A story of Sun Ra

“I’d hate to pass through a planet and not leave it better than I found it.” Sun Ra

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere,” said the beloved astronomer and storyteller, Carl Sagan. The 20s-50s period were the glowing years of astronomy. Within a short few decades, Einstein coined the term spacetime, giving us an understanding of the fluid relationship between space and time; Hubble proposed a theory of an expanding universe; and along with that, George Lemeitre hypothesized the origin of the universe with the Big Bang theory.

Yet as our imagination ascended beyond the visible sky, the two biggest political bodies, too, ascended their weapons of war towards entire humanity.

Around this time in Chicago, Sonny Sun Ra lived as the personification of a space-God entity who came down to Earth to restore harmony, literally, as a Black musician genius whose influences still vibrated today through the likes of John Coltraine and Tyler the Creator. Sun Ra would perform in a shimmering gold robe, his hair and beard orange, topped with an elaborate headpiece that exemplified his status as a cosmic being. His entire orchestra-Sun Ra Arkestra-, too, dressed in glittering robes resembling ancient Egyptian wise men and his shows, albeit low-budget, were cosmic spectacles that will make you believe you’re in outerspace.

His music was his ship to reimagine a new reality, a landscape of sound he built through rigorous rehearsals and an expanded philosophy (or as he called it, equation). Yet his music, though sounds close to freestyle, was tightly constructed and carefully layered, similar to ancient architectures and temples themselves that were built upon precision and craftsmanship.

Sun Ra claimed that he was an angel descended from Saturn. And this vision latched vividly unto his philosophies and music that it transformed his way, and our way, of making music.

There’s five billion people on this planet, all out of tune.

But his captivation towards outerspace perhaps began long before his descent from another planet. In 1942, he was drafted into the military and soon declared himself a conscientious objector. His objection was declined, his family was embarrassed for his refusal to join the military, and he was later called to attend the court. Refuting the judge and the wars with Biblical interpretations, then claiming that he will use the weapons to kill high-ranking officials, he was immediately sent to jail. The next few months was a period of terror and fear of assaults that Sonny began to experience suicidal thoughts. In March 1943, he was released from jail and also, relieved from the military obligations.

The Saturnial vision was predicted to happen not long afterwards.

“Space is the Place,” as one of the song is titled. Space liberates us from the agony rooted in earthly matters. Carl Sagan propelled our imaginations beyond galaxies, Sun Ra built a cosmic space ship with his music, the Space Race ignited our desires to venture out beyond the Earth.

More than life
Interested me so
That I dared to knock
At the door of the cosmos.
– Door of the Cosmos

Sun Ra lived through the dreams and pains of Space Age and the traumas of Nuclear War. Years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, the fears still lingered and memories clutched to the tip of the fingers and the mouths of musicians. And Sun Ra’s space poetry reflected just that.

They pushin’ the button
They pushin’ the button
It takes 3 seconds
Burned trees
And deadly fire
They pushin’ the button
They pushin’ the button

Space is the Place. But maybe, Space is an escape, too, especially at a time of war, where we’re seemingly edging to an end, when hopes were eroded, and meanings lost. Space-themed movies and TV shows in the 60s-70s were enamored by a desire to conquer and start anew, at the same time, to reflect–on a shattered glass the meanings of our dust-like existence.

In Ocean of Sound, David Toop recalled his conversations with Sun Ra:

“Ra claimed in one of his drily catchy songs that the end of the world had already been and gone, so he knew how to play with the rules of the apocalypse business.”

He was the father of Afrofuturism, or as I myself prefer – everyone’s Futurism – bringing the future into now, transforming the impossible to the possible, building a vast world where there is no boundaries between the mythical and the real, the heavens and earth, the lives and the afterlives.

The universe is a large, large space. Our existence and the fact that our water and soil can blossom into abundant living possibilities is a uniqueness and an anomaly. The universe is making interpretations of itself through us, and maybe that is why it is difficult to conclude the meanings of our existence on Earth. And maybe that is why we long to go beyond the sky, both in our imaginations and in reality, to find meanings as we reflect on the dying stars and the new planets. Space is indeed the Place and the Escape both during the highs of our hopes and the lows of our misery.

sun ra

P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase.

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