The Tower of Babel is a biblical myth explaining the formation of Earth's many languages, and it's been explored by artists in many different mediums. One of the most stirring examples is a mid-50s poem by legendary jazz musician Sun Ra. It begins innocuously enough, with an easy-metered, "Twas at Babylon they say/Ah, dread and drastic day," but blooms into a mission statement that would inform his life's work: "This is not to say/There'll never be a better day/Watch what you write, watch what you say!"
The quest for that "better day" came to define Sun Ra's interstellar-themed music and philosophy of Afrofuturism, and that urge to write and speak more carefully would become a rule by which he lived his extraordinary life. Most of his poetry has gone largely unnoticed, while his music—which has influenced genres as diverse as dub, Detroit house, and post-rock—has seemingly become more celebrated with each passing year. But inseparable from his wide-ranging free jazz experiments was a distinct philosophy and set of sociological observations that were equally revolutionary and forward-thinking.
On the surface, the flamboyant and often-costumed Sun Ra may seem like a free jazz eccentric, but delving into his lifelong writings—which have appeared on record jackets, hand-folded pamphlets, or personal diaries—on subjects that ranged from anthropology to science fiction reveals a profoundly studious man with a focused and well-defined worldview. The cosmic language he favored (take song titles like "Tapestry from an Asteroid," or the record Soul Vibrations of Man) can seem like a bunch of astrological, futuristic jargon and symbology selected at random to appear as extraterrestrial and "out there" as possible, but in every case there's well-placed significance to the celestial forms chosen that bleeds throughout all the jazz maestro's creativity.
Paul Youngquist's new book 'A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism' (out now on University of Texas Press) reveals that this multidisciplinary approach was a constant in all of Sun Ra's exploits, whether that meant using a poem to explain the intricacies a specific song or using musical reinterpretations of standard spiritual hymns to critique the bible. Beginning with his youth in Alabama and stretching all the way to his final days in Philadelphia, the book is organized chronologically, but the chapters each contain a different pursuit or interest of the artist. Through analysis and creative reimagining of Sun Ra's personal writings, as well as in-depth looks at various texts the musician referenced in his work, Youngquist illustrates how Sun Ra formed his personal philosophy of Afrofuturism, which entails an optimistic, Afrocentric envisioning of a technologically superior future.
In covering Sun Ra's interest in religion, racial politics, technology, science fiction, history, philosophy, and many other fields, Youngquist also substantially de-mystifies one of the most enigmatic figures in 20th century music and shows how his artistic output was a sensible response to his surroundings, as well as an inspiration to artists following in his Afrofuture footsteps, such as Janelle Monae, Shabazz Palaces, and many others. I talked with Youngquist to learn more about how the Man from Saturn's far-flung and scattered exploits actually connect seamlessly.
VICE: Based on his music, I expected Sun Ra to be more eccentric, but the book made it clear he was able to justify quite literally all of his artistic output with multiple pieces of his personal philosophy. Do you think that's a common misperception?
Paul Youngquist: I think in some ways. Sun Ra was kind of a willfully strange guy who really loved saying outrageous things, and people have dismissed him on the basis of those things he's said. But I think he was responding very directly to the world he lived in and the conditions of his life. If you look at those contexts, you can see how his statements [about being an extraterrestrial] and the challenging music that informs them are very much a direct response to the world he inhabited… He's really telling you straight how he feels, which is like a space traveler from another planet, and what he's gonna do is build a vehicle to explore other worlds, and that vehicle becomes music.
Even 50, 60 years later, many of his ideas seem very reasonable and more progressive than the prevailing ones around him, such as the Nation of Islam and Christians in South Side Chicago. Was that something you expected to find or were surprised by?
It's a realization that came from delving into Sun Ra's work. I began, like most people, by being attracted to the really freaky music. I assumed that there was a freaky philosophy that went along with it, but the deeper I got, the more I came to see that what I was hearing as freaky music was really a very direct expression of his experience that was anchored in the real world—in fact, in the specific neighborhood of South Side Chicago. The more I read and listened, the more I could hear it as a simple and sensible response to what Sun Ra was feeling as a black guy in this incredibly segregated city where he had aspirations to do great things but couldn't.
There was a certain point where I said to myself, Hey, this creativity is political, and the means of this political activism is cultural expression. What he had to offer, as opposed to a philosophy of social transformation, was a new idiom of musical creation. If there's going to be something emancipatory coming out of the milieu he was inhabiting, it was going to come through music, rather than some more direct form of activism. That seemed to me like a really simple and direct project, and I was able to hear the direct aspiration of the music for a certain kind of better world with greater possibility, especially for black people.
Pursuing and studying all of these various disciplines—music, poetry, science, theology—seemed like a necessity for Sun Ra. What do you think it was about his mind that made him so ravenous for knowledge in every corner of life?
Partly it's his personality—he was just a hungry guy—and partly I think it came from his spirituality. He had a deep sense of connection to what he called The Creator, and felt that he was doing The Creator's work. Music was the primary means of expressing that creativity, but any other means that came his way, he would try and see where they took him. He did visual work designing record covers, the cosmo-drama work, the performance stuff later in life. From my point of view, one of the really important means he turned to was poetry. Poetry complements his music as a kind of parallel expression, but in words, rather than sounds and tones.
As we're talking, I'm coming to realize that Sun Ra considered life on this planet as a creative enterprise. He once said, "I'd hate to pass through a planet and not leave it better than I found it." I think he was interested in using any means he could to try to improve the world by way of his creative expression, and I think that came out of a spiritual commitment or experience on his part.
Why do you think his poetry and other writings haven't been as widely distributed as his music?
There's a good solid tradition of experimental black poetry in America, but it's overlooked Sun Ra. One simple reason is accessibility. He tended to resist conventional forms of publication—total DIY guy—so the poetry appears scattered all over different ephemeral forms. Record jackets, catalogs, pamphlets, much of it spoken in performance.
However, I think his poetry's also very abstract. Most poetry seems to be written with the concrete in mind, with conventional tropes and figures in mind, and he ditches all of that. As with his music, he writes a pretty abstract and intellectual pitch. It could be that its philosophical content is a little bit of a turn-off… What I would like to see is an actual scholarly edition of his poems. I think they're worthy of that treatment and it would help put him on the map as an important poet and another very different African-American voice in the literary scene as well as the musical scene.
You mention in the prelude that any book about Ra should "eschew too tidy a linearity," and I think you did a marvelous job of that without being too heady. Was that a challenge for you and how did you go about poetically retelling actual events in his life?
It was a tremendous challenge. How would you perform writing in a way that acknowledges the importance of the performance of music to Sun Ra? Since his music is very much about challenging linearity and forms of conventional kind, how would you do that in a book about him and yet hang onto your readers?
All of the imagined scenes I write about are based very closely and carefully on available documentation. I felt that in those scenes, there were issues at play that I couldn't get to just by invoking the documentation, so imagination had to take over. I felt that Sun Ra kind of authorized me to transgress the fact/fiction line every now and then when I had enough facts on my side to do that. I stayed close to the facts, but tried to bring them to life [in those sections of the book]. I partly wanted to do that because Sun Ra does the same thing. He would say, "I am a myth," sort of asserting the fictionality of his own life and identity. He was mobilizing fiction on behalf of his message, and at moments I thought that to get to the creative and spiritual heart of Sun Ra, I had to do the same thing.
I took the chance fictionalizing some moments, and I've got to be honest, I was and still am nervous about some of those because they're the ones people can object to. But I think that fiction gets to something in Sun Ra that you can't get to in any other way, and that's his deep commitment to something he calls "the nothing." The fact that music and poetry are nothing, but in that nothing, we find the possibility of infinity. Fiction is also a version of that nothing, even if it's based on the realities of his life.
'A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism' is out now on University of Texas Press. Order a copy here.
Follow Patrick Lyons on Twitter.