Awakening Through Darkness, Ceremony, and Vibration: Sun Ra as a Kemetic Space-Shaman

Following the lifespan of 20th century musical talent, jazz scholars, including John F. Szwed, author of Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra have argued that “jazz musicians must be understood in their roles as intellectuals... on a variety of levels that intersect with and impact their work as artists. [And though] The multimedia ambition of Sun Ra has long been recognized (especially in relation to what he called ‘cosmo-drama’ or ‘myth-ritual’)... only recently have jazz historians and literary critics begun to take Ra’s writing seriously as literature. To miss this element of Sun Ra’s work is to neglect a realm of activity that he clearly considered crucial” in understanding the full scope of his contributions to the Earth (260).   He included many poems into his album conceptions, for his poetry exists as complementary to his music. “Some of the songs I write are based on my poems; for this reason, I am including some of them... in order that those who are interested may understand that poems are music, and that music is only another form of poetry” (Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra 156).  Today, his arrangement of vibrations, catalogued in an extensive discography, written poems and interviews, stand as a collection of demotic medicine for a community so “completely out of tune” with their eternal selves and infinite potentialities (309). 

Even as his work “[becomes] much more easily available in the wake of his passing, [it] has not thereby necessarily become more accessible.  His music is still challenging and at times seemingly gnomic in its bewildering array of stylistic approaches and its persistent commitment to mysticism” (259).  This persistent commitment to mysticism cannot be ignored when exploring Sun Ra’s work as an artist because within that discipline lay one of his deepest artistic purposes: embracing immortality.  Transcending mortality through mystery/mythos became a heavily weighted suggestion for the alleviation of black plight. By disengaging from history, or his-story, where melanated, original peoples are erased, the black spirit, embraces the mystery (my story) or mythos (“... word, speech, legend”) of themselves, and forever drives closer to the source of their existence: the infinite (SP: LTSR 305).  In Space is the Place, Sun Ra articulates, “Equation-wise, the first thing to do is to consider time as officially ended.  We work on the other side of time” (1974). For Ra, linear-time based history colonizes/whitifies/disconnects the spirit from the natural flow of the cosmos; therefore, linear time as thought programming must be eradicated in order to reclaim cosmic consciousness and surpass the earth-prison dimension.  These goals could only occur when the mystery of existence as it truly is grows outside of the historical and the real, for all that is real has a beginning and has an end. And if infinity is the true nature of existence and it can transmute space-time, galactic distance, and the earthly realm, “It is important for the planet that its inhabitants do not believe in being born, because whoever is born has to die…” (6).  [However] With music [one] would reach across the border of reality into myth” where immortality and ever expanding space can be accessed (Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra 6,109).   “Space to [Sun Ra] was not empty, cold, and lifeless, but the container of the cosmos, and his true home… rich with potential, alternative, and promise” (SP: LTSR 130).  Black potentiality existed in outer space, “under different stars”; space was blackness, black darkness: the void which produced infinite possibilities for black people devoid of finality.

More than just creating music for capital, a motive so audaciously suggested by the Overseer in Space is the Place, Sun Ra was emitting “the language of the universe” that aimed at elevating the collective vibration of the black race to that which matched specified frequencies within the cosmos to restore “rhythm to modern life [and communication] with the spirit world…”  “It [became] necessary to shock people from their sleeping state, and music and dance were means of awakening...” (SP: LTSR 121, 108).  This role as awakener, arranger of bodies and sound vibrations can be likened to that of a shaman or  “‘cosmic artisan’ – an arranger and forecaster of a cosmic-people-to-come, a performative conduit through which intensive cosmic events continue and extend outward” whose business it is “to go out and help people” and “encourage [them] to fight the bad conditions on this planet” (Bazzano 1; SP: LTSR 83; Detroit Black Journal).  This duty or commitment to esoteric guidance leads him to dissolve his ties with being human because to be human is to make errors. “The spirit makes no mistakes”, he says, suggesting that he is acting beyond the human realm, closer to that of spirit (SP: LTSR 111).

Through his use of extensive Kemetic (Egyptian) symbology and gnosis in Space is the Place and his ritualistic music and life performances, he levitated the modern black consciousness to a realm of divine remembrance.  Remembrance of its status as the true creators of the great pyramids and the Sphinx, practical magic and mysticism, as well as being the descendants of Tahuti (Thoth), Ra, Ausar (Osiris), Auset (Isis), Seth (Set) and other originators of cosmic mysteries and space exploration, according to the highly evolved ancient African cultures that spawned nearly all spiritual traditions.  This ancient state of harmony and evolution is the true inheritance of black people. When the black consciousness is awakened to such an remembrance, the false histories can no longer bear down upon their targets. In the advent of the space age, Sun Ra’s eagerness to imagine an all-black world is simply a mission to continue the intensive work that the Kemites and original melanated peoples were doing.  Early in his career, “He learned of the greatness of Ethiopia, that the Cushites were a great nation, that not just the Egyptians, but also the Indians and the Celts were black, that even Buddha is considered black in some parts of the world” (69). Before the arrival of imperialist, white races, these peoples lived in distinctive vibration as advanced inhibitors of the Earth where highly evolved architecture, science, magic, and extra-terrestrial inclusion were possible.  “[This] ancient world, he [learned], was less a place than a myth” (71). In the larger schema, “Negroes had long been a threatening force, their race a cipher… a competing mythology which white people had to at once suppress and demonize. It was another history of the world, history of the universe really, that needed to be discovered… [by] a person whose heart was pure and whose sincerity was unquestioned” (72-73).  

This purity and sincerity becomes challenged by the Overseer whose duty as preserver of the current white supremacist order aims to degrade Sun Ra’s mission to elevate black consciousness in Space is the Place.  Sun Ra and the Overseer’s conflict runs central within the film and parallels a Satan-Christ dualism. The two inhabit dual bodies: Earthly bodies which enact within the world-prison grid (home to the common people, places, media, and earth) and Ethereal bodies which gather in a separate vastness to engage in cosmic bets and games.  They consult with a tarot card deck, sitting directly before each other on a black and red table (whose colors connect to Ellegua, communicator and loa to the Yoruba/ voodoo pantheon, often considered a trickster god), in order to determine the eventual fate of the black race. Sun Ra is accompanied at this table and other places by Sekhmet (lion-headed solar goddess, daughter of Ra, associated with healing, warriors, and hunting) and Heru, or Horus, (son of Ausar and Auset, god of the sky, also associated with war and hunting) while the Overseer is accompanied by two women, one black and one white, who act as placeholders of status and earthly pleasures.  Constantly, the Overseer uses these hyper-sexualized bodies to maintain control and persuasive advantages in the earthly realm where they are useful, however, in the vast cosmic space (depicted as a desert), they do very little to guide him. Receiving messages from the tarot deck connotes the inescapable vulnerability all humans share to the will of god as even Satan and Christ exist beneath his power. This film suggests that despite human efforts, the cards will fall where they may, eventually bringing judgement, balance, and order (Ma’at) to the universe, and those who align with that order (Sun Ra) fall into its favor and achieve immortality, and those who attempt to maneuver the cosmos for selfish endeavors (the Overseer) come into punishment and parish into finality.

Sun Ra’s great Arkestra in the sky is born out of a necessity to place black people in infinite possibility.  Though efforts be thwarted by those geared at maintaining the current system of oppression, the guiding light of universal vibration drives Sun Ra and his group to continue to bring frequencies that raise up the black consciousness and eventually send them to a space oppressionless and expansive.  Ending the film, the mothership takes only the black essence, leaving white capitalism and white consciousness to be exploded by a nuclear age. The ultimate means of receiving the gift of transition into this black future is to align oneself with the vibration of the infinite cosmos that is already existing.  While Sun Ra aligns himself with these frequencies, he guides his people to do the same: through black darkness, through vibration, through precision and discipline.