Space is the Place

Lil Wayne has often referred to himself as an alien (as in Martian), and doing so on Tha Carter III has prompted writers to revisit the theme of the Afronaut, one Kandia Crazy Horse uses as her launching pad for an essay she wrote for us for the upcoming issue. At Slate, Jonah Weiner wrote “Lil Wayne and the Afronaut Invasion,” where he says:

Many white rockers—Pink Floyd and David Bowie, most prominently—have taken to the cosmos for inspiration, but space has played a particularly vital role in the articulation of African-American musical identity. As a worldview, Afronautics began to take form in the late 1930s with a Birmingham-born college student named Herman Poole Blount. While meditating one afternoon, Blount said, he was beamed to Saturn by friendly aliens, who explained that his purpose in life was to speak truths of the universe through music. By the late 1950s, around the same time that Sputnik went into orbit Blount had renamed himself Sun Ra, claimed Saturn as his true birthplace, and formed an elaborately costumed jazz collective called the Arkestra, specializing in noisy jams full of chants about space ways, satellites, and, in one of Ra’s most-quoted formulations, “other planes of there.” In songs, poems, and interviews, Sun Ra mapped out the fuzzy contours of his philosophy, which combined mystical futurism with an interest in ancient Egyptian civilization, and found sympathetic ears among avant-gardists, psychedelia heads, and hippies.

For a dizzying analysis of Afronautic spirituality, read John Szwed’s Space is the Place, a biography of Sun Ra that reveals the roots of Blount’s philosophy, some of which spilled over into Rastafarianism (Check Culture’s “Black Starliner Must Come”).

At Zoilus, Carl Wilson analyzes Lil Wayne’s use of the device:

This self-exoticization is a sort of reclaiming and reversal of the treatment of talented black people as freaks, and I wish I’d discussed it in my review because my discussion of him as a wildly atypical pop star could be critiqued as falling into the exoticization trap too. But I think that Wayne is very deliberately raising and promoting this image, just as Clinton and Sun Ra did, because it can be a liberating place to operate. By freeing himself of his context he frees himself of rules and expectations. (Unlike Ra or Clinton, though, he does try to have it both ways by keeping up his New Orleans bonafides, especially since the hurricanes, another rich vein of contradiction to explore with Wayne.)

Interestingly, the discussion of Afronauts so far have omitted Labelle – Kandia’s subject – and Hendrix, who weren’t as overt in their lyrical explorations of African American-as-Alien, but who sonically and visually presented themselves as artists from the planet Out There. There are few ideas in the ParliamentFunkadelicThang that you don’t find in Hendrix, and Michael Hampton’s post-Hendrix guitar playing gave Clinton’s music a freaky dimension previously unheard in funk.