Throughout time music mythology has carried encoded counter-cultural messages and influenced cultural identity in Black culture. Since the times of slavery, Blacks have sought an escape to the stars for freedom and liberation. The enslaved writers of the negro spirituals looked to the stars for an escape from earthly struggles.
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
–”Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
The lyrics of the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” speak of this escape to celestial freedom at the end of life. While, later artists like the Parlament Funkadelic echoed this mantra and flipped it on its head using the vehicle music, fueled by pharmaceuticals, to seek funk transcendence into inner space as a way of life.
The jazz artist Sun Ra coined the mantra “space is the space” and he claimed to be from Saturn and he proposed music was his means of commuting into space. He and his followers conceptualized the Arkestra as their means of escape from Earth to freedom in space. He experimented with futuristic sounds created with synthesizers and he conceptualized this mythology with imagery and symbolism of futuristic utopias in the stars. His imagery evoked components that delved even further into a past, where Egyptian engineers and architects communed with spacefaring gods in the afterlife, and used this mythos to project a future of cosmic liberation from earthly oppression.
“I and my musicians are musical astronauts. We sail the galaxies through the medium of sound, our audience is with us wherever we go, whether they want to be or not. The audience might want to be earthbound, but we being space bound we bind them to us and thus they cannot resist because the space way is the better way to travel. It keeps going out, and out, and further out than that.”
The artist Sun Ra and his band chose Oakland in 1973 as the setting for his film “Space Is the Place”. Sun Ra’s Afrofuturistic film posits that he and Black aliens were in search of African-Americans to join them so they could “see what they can do with a planet all to themselves, without any white people on it.” Sun Ra starts the Outer Space Employment Agency in “Space Is the Place” to empower brothers and sisters to take control of their economic destiny and prepare for the future. Artists like Sun Ra saw music as a vehicle to transcend earthly struggles while training future afronauts through community empowerment.
Afrofuturism has been a constant in music and the visual arts, but it has become prevalent in movies recently from Asmov’s Foundation Series, to “Raised By Wolves”. Marvel’s “Black Panther,” mythology, depicts Wakanda as a technologically superior African nation “hiding in plain sight”. This is undoubtedly an Afrofuturist idea. Like Sun Ra, the character Black Panther, also known as T’Challa, landed a spaceship in the hood. T’Challa also hoped to free the inhabitants of Oakland through economic means, by starting a tech exchange business in Oakland, Ca.
Black Techno artists still use science fiction and fantasy’s high stakes, mysticism, and intrigue to construct new forms of cultural identity. Musicians from Detroit like the musical collective UR, their group Drexciya and their label Submerge, have used science fiction to construct story worlds through techno music. Jeff Mills and “Mad” Mike Banks established the group in 1989. UR produced uncompromising music aimed at raising consciousness and aiding political change by connecting the aesthetics of early Detroit Techno to the social, political, and economic circumstances that followed the inner-city economic slump of the Reagan era. UR also attempted to connect with lower-class African Americans in Detroit, in contrast to Techno that came before it. The music of UR inspired a spirit of self-discovery, experimentation, and the capacity to alter one’s situation. They draw attention to concerns of privilege and power and utilize narrative to mend the divisions in Black communities.
The group challenged western cultural mythology by creating a modern myth about Drexciya an underwater nation of Africans that could breathe underwater. Their world was inhabited by the unborn children of African women who were thrown off slave ships while pregnant during the Middle Passage and who had learned to breathe underwater in their mother’s wombs (Williams, 2001: 168). Popular among writers, researchers, and artists in the African Diaspora and the Black Atlantic is the Middle Passage (see Gilroy, 1992, for instance). A theme that will be further explored is Drexciya, a far less well-known myth of origin (as well as a soundscape that places listeners in a liminal region between these experiences and representations).
Narratives like the myth of Drexciya help to explain aspects of cultural identity that colonization and the racism practiced in the West have eradicated. It’s a method to challenge outmoded social structures in the classroom to study musical artists of the African diaspora. Many of these artist use metaphors and allegories to examine the history and the loss of identity while including magic and artistic systems that are uncommon in popular culture. They draw attention to concerns of privilege and power and utilize narrative to mend the divisions in Black communities. Many of these writings use metaphors and allegories to examine the history and the loss of identity while including magic systems that are uncommon in popular culture.
Listen to Drexciya for a better understanding of Techno Mythology.
The Artist/Author Nettrice R. Gaskins explores the idea of the “Sonic Third Space” in her art and writing. Consider providing this article for students to explore more about Drexciya and Afrofuturism.
- Deep Sea Dwellers – Drexciya and The Sonic Third Space (Nettrice R. Gaskins)
- Analyzing the Influence of Music Mythology and Afrofuturism in Black Culture.
- Understand the historical significance of music mythology in carrying encoded counter-cultural messages and shaping cultural identity in Black culture.
- Examine how the concept of escape to the stars for freedom and liberation was present in the lyrics of negro spirituals and its impact on the enslaved writers.
- Explore the use of pharmaceutical means and funk transcendence in the music of artists like Parliament Funkadelic and its relationship to seeking liberation from earthly struggles.
- Analyze the Afrofuturistic elements in the work of Sun Ra, including the incorporation of ancient Egyptian mythology and futuristic utopias, and their connection to cosmic liberation.
- Evaluate the empowering themes and economic implications portrayed in Sun Ra’s “Space Is the Place” film and the establishment of the Outer Space Employment Agency.
- Examine how the movie “Black Panther” presents Afrofuturism through the depiction of Wakanda as a technologically advanced African nation and T’Challa’s actions to empower Oakland’s inhabitants.
- Explore the role of science fiction and fantasy in constructing new forms of cultural identity for Black artists, focusing on the music collective UR and their label Submerge.
- Analyze the mythology of Drexciya created by UR, its challenge to western cultural mythology, and its exploration of themes related to identity and the African Diaspora.
- Discuss the significance of narratives like the myth of Drexciya in explaining and reclaiming aspects of cultural identity erased by colonization and racism, and their potential to mend divisions in Black communities.
- Examine the use of metaphors, allegories, and magical systems in the writings and music of the African diaspora, and their contribution to exploring history, loss of identity, privilege, and power.
Here are some discussion questions based on the reading:
- How has music mythology carried encoded counter-cultural messages and influenced cultural identity in Black culture throughout history?
- In what ways did the enslaved writers of negro spirituals look to the stars as a symbol of freedom and liberation? How did this theme manifest in the lyrics of the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”?
- How did artists like Parliament Funkadelic use pharmaceutical means and the concept of funk transcendence to seek liberation from earthly struggles? What was the impact of their approach?
- Discuss the Afrofuturistic elements in Sun Ra’s music and imagery. How did he incorporate ancient Egyptian mythology and futuristic utopias to project a future of cosmic liberation?
- In the film “Space Is the Place,” how does Sun Ra’s Outer Space Employment Agency empower African-Americans to take control of their economic destiny and prepare for the future? What is the significance of the portrayal of Black aliens seeking a planet without white people?
- How does the movie “Black Panther” depict Afrofuturism through its portrayal of Wakanda as a technologically advanced African nation? How does the character T’Challa’s actions align with Afrofuturist ideals?
- Discuss the role of science fiction and fantasy in constructing new forms of cultural identity for Black artists today. How do musicians like UR and their label Submerge use science fiction to tell stories and raise consciousness?
- Explore the mythology of Drexciya created by the musical collective UR. How does this myth challenge western cultural mythology and explore themes of identity and the African Diaspora?
- How do narratives like the myth of Drexciya help to explain and reclaim aspects of cultural identity that have been erased by colonization and racism? How can these narratives mend divisions in Black communities?
- Discuss the use of metaphors, allegories, and magical systems in the writings and music of the African diaspora. How do these artistic techniques contribute to the examination of history, loss of identity, and the exploration of privilege and power?
These questions can serve as a starting point for in-depth discussions about the influence of music mythology and Afrofuturism in Black culture.