Mark Sinker uncovers ideas in black music - about present identity and future possibility - that run counter to all the comfortable old stories. This article was originally published in The Wire 96 (February 1992).
"In the meantime," he said, speaking relentlessly but mesmerically softly, as gurus will, "I finally went to Chicago. I determined not to be a musician - and the next thing you know, I had these space experiences. "The first experience, I wrote it down. Very graphically: it's impressed on my mind. I did to out to space through what I thought was a giant spotlight shining on me. I was told that they wanted me to go somewhere, that I had the type of mind that could do something to help the planet. I was going out, but it was a very dangerous journey - I had to have a procedure and a discipline, I had to go up there like that" - and the old man holds his arms out in front of him, like a zombie or a mummy - "in order to prevent any part of my body from touching the outside, because I was going through time-zones, and if any part of my body touched the outside I couldn't get it back."
Softly, till you have the habit of compulsive silence and listening attention yourself, Sun Ra mumbles on: "So this spotlight - it seemed like a spotlight, but now I called it the energy car - it shined down on me, and my body was changed into beams of light. Now you see, when a spotlight shines, you can see little specks of dust. It gave that appearance, it could see through myself, and I went up at terrific speed to another dimension, another planet."
All across middle America, cheerful, hopeful nutball folkart celebrates the coming invasion; the unearthly saucermen who'll save the world's bacon: plastic, chrome and concrete rocket-sculptures dot the landscape, dwarfing trailerparks and diners countrywide. If it isn't speaking with Jesus or sighting Elvis, it's men from Mars, and every week since the Atom Age began, someone else has come forward who's been kidnapped and trained in ways and means and returned to save the Earth.
"So then they called my name, and I realised I was alone, a long way from here, and I don't know what they wanted of me - and I stayed up in the dark. And they called my name again, but I refused to answer. And all at once they teleported me down to where they were. In one split second I was up there; next I was down here. So they got that power. Then they talked to me, they had antennas, and they had red eyes that glow like that. And they wanted me to be one of them, and I said no, it's natural for you to be like that, but it might hurt me if you gave me some. Anyway, they talked to me about this planet, and the way it was headed and what was going to happen to teenagers, and governments, and people. They said they wanted me to talk to them. And I said I wasn't interested."
That's the difference. It hardly matters whether the story's true or figurative, hallucination or bad neural wiring, that's the point where the Jazzman breaks away from the standard riff and makes up his own melody. Here, in his front room, all cluttered up with disciples' pictures of himself as Egyptian deity, as cosmic explorer, as mystic messenger, he tells the ordinary story of an ordinary abduction by aliens and then - because he is Le Son'y Ra, and not as other corny tale-spinners - he tells how he turned down the offer of Messiahship.
The hour of chaos
"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish?" Eliot's Wasteland was cultural, a blasted reach of dead fragments (the narrative borrow sits drive - and key items of its imagery - from Bram Stoker's Dracula). "Your home is my home/Welcome To The Terrordome!" Public Enemy's Wasteland seems very real and very present: whole blocks burned in the black ghettos in the 60s, and in many the rubble's still there, the dominant feature in the crackhammered badlands.
But "Welcome To The Terrordome", Chuck D's hurtling, desperate masterpiece, while it masquerades as one more PoMo collage of Pop-Cultural bits and pieces (James Brown slammed into The Price Is Right), in fact has its own utterly present momentum. Its portrait of urban life - as combined videogame warzone and unlicensed gameshow-without-letup ("Come on down! Get down!") - owes much to comic book science fiction, sure. HipHop is in the grand syncretic tradition of bebop, not ashamed to acknowledge that technological means and initial building material are always simply what falls to hand: but that meaning is nonetheless a matter of energetic and visionary redeployment, not who first owned or made this or that fragment.
The triumph of black American culture is that, forcibly stripped by the Middle Passage and Slavery Days of any direct connection with African mother culture, it has nonetheless survived; by syncretism, by bricolage, by a day-to-day programme of appropriation and adaptation as resourcefully broad-minded as any in history. But still, the humane tradition - of warmth, community hope and aspiration - central to the gospel roots soul of the southern black tradition is, if treated as the principle that underlies all, a way of hiding from these facts in plain sight: that this tradition is no more uniquely "African" than the Nation of Islam is "Islamic", that this culture is still - in its constituent parts - very much a patchwork borrowing; necessary of course for physical and psychic survival, but not an unarguable continuity.
The advantage of Science Fiction as a point of cultural departure is that it allows for a series of worst-case futures - of hells-on-Earth and being in them - which are woven into every kind of everyday present reality (on a purely technical level, value in SF is measured against the fictional creation of other worlds, or people, believable no matter how different). The central fact in Black Science Fiction - self-consciously so named or not - is an acknowledgement that Apocalypse already happened: that (in PE's phrase) Armageddon been in effect. Black SF writers - Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler - write about worlds after catastrophic disaster; about the modalities of identity without hope of resolution, where race and nation and neighbourhood and family are none of them enough to obviate betrayal ("Every brother ain't a brother cause a colour/Just as well could be undercover" raps Chuck D in "Terrordome").
In its Golden Age, white science fiction promised itself - The Shape Of Things To Come -a world without war, hurt or hunger (also, tactless enough, without black folks). In its paranoid phase - Invasion Of The Body Snatchers - the political hysteria (being swamped by Red or Yellow perils) is endlessly animated by an unease only memorably articulated by PE two years back: Fear Of A Black Planet. In its present form - Cyberpunk - white SF, or anyway its radical leading edge, is arguing that the planet, already turned Black, must embrace rather than resist this: that back-to-nature pastoralism is intrinsically reactionary, that only ways of technological interaction inherited from the jazz and now the rap avant garde can reintegrate humanity with the runaway machine age.
The image of black music which the first and most influential hipster-translators - the Beats - gave us (black musicians as long on passionate suffering, unmarred by intellectualism) leaves little room for any of Science Fiction's concerns. This same idea sells the cutting edge of today's black music short indeed.
One observer, though, dispensed with the "Noble Savage" of Kerouac's or Mailer's beatnik sentimentality: William Burroughs' future-present nightmares - lurid with violence, weird sex, streetpunk survival strategies and intensely technologised underworld economies, where meaningless additions are fostered by cynically amoral authorities - may not, for the longest time, have chimed with the best hopes and intentions of the bebop revolutionaries. In retrospect it seems not only horribly, sardonically prescient ("Welcome To The Terrordome"), but very much in keeping with the bitter, most self-destructive edge of bop's alien tongues.
Such brazen and courageous celebration of doomed difference is the flipside of assimilation, of being all that you weren't expected to be. Monsters from a nation's Id suddenly and justly demanding equal time as thinking and dreaming and sexual citizens. Hot, weird, different and better: the thrill and the threat of these Beings from Another Place wasn't that they'd be utterly unlike and intolerably horrible, but they'd be like us, only more so.
Cyberpunk's other acknowledged forebears - Delany and Philip Dick - constantly ask the question Slavery first posed: what does it mean to be human? Incapable of sentimentality, Burroughs provides a terrible answer: it means addiction. Because Junkies have needs only this utterly debased and evil system can provide, Separatism can never be an option. But the only way "up" is pull everyone else "down": "My home is your home".
Which of course may not tell you everything about such restlessly question black Sf visionaries as Coltrane or Braxton (or Miles or Wayne Shorter), but it tells you more than the already far-too-comfortable Great Soul myth (where it only you the listener could crack the expressive code, you'd be transported to planes of higher something or other). If flight is one part of their creative metaphor, then it's always flight from a social disaster that's keeping pace with them as they flee.
There is no rest in Coltrane's Interstellar Space - the Space Race is no more Boys Own fun for him than it was for his most important teacher, Ra (the man who weaned him off his addiction, or anyway rerouted it from chemistry to metaphysics). Think of that late late recording, the interminable and maddening "Saturn", where inner and outer space fuse as he warp-drives to the core of the galaxy and the core of the soul: Coltrane is incomprehensible unless you see him as Ra's greatest pupil, terminally impatient with limits, with the trivial categories and opposites within Earthly language, and yet inhumanly patient with the fact that such things won't be transcended down here on this plane.
Others find it easier. Not all Black Science Fiction is so ironboned and bleak as Coltrane: Hendrix the utterly fluid spacepoet glided somewhere beyond black and white, masculine and feminine, noise and grace, while Earth Wind and Fire's 31st Century Egyptology at least pretends, in its silly hermetic way, to possible heavens here below.
We are the robots
"In Miami, rap is strongly influenced by the closeness of Cuba and Jamaica; in Orange Country, young Vietnamese-American girls are forming gangs like the Dirty Punks, following an age-old tradition of new immigrants but expressing it in a form that Hollywood tells us is exclusively Black and Hispanic. Bill Adler - rap archivist, writer and publicist -has written that 'HipHop's present-day cultural nationalists argue that so-called 'blackness' is as much a matter of cultural identification as it is of skin colour and that, by that measure, there are millions of suspiciously light-skinned young black teens roaming around right now, undetected and unsupervised." (David Toop, The Rap Attack II)
When Afrika Bambaataa dropped the melody from Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" into Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock", he let loose something so big he could hardly keep up with it (none of the founders of what became HipHop have really continued to flourish: they had too completely transformed the world they knew how to move in). Kraftwerk, that is, who only half-ironically celebrate the excellence of robot-being (robot: from a Czech word meaning "worker" - or "slave"). Kraftwerk, whose cool cyborg glide could surely not be more European/Palladian. Techno, Detroit's 80s/90s black electrowave, explicitly and contemptuously refused community with Motown and motorcity gospel fro Gary "Me I Disconnect From You" Numan. And yet, as a wordless total immersion culture of beat-pleasure, where the warehouse party functions as purely temporary paradisiac freedom, beyond sexual rules or racial boundaries, Techno admits a yearning for these impossible Sf futures.
HipHop and Techno between them - genres that focus on wharf-rat underclass individuals seizing on the most up-to-date technology, to combat some ever more monolithic, globally interlinked InfoTec state - are Cyberpunk come to life, by turns grindingly bleak (as chroniclers of the present) and deliriously optimistic (as harbingers of the future). Whereas music generally reaches for its emotional truths into the past, nonetheless it's invariably a species of jazz that functions as the trans-galactic common entertainment language to come. Think of the bar scene in Star Wars: and recall that Steve Coleman has cited this - or a dream-version of it - as a primary influence on the direction his music has to take.
The ships landed long ago: they already laid waste whole societies, abducted and genetically altered swathes of citizenry, imposed without surcease their values. Africa and America -and so by extension Europe and Asia - are already in their various ways Alien Nation. No return to normal is possible: what "normal" is there to return to? Part of the story of black music (the affirmative, soul-gospel aspect) has always been this - that losing everything except basic dignity and decency is potentially a survivable disaster.
The other part - as told so obliquely by Ra, Coltrane, Braxton, Delany, Ishmael Reed, and doubtless many others less easily seen than this - is that staying true to the best in yourself may mean when everything can so cunningly imitate everything else, talking in dark, crazed, visionary tongues for a season.