Edited by Maria Torres-Quevedo
Artwork by Olivia Twist: YesOliviaTwist
I am currently in the final year of my Law degree. When the time came to select the modules I would study this year I decided to pick the modules in which I knew I would feel represented and seen. Although I enjoyed the previous years of studying ‘Contract’, ‘Tort’, ‘Criminal’ and ‘Property Law’ I felt the need to expand my horizons; to study something that I had never had the opportunity to study before and probably would not have the opportunity to study again. So, alongside my modules ‘Equity Law’ and ‘Employment Law’, I elected to study modules in ‘Sex, Gender and Law’ and ‘Law and Race’. I had one more option left, and I was struggling to fill it when I spoke to my good friend Sheila. She had seen an open module listed on our University website– ‘African-American Music in the 20th century’– and when I clicked on it I immediately smiled. A module focussed on the music that I love but also drew on its West African heritage seemed to perfectly intersect with my interests and my personal heritage and so I jumped at the chance to study it. I am so grateful that I did.
In the course, we took a whistle-stop tour of all of the major genres in African-American music, from blues and rock & roll to hip-hop and new jack swing. However, in one of our penultimate classes, we stopped at the genre-defying topic that is Afro-futurism; a “cross-disciplinary genre that combines science fiction, Afrocentrism, fantasy, technology and non-Western mythologies as an intellectual and artistic strategy to reimagine and repurpose the fraught past, present and future of the transnational black experience” (Photography). In this particular class, on a Wednesday morning, we looked at the work of Paul Gilroy who posits that Blackness and Black identity became global on the first day the first slave ship left from West Africa to the Americas (Gilroy 18). Unlike colonialists and enslavers who sought to dismiss and exile Black people from modernity (Mills 27), Gilroy and others have exposed how it is these very acts of colonialism and enslavement that make Black people the first true moderns (Eshun 287). It is through this lens that we looked at Afro-futurist music, including that of Funkadelic, Parliament others. It was in this class that we watched a short clip of a film that I had seen last summer- Space is the Place.
In the summer of last year I had elected to undertake an inter-disciplinary research project on Afrofuturism, namely how Afrofuturist films that envisaged a better future (Dery 180) can be used as inspiration to reshape human rights discourse so that Black people, and particularly Black African women, could have rights that would actually suit and benefit them. It was during this research project that I had seen Space is the Place for the first time but, watching it again in the African-American music class, I experienced it in an entirely different way.
Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount, was a popular African-American musician of the 20th century, associated with the free jazz movement (Monson 179) in which jazz music was played with a “dissonant harmonic style.” (Monson) Growing up Sun Ra became fascinated with Egypt and Egyptian history (Szwed 64) and connected the legacy of Ancient Egypt, and white erasure of this history, (Szwed 71) as connected with African-Americans and white erasure of their own history (Szwed 72). Thus he adopted a new persona, naming himself after the Egyptian Sun God Ra and suggesting that he had been to Saturn (Kreiss 61). He and his band, the Arkestra, would perform in fascinating costumes reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian imagery (Kreiss 62) and through their stage performances they sought to illustrate how the future could be different for African-Americans (Szwed 173).
The 1974 film Space Is the Place, which was accompanied by an original soundtrack by Sun Ra and the Arkestra, beings with Sun Ra exploring a new planet far away which seems better and more hospitable for Black people than Earth, free of racial inequality. When he arrives back on planet Earth he is mocked by others including the sexist and self-hating Overseer, a Black man who has a penchant for abusing women and prioritises the interests of white America over Black America. Sun Ra and the Overseer play a card game over the course of the film to see who will get to decide the future for African-Americans and Sun Ra eventually plans to perform a concert, showcasing his message of a new Black utopia across the airwaves. However, as the Overseer begins to lose the game white scientists kidnap him and try and prevent him from spreading his message, but he is released by a group of Black teens just in time to play his concert. During the concert Sun Ra vanishes African-Americans one by one into his spacecraft, flying them away to the new planet. It is worth highlighting that Sun Ra only takes African-Americans who are proud of their heritage with them, thus leaving the Overseer behind and also leaving the “white parts” of the Overseer’s assistant behind– so whilst the Black assistant is taken on the spacecraft a version of the assistant is also left behind on Earth who, although appears racially Black, begins to “act white”, calling the Overseer coloured and his white girlfriend calling the Overseer the n-word with a hard R. (Coney)
This film has clear parallels with discourses going on across the Black diaspora today. For example, in America Candace Owens’ #Blexit movement has begun a discussion about which political party African-Americans should be aligned with, with Owens perhaps taking the role of the Overseer in many peoples’ eyes (Pullman) and people like Alicia Garza taking the role of Sun Ra (Willis). Or in England, for example, where some strongly argue that Black people accepting (Olusoga) and striving towards (Jackson) awards and titles that have strong colonial legacies is positive while others arguing that it is negative (Gopal). It is clear that the struggle for the soul of Black folk (DuBois) is still ongoing. Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place gives all of us, whether as students in any and all disciplines or just as human beings, to re-evaluate this struggle in the 21st century and what future we want to see for Black people. As Black people in America are dying due to successive government policies that put them last, (Villarosa) as Black people in Africa are being dying due to climate change caused by Western actors (Ninteretse) who put their needs last (Andrews 60)and Black people in England are dying due to a criminal justice system which puts their needs last (Pemberton 249) the opening question of Space Is The Place has become more and more poignant- “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?” (Coney)
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Photography, Museum of Contemporary. In Their Own Form. 12 April 2018.
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Space is the Place. Dir. John Coney. 1974.
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Willis, Raquel. Alicia Garza Coined “Black Lives Matter” — And She’s Just Getting Started. 12 February 2019.
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Oluwaseun Matiluko is a student at the University of Bristol. She has just finished writing a dissertation on the intersectional struggle of some of the poorest Black African women to access expensive patented HIV/AIDS drugs. She is interested in Black feminisms, Afrofuturism and decolonisation. She recently modelled in Cosmopolitan magazine!