Stick to the facts and you have in Herman Poole Blount (Ra's birth name) a highly prolific and influential black musician. Take the artist at his word and you have a being from another planet, come to Earth to save us with a message of cosmic liberation.
As always, it's best to tread a middle path between the reality and the myth.
According to music critic Mike Walsh, Ra recorded upwards of 200 albums and staged at least three 100-piece orchestras (one in front of an actual Egyptian pyramid!) during his career. He pioneered the use of synthesizers, created his own record label and influenced countless jazz, rock and funk musicians. His band, the Sun Ra Arkestra, featured a varied lineup of between 10 and 100 musicians and a host of cultural styles.
Sun Ra layered all of this in a cosmic philosophy as free-form and boundless as jazz itself, yet its roots are pretty clear. Way before Blount became Ra, he was a black child in racially segregated 1920s Alabama. He escaped into sci-fi serials like Buck Rogers and his public school's music program. During World War II, Ra refused the draft and was both ostracized by his family and briefly imprisoned. He threw himself into music and became introduced to vaudeville. He joined a group that studied the Bible, Egyptian mythology and the teachings of the esoteric Christianity of Armenian mystic G.I. Gurjieff.
Those are the seeds that grew into Sun Ra's cosmic philosophy. A lot of it was show band shenanigans, to be sure, but that goes hand-in-hand with afrofuturism in music. Play the clip below for a wonderful taste from the 1974 Sun Ra feature film "Space is the Place."
So what is afrofuturism? Well, on the surface of things it's a simple as Lil Wayne claiming to be a Martian (he's not) or the P-Funk Mothership descending from the Chocolate Milky Way Galaxy. As Jonah Weiner lays out in this excellent Slate article, Sun Ra wasn't the first 20th century African-American to marry outer space with themes of black liberation and post-racism, but he certainly set it to music and put it on the map for artists to come.
Scholar Alondra Nelson summarized that Afrofutrist works deal with "a past of abduction, displacement and alien-nation, and inspired technical and creative innovations." The artists kept returning to science fiction motifs because they served as "an apt metaphor for black life and history." You can read Nelson's full article here.
Too much has been written on the cultural significance of afrofuturism for me to do it full justice in a blog post, but here are a couple of further explanations that really break through to the heart of the matter:
The Alien Outsider
Even before his alleged trip to Saturn and subsequent name change, Sun Ra was an outsider among his fellow humans. By taking on an alien identity, he was able to cut ties (even if only theatrically) with his "humanity," a brotherhood of man that hardly looks appealing marred by a history of slavery, oppression and war.
Mario David puts it well in his article for the African American review: "Rejection of the category 'human' not only repudiates its correlates 'subhuman' or 'nonhuman,' terms employed to strip dignity from black folk, but also [renounces] any essentialized claims to blackness at all."
In this, the Sun Ra persona embodies a sense of post-humanism and post-black art. It moves beyond a horrifying past and a damaged present into a space (call it a time or just a mental state) where race and human cruelty are distant concepts that can be objectivity perceived.
Sun Ra's Arkestra performances often mixed ancient Egyptian symbolism with the cosmic, drawing on both North Africa's past glory and the theory that such secrets as pyramid construction were handed down to humans by ancient alien astronauts. Buy into this concept, even as fiction, and you forge a fantastical link between past and a high-tech, post-racism future. Jonah Weiner puts it like this: "Perceptible in this ripple of the Afronaut impulse is the yearning for and fantastical reclamation of an ennobling African history: A trip to space doubles as a return to roots."
So that's just a taste of this fascinating area of African-American cultural study. The linked articles can take you even deeper, as can the music of Sun Ran and the many artists he inspired. If you need a little help understanding avant-garde jazz, listen to this NPR primer.
Now lets sample a little more of that cosmic music...