BY Kodwo Eshun in Frieze | 01 JAN 04
Featured in
Issue 80

Interstellar Overdrive

Sun Ra's Space is the Place

BY Kodwo Eshun in Frieze | 01 JAN 04

Thirty years on from its ultra-limited cinema run, the DVD release of Space is the Place finally gives hipsters and the curious alike a chance to hear and see the legendary1974 cult classic in its original 82-minute director's cut. Enthralling on its own idiosyncratic terms, Space is the Place doubles as an intriguing introduction to the mythos of its inspiration and raison d'être: Sun Ra, one of the greatest visionary composers of the postwar era. Its release is well timed: Sun Ra's influence on contemporary sonic culture is greater now than at any time since his death in 1993, at the age of 79.

Composer, poet and pioneering indie label owner, the celibate, gay, overweight Ra is famed for founding the Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra, his formidably accomplished avant-jazz ensemble and commune. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, birthplace of the Ku-Klux-Klan, Ra was a bona fide American genius. By 1944 he was already lecturing his musicians on space travel and electronic synthesis. His prescience became apparent in 1958, when Werner von Braun launched America's first satellite, Explorer 1, from Huntsville, Alabama, the town where Ra studied piano, trained as a teacher and served time as a conscientious objector.

No plot outline can do more than hint at the disconcerting experience that is Space is the Place. On his blue-screen travels throughout the cosmos in a music-powered, school-bus-yellow spaceship, Ra discovers a planet where 'the vibrations are different', a world that might serve as a new home for African Americans 'without any white people' around. What tips this cosmic Garveyism over the edge of the normal is that Ra's companion throughout is a mirror-faced, hooded figure that the film never bothers to introduce.

The narrative jumps to prewar Chicago, where Ra meets the Overseer, a malevolent, supernatural pimp impeccably dressed in Tom Wolfe-style white suit and fedora, who promptly challenges him to a game of cards to determine the fate of Black America. The Great Game is played out in 1972, on the streets of Oakland, where six years previously Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale inaugurated the Black Panther Party for Self Defense; meanwhile cartoonish FBI thugs wiretap Ra in a hapless effort to decode the secret technology that powers his independent African Space Program. The Overseer is Ra's cosmic nemesis, a gleefully demonic character as intent on exploiting African Americans demoralized by Nixon-era repression as Ra is on offering them an 'alter-destiny', a chance to make their own history instead of having it made for them.

Visually speaking, Space is the Place has a kind of home-made majesty. You're struck by the flimsy shimmer of dyed silks, the bold impact of the Egyptian deity masks Ra's disciples wear, the biomorphic interiors of the Mothership, all of which feels true to the antique futurism of his homespun cosmology. What gives the film its uneven, disconcerting pace is director John Coney's decision to fuse at least three distinct production aesthetics: Catwomen of Outer Space-style cheesy sci-fi, Black Caesar-style blaxploitation and the carefree porn of contemporaneous flicks such as Behind the Green Door, with which Space is the Place shared a shooting stage and an actor or two. Factor in the rousing concert footage of the Arkestra, clad in gold silk tunics and chain-mail skull-caps and steered by vocalist June Tyson through classics such as 'Outer Spaceways', and you begin to see why Space is the Place is in a league all its own.

What holds everything together is Ra himself. His dreamy yet determined personality gives the movie its distinctive mood of mysticism and militancy, riddle and confrontation. The pivotal scene that epitomizes his dialectics of liberation is set in an Oakland youth centre. Posters of Angela Davis and Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver are on the wall; the kids are unimpressed with Ra's silver striped shoes and want to know if he's 'for real.' His answer stops them in their tracks; you see their bravado give way to the pain of recognition. 'How do you know I'm real?' Ra responds to their taunts. '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're not real; if you were, you'd have some status among the nations of this world. So we're both myths. I do not come to you as reality. I come to you as myth, because that's what black people are: myths.'

Ra wrote all his own dialogue, and the seriousness with which he approached his task is evident throughout. What stays with you is his Blakean imperative to manufacture a personal belief system rather than be enslaved by what passes for common sense. Combine this autodidactic zeal with the Arkestra's complicated horn riffs, dissonant Moog solos, polyrhythmic batteries and sardonic sing-along chants and Ra's influence on 1960s and 1970s avant-garde culture becomes apparent.

The Arkestra's legendary live shows and steady flow of records had an impact on everyone from Amiri Baraka to Stockhausen, Parliament-Funkadelic to Buckminster Fuller, John Coltrane and the MC5 to Pharoah Sanders, The Stooges, Ishmael Reed and Mike Kelley. All of these artists were touched by the maestro's lifelong mission to reconceive the jazz album as a programmatic vehicle capable of countering the white mythology of black inferiority. In creating a 'living myth' Ra determined to revise the past and thereby redeem the future that black people were systematically barred from. It's this poetics of autonomy, conceived in sonic, social, aesthetic and economic terms, which continues to resonate with musicians today. Throughout the 1980s, though, it's fair to say that Ra became a specialist subject, beloved of jazz fans but puzzling to everyone else.

Today, by contrast, he appears a vital figure from a distant star, someone whose utopian legacy remains untapped, an artist that represents a limit point for black sonic process. What changed? Three events led to the rediscovery of Sun Ra. First came the ambitious CD reissue series from Chicago-based Evidence label in 1993. Next came the London-based Black Audio Film Collective's award-winning documentary The Last Angel of History (1995), which considered Ra as a technological thinker. Finally, after seven years of research, American academic John F. Szwed published his biography Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra (1997). These cultural events created the language for understanding Sun Ra in the 1990s. In their wake came more reissues, conferences and special journal issues, all of which have repositioned Ra as a key figure in the transmedial tradition of Afrofuturism. He's claimed by producers recording in the nebulous worlds of broken beat, electronica, Afrobeat, nu-jazz and Detroit house: a counter-cultural figure to those discomfited with the diktats of urban radio.

Today that's a growing number. Some pay homage on Sun Ra Dedication: The Myth Lives On (2003), a double album of tributes released by the Amsterdam-based label Kindred Spirits. Stand-outs include Detroit house maestro Theo Parrish's remake of the obscure 'Saga of Least Resistance' and West Coast indie rap superproducer Madlib, who uses his fictional group Yesterdays New Quintet to create a raucous version of 'Nuclear War', Ra's 1982 anti-nuclear proto-rap chant. Broken beat producer Alex Attias has also covered 'Nuclear War', as did indie-pop darlings Yo La Tengo a few months back. Last year microhouse pioneer Jan Jelinek reworked 'There Are Other Worlds (They have Not Told You Of)' (2002), and before that Stereolab recorded a tribute EP with American group Ui. Listen closely to this year's most bootlegged rap album - Jaylib's Champion Sound - and what do you find? The dynamic duo of Madlib and fellow super producer Jay Dee MCing long sections of Ra's enigmatic poetry. It's amazing to hear them delivering lines such as 'Today is the shadow of tomorrow/ Yesterday is the shadow of today/ Tomorrow belongs to the living', in a mush-mouthed offbeat flow. After all, Ra's poetry has more in common with R. D. Laing's Knots (1970) than with Eminem or 50 Cent.

At the Scottish Pavilion party at the Venice Biennale last year a blond Finnish musician wearing a resplendent cloak could be seen hunched over his electric keyboard. For those in the know, it felt like Jimi Tenor was seeking to channel the spirit of Ra. Tenor's admiration shines through his reverential version of the space ballad 'Love from Outer Space' on The Myth Lives On and stretches back further to his 1999 video for 'Year of the Apocalypse', which restaged the Mothership landing scene from Space is the Place in the snowscapes of Finland.

Across the contemporary musical landscape then, Ra has become a Licence to Ill. Like John Cage, he exemplifies artistic permission to go out there a minute. He is an incitement to try harder, do better, go further. Today more than ever Sun Ra is the anti-pop idol.