The following is a short paper I wrote for a music theory class in March of 2001. Unfortunately, I don't have the original bibliography right now, but will add it later when I find it.
Afroscifunkstication: The significance of science fiction in black music
"Blacks constantly have had to struggle to transform dreams into realities,
to redeem, as it were, the core of possibility within fantasy."
Robert Elliot Fox
During the last half-century, many black performers have found a universal vehicle to carry their philosophies and hopes for a better future to audiences. More so than any other race, blacks continue their struggle, as a people, for self-improvement. In this paper I will examine how the use of idealized science fiction motifs in the music of Sun Ra, George Clinton, as well as many modern performers, is a continuation of the drive for freedom and a better existence born out of the slave experience.
The Messenger: Sun Ra
During an interview late in his life, Sun Ra says "(American musicians) ... are imprisoned behind these bars; music's got these bars and measures you know. They tend to stay behind the bars and measures written on these papers; they are prisoners. I'm not dealing with that concept, I'm dealing with something else called freedom" (Franza, '89) Besides defending his style of performing and criticizing the use of standard notation, Sun Ra is talking about a much larger theme in his philosophy: the necessity of freedom, and the need to influence people to "...rise out of the immature states they are in, and to leave the self-destruct part of themselves behind." (ibid.)
These are noble statements for a noble philosophy, to be sure. But why does Sun Ra choose to perch this vision upon the sometimes-frivolous pedestal of science fiction? It would seem logical that in order to have your message reach a large number of people, you need respect. For example, the incredible amount of power that Martin Luther King Jr. gained seems a testament to this fact, especially given that both MLK and Sun Ra seemed to be striving towards similar goals, given Sun Ra's statements above.
Graham Lock demonstrates that there was a history between blacks and science fiction with the 'heavenly march' sermons of John Brown in the early part of the 20th century (Lock, p 31). He also includes an excerpt from a 1953 novel The Outsider by Richard Wright in which a White Government attempts to cover up an encounter with an extra-terrestrial being because "...the rest of the universe is colored!" (Lock, p 65) Both of these examples begin to show a bond between the centuries-old Black struggle and the sometimes-fantastical worlds of science fiction.
There is more of a connection between black consciousness and science fiction, though. From the very names of Black spirituals, we see a desire to reject the Earth and the hardship and suffering it contains. Spirituals like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, All God's Chillun Got Wings, and This World is Not My Home all have the unifying theme of fleeing and rejecting the material world. Equating these spiritual journeys to extra-terrestrial travel is not a difficult one to make. Sun Ra's own relation of his abduction experience seems to have all the necessary ingredients of a spiritual awakening, and is very similar in tone and content to many stories of prophets being summoned by God. (Lock, p 54) Sun Ra also created a version of this experience in his shows, with his own rendition of the "heavenly march". (Lock, p 39)
Just how influential was Sun Ra's incorporation of science fiction? We shall see that there are countless artists who owe much of their style and image to this pioneer of the spaceways.
The Funkster: George Clinton
In the same way that Sun Ra's message of a prosperous and free future was centered on people finding what was true and good within themselves, George Clinton and P-Funk espoused the value of community.
Clinton's community is centered on a created mythology not that different from Sun Ra's. "Funk upon a time, in the daze of Funkapus, the earth was on the One. Funk flowed freely and freedom was free from the need to be free." (Anon.) Though the language is convoluted, there is the central theme of a happier time far in the past, before the restrictions of those who had "lost all sense of the Groove." (Anon.) The mythology continues:
The descendents of the Thumpasorus Peoples knew Funk was its own reward. They tried to remain true to the pure, uncut Funk. But it became impossible in a world woo'd by power and greed. So they locked away the secret of Clone Funk with kings and pharaohs deep in the Egyptian pyramids, and fled to outer space to party on the Mothership and wait the time they could safely return to refunkatize the planet. (Anon)
Parallels to Sun Ra's mythology abound, most obviously the connection to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. And Clinton likewise hints to a mythological future full of happiness and of course, funk.
Funk was so much more than a style of music to George Clinton. It was a universal ideal so vaguely defined that it becomes the ultimate in subjective labels. One can perhaps relate it in use to the slang definitions of "hip" and "cool", as in "Why is Parliament funky?" and the inevitable reply, "Because it is."
Funk was the glue that bound the free-minded together in a universe-wide community with the expatriates aboard the Mothership. During the course of their concerts, P-Funk would "funkatize" the audience to the point where it would summon the Mothership, which landed during the big finale of every show. Clinton's hope was then that people would go forth and colonize the planet with their "funkiness".
It is interesting to note that Clinton's use of the word "funk" itself parallels his idea of its purpose. "Funk" colonizes other words, repeating concepts with a difference. (For example) "funk" infests "psychedelic" to create "funkedelic". It is the fundamental good in Clinton's utopian society. (Friedman "93)
The connection to the slave struggle is also apparent in the music of P-Funk. One of the most prominent connections is the reference of the Mothership as the chariot in the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". As the P-Funk lyric from the song Mothership Connection (Star Child) goes, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Stop, and let me ride." The song also contains exhortations of good times aboard the ship and an open invitation for all to come and "get down". One can't help but imagine Clinton as a modern-day Harriet Tubman, guiding the lost and bound souls from the Southern, earth-bound lands of oppression and anti-funk to the celestial North, where all are free to "funk as they feel".
The New Breed
OutKast's most recent video So Fresh and So Clean, opens with a shot of the duo (Big Boi and Andre 3000), aboard a spaceship. As the ship travels through unknown regions of outer space, the two are in the midst of an extremely large party full of attractive women, lots of dancing, and lots of Cristal (a very expensive alcoholic drink currently favored by many rap performers). It is almost as though they see themselves as the descendents of the Thumpasorous Peoples of the P-Funk legend, and their spaceship is their utopia.
These visions of personal utopias are extremely prevalent in other modern-day rap videos. Will Smith's Willennium, from the album of the same name, shows him jumping from time period to time period (always in the midst of a party), ending up of course in the near future. The highly revered video for Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre's California (knows how to party) opens like a scene out of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Though the setting is post-apocalyptic, the party full of people having a good time is still the main theme.
So the connection between blacks and science fiction is still quite visible even 40 years after Sun Ra's beginnings. There is something in the black consciousness, more than any other race of people on this planet, that holds on to the idea of a future where all are free and all are happy. This "something" is born out of the struggle for freedom that began in the days of slavery, and is still thriving today.