Sun Ra’s older sister insisted that he was from planet Earth. “I know,” she said, “’cause I got on my knees and peeped through the keyhole” to see him being born in a room in Birmingham, AL, in 1914. But Sun Ra knew better. The late surrealist jazz great said he was from the planet Saturn---and he may have never been born at all. “It is important for the planet that its inhabitants do not believe in being born,” he said, “because whoever is born has to die.” He said he wasn’t human. He said he was abducted by aliens in the 1930s. He said the world could only be saved through music: He put on 6-hour-long concerts with 30-piece big bands filled with musicians wearing clothes derived from Egyptology and intergalactic space travel. Sun Ra created what he called an “alter-destiny.” The nonbelievers called it Afro-Futurism---or astro-black mythology.
Whatever you call his philosophy, Ra pulled it together from myriad texts including The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Radix, works on Theosophy, linguistics, medieval hermeticism, etymology, gnosticism, Kaballah, a book on how Greek philosophy was truly written by Egyptians, contemporary and historical black literature, and the Bible---which he studied in no less than five different languages. He included many of these works on the syllabus of a course he taught in 1971 at the University of California–Berkeley called "The Black Man in the Cosmos". But how did he come to believe, at least publicly, this myth that he was from the cosmos? Broadly speaking, it may go back to his early life in the oppressive racism of Jim Crow-era Alabama, which he abandoned for the big bands and slightly less oppressive racism of 1940s and 50s Chicago, which he then departed for New York during an era of race riots and nationalist movements in the 60s and 70s. Finding a freer, more peaceful life likely seemed ideal. As a New York Times art critic noted, “the fantasy of traveling into outer-space blackness to find other, friendlier future worlds, had a specific pertinence to black nationalist thinking at the time.” So if Ra had to create an origin myth for himself in order to reach those worlds, well, so be it.
Sun Ra’s self-mythologizing, along with his philosophies on music, space and the human race came together in 1974’s Space Is the Place, a film that Ra’s biographer John Szwed called, “part documentary, part science fiction, part blaxploitation and part revisionist biblical epic.” It’s an incredibly low-budget, interstellar sci-fi ride where Sun Ra returns to Earth in order to bring black people to an outerspace colony where they’re free of the racism found on Earth---something reminiscent of the Back-to-Africa movement of the 19th Century. But Ra, being the far-out space traveler that he is, has difficulty recruiting disciples.
Early in the film, Ra appears at a community center where he tries enlisting a roomful of black teens, but he’s laughed at for his peculiar dress. They assume he’s just some creepy, old hippy. “Is he for real?” they ask between giggles. But Sun Ra responds calmly, in a grandfatherly tone: “I’m not real,” he says. “I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths. I do not come to you as a reality. I come to you as the myth. Because that’s what black people are, myths.”
They’re heavy words---and in some ways, just as potent today as they were then. Consider, for example the not-so-veiled racism of the birther movement’s insistence to see President Obama’s birth certificate. Did Obama suddenly become “real” to the birthers when he obliged their irrational demands? Or is he still seeking status among them? Sun Ra wouldn’t need to travel too deep into space to answer that question. But nor has his space music ameliorated race relations---though not for want of trying. Sun Ra’s concerts with his Arkestra were years ahead of their time, incorporating light shows, fire-eaters, rear-projected films, synthesizers, hours of swirling dancers---it was his “alter-destiny”: “I want to show them,” Sun Ra said of his audience, “how easy it is to just leave this existence behind.”
We all try leaving our existences behind and self-mythologize at one point or another. Whether it’s convincing yourself that the person who broke up with you is a terrible person, making you better off today. Or believing high school was absolutely horrific, making today feel somehow triumphant. Or---fill in the blank. But these things are generally small and petty and don’t necessitate a myth as grandiose as the one that Sun Ra created. One historian on religion and philosophy wrote that societies create myths in order to give “meaning and value to life.” Sun Ra certainly lived through a time where others felt like his life had no value. (One specific example to Ra was when he had to defend himself in front of what he called a racist draft board.) So perhaps it’s possible to say that the grandiosity of his myth parallels the dreadful discrimination that African Americans faced and can still face. It may depend, however, on whether he truly believed in his origin story.
“My belief is that he was an extremely talented musician who understood that the self-mythologizing could help him promote his music, and he got a kick out of the way people reacted to him,” said John Coney, director of Space Is the Place. “But his band wouldn’t agree with that at all. As far as I can tell, they accepted that he was on a cosmic mission.” And like his band, the Arkestra---which still goes on tour today---I prefer to stay naïve and just believe that Sun Ra’s wild, cacophonic jazz may indeed save the world from itself. I prefer to believe that he’s cruising along Saturn’s rings right now, manhandling a cosmic keyboard with his fingers. It’s just more fun that way: When Ra was admitted to a hospital for the last time in 1993, he wrote on his medical card that Saturn was his birthplace. And that’s official paperwork. So it’s got to be true, right?
Eric Magnuson is a freelance writer. His journalism has appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Spin.com. His fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review.