazz composer, cosmic band leader of the Afrofuturist movement The Arkestra, has influenced a wide spectrum of musicians—from fellow jazzmen to rockers like David Bowie and Stereolab, as well as modern experimentalists like Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar. Not only that, but Ra also captured the hearts and minds of society in other ways. Ra’s presence was as remarkable as his music performance, and his beliefs were even more so. Sun Ra claimed he was from outer space; indeed, one can go as far as saying he was from another planet.
To understand Sun Ra, you have to go back to his origins. Sun Ra entered the Earth plane as Herman P. Blount, May 22, 1914; on a mission to elevate human consciousness through music. Not just any music, space music. Ra grew up in Birmingham Alabama during the height of the great segregation. This experience had a great impact on his life and artistry. Throughout his upbringing, Ra faced the many challenges African Americans struggled to endure back then, Ra insisted that he was on a mission to preach peace. Navigating the game of life and piecing together his identity he later changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra (pronounced "Lee Sonya Ray”) and diverted any relation to his life before Sun Ra. The motive behind this was perhaps to give African Americans hope beyond their past and current realities, to detach from the obvious and believe that an alternate reality was possible. He wanted his people to know they could be a part of a world that they could create themselves. He envisioned a progressive world for African Americans. He wasted no time boasting of Pharaohs and life on other planets. He told stories of the people of Bimini and its Fountain of Youth, the ancient myths of Lemuria and the Mū People. He wanted African Americans to know they come from a place of greatness and power despite what others wanted them to believe. Ra was among the first to pave the spaceways for Afrofuturism today. Ra knew he was creating music for the 21st century, but where did it all begin?
Sun Ra studied music at Alabama A&M University for a few years before he dropped out. It was during his time in college that Ra claims to have had an astral projected experience with the “Saturnian Race”. Ra recalls:
"My whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up... I wasn't in human form... I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn... they teleported me and I was down on stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools... the world was going into complete chaos... I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That is what they told me."
After leaving school, Ra submerged himself into the worlds of music and esotericism. He took in as much as he could about music, religion, mysticism, and philosophy; often creating his own. It took no time for people to start wondering who this bold emerging musician was, let alone who was this man in the flamboyant attire spitting ancient knowledge and prophecy to anyone that dared listen. Sun Ra’s quirky disposition started to get noticed, and during the 1940’s Ra found himself in the world of music alongside other jazz greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane; however, Ra was still seen as an outsider by many mainstream musicians because of his unique approach.
Despite any opposition, in 1943, Sun Ra moved to Chicago where he started playing gigs at clubs on the South Side like the Club DeLisa. It was here that he met Marshall Allen—a saxophone player who would later become the leader of The Solar Arkestra. Allen went to see Sun Ra and the band play everyday until one day he asked to join Ra. That night Allen was captivated by mythological tales, stories Ra told with splendor about Sun Gods who reigned supreme. Sucked into a new world, it was that day Marshall Allen planted his very own seeds to bloom within the Arkestra Garden. At 97 Allen still leads the Arkesta Band today spreading Ra’s prophetic gospel through unique instruments and spacey saxophone tones.
Ra and his Arkestra were known to remix traditional Jazz sounds from Earth through the galaxy and back again, determined to spread love and awareness through sound. He used music as a way for people to understand each other, no matter their race or religion. His music taught us about life on other planets and how we can all get along if we try hard enough. Sun Ra believed he had to create music that touched all emotions known to man, even those yet to be felt. He wanted music to “touch the parts of them that they don’t know they have.” From his perspective, “Music is a spiritual language that represents the people of Earth.”
Sun Ra's unique, cosmic approach and futuristic thinking led him to create some of the most unique music ever heard. His albums include titles such as "Space is the Place", "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy", "The Astral Plane"," Ultra Sonic Boogie Woogie ", "Ectoplasmic Invocations", and many more. Each track offers its own unique soundscape filled with cosmic energy and spiritual prose. Sound waves that carry one to distant worlds and parallel dimensions. Tones that awaken the fiery spirit within you to make changes, to connect with yourself and everything around you. Sun Ra walked around like a modern day Pharaoh and let not one person or thing keep him from doing otherwise. Ra was free to fully be himself, and it shows through his music and through his philosophies that he shared.
"A lot of people have tried to contain me or limit me, but you see that is not my type of being, to be limited. You might. Call me a catalyst. A catalyst changes everything but remains unchanged."
Ra was an innovator, a pioneer, a mystic, and a true force of nature. His music has been said to be "like the sound of galactic wind," Musical ensembles, & otherworldly melodies that remind you of infinite possibilities; maybe even a home away from here. Cosmic messages that echo through the universe to remind us that we are all made of stardust, and we should never forget our celestial origins.
Ra’s legacy lives on in contemporary artists like Flying Lotus, who cites him as one of his biggest influences. Flying Lotus has sampled Sun Ra's music for his own compositions such as "Theme for Scatting Space" from his album Cosmogramma which combines elements from Sun Ra's work with other musical genres including hip hop and electronica. Flying Lotus describes him as "one of my favorite musicians ever” and also shared that Sun Ra's music had a profound impact on him as a young producer and helped inspire his own unique style.
His influence is undeniable—he has been dubbed "the first space alien rapper." He was also the first person to use the minimoog synthesizer. It’s safe to acknowledge, Ra was ahead of his time and otherworldly. Sun Ra and his Arkestra live on infinitely through the music, the vibrations; through the galactic sound waves and secret messages intended only for the listener who decides to venture into Space with Ra. Here follows a few select tracks:
"Space Is the Place"
This epic track from 1972 perfectly captures Sun Ra's cosmic vision - transporting listeners to another realm entirely. With its driving beat and soaring horns, it's easy to see why this song has become one of his most famous tunes.
This darkly beautiful piece from 1978 showcases Sun Ra's more experimental side. Featuring eerie synthesizers and spoken word passages, it makes for an unsettling but ultimately rewarding listening experience.
“Door of the Cosmos”
The alluring chant by June Tyson and subtle claps of the Arkestra will take over your being and transport you far away somewhere beyond the door of the Cosmos. Stellar guitar solos and robust saxophone tones rip through the fabric of time.
words and digital art by Jessica Aguah