“There ain’t no space program for n*****, no you stuck here n****.”
—A Tribe Called Quest (2016)
In an age where the richest man alive publicly does not want to live on Earth and in a country where nearly 350 of its citizens have been to space, the act of questioning the future of our Goldilocks planet is becoming increasingly viable. Earth, for lack of a more incendiary turn of phrase, is in danger. Our current solution has been to ignore climate change and hope that some later generations will fix it.
“Who’s going to save a world that’s destined to die”—Marvin Gaye (1971)
I am far from an environmentalist (or even a recycler…at times), but still, I know that the matricide of Mother Earth will only happen as the result of some very stupid and sightless people not doing their part, which is to protect and conserve, as Earth cannot help itself. Elon Musk thinks he has an escape plan, but we can’t all go to Mars. The Space-X CEO knows that it would take a long time to transplant a global population to another planet after terraforming it.
Yes, Marvin, it’s time to save the children. If not theirs, then at least mine.
In a sense, we are more fascinated with outer space than the problems which justify our want to explore it. It seems, however, that if we directed our efforts away from ignoring the problems we have created and instead towards implementing plausible solutions to issues that affect us here, we would likely get somewhere on terra firma.
This was the message of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “closest friend and advisor”, Ralph Abernathy, on July 14-15. Mere days before Apollo 11 was to land on the moon, and accompanied by a cavalry of nearly 500 impoverished Black farmers, Abernathy marched to Cape Canaveral in protest of America’s most recent and oblivious technological triumph:
“We may go on from this day to Mars and Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty, and hunger prevail on Earth, we as a civilized nation have failed.”
The mass of protesters caught the attention of NASA administrator Thomas Paine; he met with the demonstrators outside the compound but admitted his hands were tied, as the dissidents were hoping to persuade him otherwise. For Thomas Paine, NASA, and the U.S. government, such large and structural issues were bigger than a rocketship. Paine’s plan to resolve the issues of Abernathy’s march included handing out tickets to the launch and offering a flimsy promise to do better…
(“You’ve got all that is really needed to save a dying world from its funkless…” -Parliament (1975) )
On July 27, 1969, Apollo 11 exited the sky and entered American television sets. Nixon lied when he called it “the one moment in the whole history of man” when “all the people on this Earth are truly one.” Ed Dwight, for one, knew firsthand the structural separation between his NASA brothers and himself; he was at one time positioned to be the first Black man on the moon…
“One of the lies that we tell ourselves is that we are making progress…we can no longer make that mistake. You see when they gave us that n**** astronaut. You say we were making progress but I told you they were going to lose him in space; he didn’t make it that far”—Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (1968)
Ed Dwight was the first, and only, black man selected by John F. Kennedy in the early ‘60s to join NASA’s inaugural astronaut training program. Magazines scooped the story like they were running out of ice cream. Ebony declared that Dwight “was headlined around the world” for his groundbreaking promotion. Interviews and photoshoots came in waves, as the foundation was laid for Dwight to have reached the upper echelons of American history with his Civil Rights success.
(Dangerous planes, superstars, American heroes, it’s the job of the media to sniff out the box office in disguise, or sneeze dust from an empty bank account. Ed Dwight just might make it. You’ll see. )
In future news, “Whitey [is] on the Moon”. How about that? Spoken word spokesman Gil-Scott Heron has given the event its title. We spoke to him through time travel, and he provided this performance of a new, world-weary poem in response:
“Man just upped my rent? Whitey’s on the moon.
No hot water, no toilets, no lights? Whitey’s on the moon.
Why is he uppin me? Because whitey’s on the moon.”
How does the poet accomplish his meaning? We listened further. Something must be done. Drums beat solemnly and cheers arrive like thank-you’s as Scott’s performance forms an echo choir that is unable to surpass the ceiling of its vocalists. Poetic indeed. Jazzy almost. Who’s to say Whitey isn’t on the moon, and so we’ve found another story.
…but Ed Dwight officially retired from aviation by 1967. His hope to fly in space was dulled beyond repair. Lyndon B. Johnson’s gradually ‘going in a different direction’ attitude towards the pilot led him to quit not much long after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He has since been working as a sculptor.
Despite what they (including the sitting president) want to tell you, the space program was a disaster in the eyes of many, including the American public. Not until the day of the launch did (barely) a majority of Americans think positively about going to the moon.
The first Apollo mission happened in 1969. The last in 1972.
In 1971, Marvin Gaye and Sly and the Family Stone released antiphonally titled albums called What’s Going on and There’s a Riot Going on, respectively. Sly was caught up at the time with a bad cocaine habit, and decided to record the psychedelic funk standard almost entirely by himself, strung out, and without leaving his bedroom setup. The levitating power of high-class narcotics was his moon.
“Just like a baby, sometimes I cryyyy” (1971)
Regardless of the creator’s mindstate, There’s a Riot Going On delivered in its title track a profound moment for the era. The song is a moment of silence, which, on Spotify, lasts four seconds. The physical copy skips directly to the next song, “Brave and Strong”. The reason Sly did this is because he thought there should be no riots. But the government proved to be an effective instigator. Protests of Vietnam, black liberation, second-wave feminism…Marvin Gaye’s classic, however, was more direct in its decrying and supportive of these things that Reverend Abernathy raised to NASA:
Spend it on the have nots.
Money, we make it.
Before we see it, you take it.”
As history is told, the moon landing was reaching the future, entering the next stage of human advancement, and breaching the Final Frontier. Some black artists at the time reversed this contrived, patriotic symbolism to remind America of its objective past. The result is the allusive, allegorical, and zany Black art form, which later came to be known as Afrofuturism.
“Give the people what they want, when they want, and they wants it all the time…
Give the people what they need, when they need, and the need is yours and mine.”—Parliament 1975
Coined retrospectively in Mark Dery’s 1993 essay Black to the Future, Afrofuturism describes the inclination of some black artists to express and portray themselves using the allegory of science fiction, reclaimed histories, and outer space. Dery in his article interviews, among others, the distinguished science fiction author, Samuel Delaney, who speaks about how Black historical and cultural artifacts are destroyed, which is the premise of Afrofuturist creation:
“The historical reason we have been so impoverished in terms of future images is because, until fairly recently, as a people, we are systemically forbidden any images of our past…When indeed, we say that this country was founded on slavery, we must remember that we mean specifically that it was founded on the systemic, conscientious, and massive destruction of African cultural remnants.”
Delaney in 1993 was listing a possible function of Black art generally, and especially that of the Afrofuturist kind. As this perspective has been around for a while, Delaney was simply building on his predecessors. In the 1950s a jazz artist by the name of Sun-Ra was rocking the boat and paving the way for all the Afrofuturist musicians that followed.
Flowing in royal Egyptian garb, Sun-Ra spent much of his life playing piano and turning his classical training into a golden ticket to the jazz underground. He performed with a massive traveling band called his Arkestra, which has been the subject of numerous films. Edward Bland used them as a stand-in for the “new thing” in his charming 1950’s pseudo-didact Cry of Jazz. Years later, Sun-Ra would play himself in Space is the Place as a commercial way to philosophize that Black people have nothing here on Earth, not even a celebrated history, and since the moon has already been claimed by white supremacy, the best thing to do is find another planet and start from scratch.
Sun-Ra’s massive oeuvre—encompassing film, music, poetry, and prose— espouses this central idea often, whenever it is not intentionally evading its own meaning. My takeaway from it is twofold: 1.) Meaning is socially constructed 2.) The status quo is the future unless we work to change it. His more eccentric “space” theory can be rationalized to these points. I will attempt to read his music as such.
For instance, what is meant by the title reference to “Ancient Aiethopia” in the middle of his early opus Jazz in Silhouette?
Well, according to his biographer John Szwed, Sun-Ra considered East Africa to be the “birth of civilization”; specifically, Paul Runnquist, another Sun-Ra writer, claims Sun-Ra co-opted that Ethiopia was “the birthplace of humanity” and Egypt “the flowering of black civilization.” That being said, Egypt was the musician’s clothing, philosophy, and moral center. Sun-Ra coalesced his band into a single unit this way to combat the marauding truth that has deprived Black people of their claim to historical precedent.
The song in question begins with simple and isolated piano playing—a call to remembrance. About a minute in, after some tough and repetitive sax-play, a gong is struck and the jazz goes away. Flutes and what sounds like a stick being twisted against a rock march around civilization. After a percussive interlude, the sax reenters, alone. The ancient black man has discovered the blues. A piano picks it up feverishly, with almost gothic and classical overtones. He is alone, too. In the final act, there are drums and chanting around an open fire, the beats go faster and faster until the piano returns it all to modern times, replaying the beginning, slower and slower until the song ends.
Sun-Ra and his band regularly took these journeys to the relevant and distant past just to return unscathed. The future is dealt with in his less accessible work, notorious for including every discomfiting and turbulent noise that mocks the uncertainty of our path, the kind that Ed Dwight likely heard in his training to become a pilot. Here, I choose not to deep dive into the music as I have no formal training in experimental jazz (or as a musicologist generally). But breaking those ties to harmony is the center of an entire jazz subgenre that includes Ornette Coleman (The Complete Science Fiction Stories), and many others.
Sun-Ra’s loosely defined contemporary (if he was said to have any) George Clinton connected space and Egypt in a much less historically inspired way but maintains a deeply Afrocentric symbology. At the beginning of his Parliament collective’s breakthrough album, Mothership Connection, a reassuringly smooth voice of male authority, reminiscent of Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, announces itself as an alien named Starchild who is “partying on the Mothership” in the night sky and is “return[ing] to reclaim the pyramids.”
From there, Clinton and his interstellar crewmates play out a cosmic war between an ornery villain, Sir Nose d’Void of Funk, and his archnemesis Dr. Funkenstein. The good guy sets out to restore funk to the universe, and the listener is expected to harness funk’s unifying potential…and dance. This mission would be incomplete without Dr. Funkenstein’s loyal brides (back up singers) and Starchild, his second in command and precursive communicator. On this Mothership, everyone has a role to play, a booty to shake, and a party to make.
The pretext of the Mothership and Arkestra being air-bound vehicles that escort humans to unknown lands has special resonations with the Black diaspora. Whenever Clinton “landed” it on Earth at concerts in the 1970s, he required audience participation—wanting a call to remembrance of the African-American slave coping techniques. As the band rolls through Mothership Connection’s title track, there is an assurance that the listener’s troubles have ended: “You have overcome,” Dr. Funkenstein proclaims. The band then asks the audience to sing this back to them when they switch the beat and remix the old Negro spiritual:
“Swing down sweet chariot stop and let me ride”
Over and over, until the ship lands and Dr. Funkenstein emerges. He takes small steps in an outrageous costume and a hallucinatory large leap. Nowadays the Mothership has a permanent place in the Smithsonian Museum of African American History.
The Afrocentric view of humanity has always been seen as alternative, unpopular, or, in Sun-Ra’s case, mythological. That Sun-Ra taught himself every historical fact he knew without the unwelcome assistance of the academy, was required to prepare every objection when giving his thoughts, everything a controversy, always bouncing ideas off of others, and knew that society would still call him a madman at the end of the day, offers some needed clarity to this statement in Space is the Place:
“I’m not real, I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You are 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 reality. I come to you as the myth, because that’s what black people are—myths.”
Moon men climate. Myths from outer space. In Ed Dwight’s case, spacemen in an alternate universe turned sculptors. Chiseled stone by stone. Apollo 11 smoke clouds, smoked but,
“Imagine if this s*** was really talking about space tho. Imagine if…” -A Tribe Called Quest (2016)
- “Abernathy, Ralph David” Martin Luther King Jr. Encyclopedia. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. Stanford University Libraries. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/abernathy-ralph-david#:~:text=As%20Martin%20Luther%20King%E2%80%99s%20closest%20friend%20and%20advisor,,strength,%E2%80%9D%20King%20wrote%20in%20Stride%20Toward%20Freedom%20(73%E2%80%9374).
- Bland, Edward, director. The Cry of Jazz. Grove Press Film Division, 1959.
- Coney, John, director. Space Is the Place. Plexifilm, 2003.
- Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future”, 1993.
- Gaye, Marvin. What’s Going on. 1971.
- Heron, Gil-Scott. “Whitey’s on the Moon”, 1970.
- “H. Rap Brown & Stokely Carmichael in Oakland (1968) | KQED Archives” Youtube, uploaded by KQED Arts, Feb 11 2016, https://youtu.be/Ym0h6NusUw0.
- Niiler, Eric. Why Civil Rights Activists Protested the Moon Landing. 11 July 2019, www.history.com/news/apollo-11-moon-landing-launch-protests.
- Parliament. Mothership Connection. 1975.
- Sly and the Family Stone. There’s a Riot Going on. 1971.
- Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Jazz in Silhouette. 1959.
- Szwed, John F. Space Is the Place: the Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Duke University Press, 2020.
- Teitel, Amy Shira. Ed Dwight, the African American Astronaut Who Never Flew. www.popsci.com/ed-dwight-african-american-astronaut-who-never-flew/#:~:text=On%20December%208,%201997,%20Lawrence%E2%80%99s%20name%20was%20added,which%20it%20seems%20he%20was%20well%20suited%20for.
- “The Race for Space and Sun-Ra’s Poetry.” Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination, by Brent Hayes. Edwards, Harvard University Press, 2017.
- “There’s a Riot Going on” Youtube, uploaded by Polyphonic, July 02 2020 https://youtu.be/fsCqfJs0WB8
- Youngquist, Paul. A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism. University of Texas Press, 2016.