For years, very little was known about Sun Ra’s early life, and he contributed to that with evasive, contradictory or even nonsensical answers to questions of his origin.
Sure, he may have been born Herman Poole Blount in Alabama, named for the popular vaudeville stage magician Black Herman, who had deeply impressed his mother, but he didn’t become Sun Ra at birth.
He already had some powers and skills, such as being able to transcribe big band songs from memory after only hearing them once. But the real Sun Ra was born sometime between 1936 and 1940. Or at the very least, before 1952. That’s when Herman had a vision.
.His biographer, John F. Szwed, said that Sun Ra was “both prophesizing his future and explaining his past with a single act of personal mythology,” a moment where the musician claimed that he was visited by space brothers: “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 [a] 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’s what they told me.”
This experience led to Sun Ra leaving college, giving up sleep to devote himself to music and the study of the Bible. However, in 1942, he was drafted and was rejected as a conscientious objector. He was approved for alternate service at a Civilian Public Service camp but never showed up. When taken to court, he debated the judge on matters of the law and Bible. The judge listened to him and threatened to draft him to the military. Ra responded that if this happened, he would kill the first high-ranking military official he met. Sentenced to jail, the judge said, “I’ve never seen a (ethnic slur) like you before.” Ra answered, “No, and you never will again.”
After some time in an Alabama jail, Ra then went to that work camp, where he did forestry work by day and played piano at night. He was finally classified 4-F due to his chronic hernia and he returned home. After the death of his great-aunt Ida, who he provided for, he left home for Chicago.
Surrounded by ancient Egyptian-styled buildings and monuments, as well as the cities activism, Ra began to believe that the accomplishments and history of black people had been co-opted, suppressed and denied by the white man. In 1952, much like how Nation of Islam members removed their slave names, he legally changed his to Le Sony’r Ra.
Chicago is also where Ra met Alton Abraham, who shared his interests but also balanced his shortcomings (Ra was notoriously withdrawn and bad at business). Together, they expanded his Arkestra of musicians and published pamphlets that they distributed on the streets.
Sun Ra and his Arkestra would live communally, traveling to New York City and Philadelphia. He’d call compulsory band practice at any hour of the day or night. Their residences would gain famous fans like Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. And their Philly neighbors would soon love having them around, as they were drug-free, friendly with the kids and very friendly, if a bit loud.
Soon, the Arkestra was touring the world with up to thirty dancers, singers, fire eaters and a light show that would often leave hippies confused, as they were used to bands just playing and not having a stage show. Ra was also appointed as artist-in-residence at University of California, Berkeley, teaching a course called The Black Man In the Cosmos.
This class sounds amazing. There was a half an hour of lecture time; reading lists that included Madame Blavatsky, Henry Dumas, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons, African American folklore and Egyptology; and then a half hour performance of the Arkestra.
This brings us to 1972, when San Francisco public TV station KQED producer John Coney, producer Jim Newman, and screenwriter Joshua Smith came together with Sun Ra to produce an 85-minute feature film that would bring his philosophy to the masses.
What is that message? In short — and this article is scant space to really get into Ra’s full message — he sought to “elevate humanity beyond their current earthbound state, tied to outmoded conceptions of life and death when the potential future of immortality awaits them.”
Sun Ra used a mixture of the Freemasonry (he had studied at a Masonic Lodge as a child, the only place that allowed black men to read books), Ancient Egyptian Mysticism, the Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, channeling, numerology, black nationalism, Gnosticism and more. Ra even argued that the monotheistic God of organized religion was not the Creator or ultimate God, but a lesser evil being out to enslaved mankind. He was also not a fan of the Bible, as it had been used to endorse slavery.
He was a master of reworking phrases and names, often changing Biblical passages to suit his ends or change the real names of Arkestra members. He’d often use Zen koans or nonsense statements that suddenly took on entirely new meanings when looked back on days later. Often, they would cause people to make paradigm shifts in how they looked at the world.
While closely identified with Afrofuturism, Sun Ra felt that he wasn’t close to any one race. Eventually, he came to believe that some outside force was manipulating both blacks and whites to hate one another.
Space is the Place emerged from Dilexi, an experimental art series of films produced by the aforementioned Newman and director by Coney. After filming some performances of the Arkestra, they created a story with Smith that tied it all together.
Sun Ra has been lost in space since June 1969, but he finds a new planet that he wants to colonize with African Americans. His music will lead them there. His mission starts by traveling back in time to the Chicago of his past, where he and the Overseer will play a game of cards for the fate of the human race.
Who is this Overseer? Is he the evil inside the black community? He appears to be a community leader and a man of great charity who seems to mean well, but he’s been overtaken by the status quo of white capitalism.
There’s also a theory that Sun Ra saw his teachings went directly against the Black Panthers, believing that “only the band’s use of technology and music will liberate the people by changing consciousness.”
In present time, Ra opens an Outer Space Employment Agency to recruit people ready to move to his new planet. The only trouble is that many are suspicious of Sun Ra, thinking he’s a gimmick or selling out to the Overseer. He’s even kidnapped by three white NASA scientists who want his space travel secrets before he’s saved by three teenagers just in time to play a major concert.
During the show, the scientists return and attempt to murder Ra, but a teenager takes a bullet for him. Ra, the teens and then black people all over the city begin to beam up to Ra’s ship. Sun Ra has defeated the Overseer and even taken his henchman Jimmy Fey’s blackness with him, leaving Earth behind to die.
The sheer otherworldliness of this film is only increased when you realize that it shared sets with The Mitchell Brothers’ Beyond the Green Door. I guess as Sun Ra sought to open peoples’ minds, that movie was blowing another set of people’s minds by featuring Johnnie Keyes coupling with Marilyn Chambers.
Of all the movies I’ve covered for this week of musicals, Space Is the Place is perhaps the strangest I’ve watched. Sun Ra wasn’t from Alabama. He had to really be from Saturn. There’s no other way that this makes sense otherwise. Sun Ra didn’t seek to conquer, instead to inspire humanity to transcend this insignificant physical life and aspire to greatness in the stars.
“In some far off place, many light years in space, I’ll wait for you. Where human feet have never trod, where human eyes have never seen. I’ll build a world of abstract dreams and wait for you.” – Sun Ra