The Afrofuturist pioneer and cosmic composer would have been a century old today. We pay tribute to his extraterrestrial vision
Sun Ra, or Herman Poole Blount as his parents christened him, passed away in June 1993. He would have been 100 years old today. Born in Birmingham, Alabama as an introverted child, Blount soon disposed of his birth name and fled the Deep South to become one of the most iconic and esoteric composers to grace the surface of the planet. With his Sun Ra Arkestra, an ever-morphing group of weird and wonderful musicians, Sun Ra spread his outer space-influenced philosophy around the world.
Growing up in the segregrated South meant that Blount honed his chops playing in jazz big bands with black musicians in front of white audiences. Commonly, the band and the audience didn't mix. Blount was a prodigious student who displayed a talent beyond that of musicians his own age and he began composing music at the tender age of 11.
According to an Arkestra tenor saxophonist, as a child Blount was known as "The Moonman" on account of the fact that "they found a diary of his that documented a trans–molecular experience with strange creatures, in strange worlds, who probed him and opened his mind".
Sun Ra went on to heavily influence the musical avant–garde of this world, although the composer claimed that him and his band, often comprising of up to thirty musicians, were actually children of outer space and agents of the universe. Sun Ra himself cited Saturn as his planet of origin.
In the 1980 Robert Mugge-directed documentary A Joyful Noise, Sun Ra expounds on his creative process and cosmic beliefs. "Every song I write tells a story," he explains. "A story that humanity needs to know about. In my music I speak of unknown things, impossible things, ancient things, potential things. No two songs tell the same story. They say that history repeats itself, but history is only history."
His early life was one spent in relative isolation. A testicular hernia suffered as a child left him in extreme discomfort; his biographer John Szwed, author of Space Is The Place, speculates that this consumed him with shame. In 1942 he was drafted for military service but refused, citing moral objections with war and killing, along with his hernia, as the reasons that he didn't want to go to war. The authorities attempted to force him into service, but he stood his ground and told them that if he were to gain access to a military weapon he would only use it to kill US army personnel. He was sentenced to prison for refusing to serve. Upon his release in 1945, Blount, as he was then known, left for Chicago.
It was the city of Chicago that revolutionised Blount's outlook, spiritually and musically. He played with other jazz musicians regularly and became fascinated with Chicago's politically-engaged culture of rebellion and its Egyptian-influenced architecture. In 1952, he dropped his birth name, became Sun Ra, and thus the Arkestra was born. Sun Ra sourced musicians who were willing to engage with his strange philosophies. The 50s was a productive period for the Arkestra: Sun Ra set up a record label, Saturn Records, and embraced the cosmic garb that would come to be so heavily associated with the band.
Sun Ra and his troupe moved to New York at the beginning of the 60s with no money (Sun Ra was a notoriously terrible businessman) and ended up living communally whilst organising gigs that often failed to attract audiences. Tensions ran high but it served to fuel a creative explosion: in 1966, the Sun Ra Arkestra scored a regular slot in a well-respected jazz bar that meant that they played in front of fans, critics and people who hated them, like any real band should. After the building that they lived in was sold, they relocated to Philadelphia.
It was at this point that Sun Ra became deeply immersed in the philosophies that were a foundation for the Arkestra's musical output. In the early 70s, he was appointed as artist–in–residence at the University Of California, and taught a course called "The Black Man Of The Cosmos". Sometimes he would play a keyboard solo, sometimes he'd hand out Egyptian hieroglyphs. Sun Ra's philosophy aimed to spiritually awaken human beings and, as the writer David Martinelli puts it, "aimed to elevate humanity beyond their current earthbound state, tied to outmoded conceptions of life and death when the potential future of immortality awaits them."
"Those in reality have lost their way and they must listen to what myth has to say," Sun Ra said. "Those in reality have been slaves to a bad truth. There is nothing left now but the myth and its potential is unlimited. Somewhere else, on the other side of nowhere, there's another place beyond space, beyond what you know as time. There are gods there. These gods can offer you immortality."
After his death from a stroke in 1993, the Arkestra, ever devoted to his teachings and musical legacy, continued to tour the world. Even now his music lives on in contemporary music, through sampling by artists such as Quasimoto, Floating Points, Death Grips and Azealia Banks.
Whatever planet Sun Ra is floating on now; whatever universe he's ended up on, we pay tribute to him as an artist who survived a career as a genuine outsider, unconcerned with commercial success. In the process, he managed to leave behind a legacy of true invention.