If we could send out the USS Enterprise to track down Sun Ra’s vibranium pyramid-tomb, raise him from the dead using some quantum-hieroglyph tech and ask him why voices of protest continue to be silenced by oppressive systems of power, his answer would be simple: ‘The people have no music.’ There is, of course, a long and well-established history of protest music, much of which is both inspired by and fights against racial injustice. But this phrase, taken from Sun Ra’s 1974 film Space is the Place, shows us how Ra takes music beyond its typical definition and turns it into something else entirely, by enacting the radical transcendence of human systems in order to open new possibilities for the future of humanity. In contrast to the noises of the earth which he describes as the ‘sounds of guns, anger, frustration’, Ra brings with him music as a futuristic technology, which he uses to build a new colony, an alternate world: ‘We bring them here through either isotope, teleportation, transmolecularization, or better still, teleport the whole planet here through music.’ Space is the Place is an experimental 1974 film which follows Sun Ra as he comes down to Earth in order to recruit people for his new world. Anyone interested in the development of ‘Afro-futurism’ or the historical convergence of black liberation and science fiction will find it a rich and rewarding film.
The film begins with Sun Ra talking to aliens on a different planet, explaining his methods for liberating the ‘black race’ and bringing them to a new planet. After the opening credits we enter into a jazz club where we see the general debauchery of Earth. This is upended by Sun Ra playing increasingly discordant music on the piano, which eventually causes those inside to flee, explosions and fires giving the impression of an alien invasion. This leaves Ra faced with his nemesis, The Overseer. They proceed to play a game of tarot cards, gambling for the future of black people on earth. As this game unfolds, we follow Ra as he returns to Earth in his spaceship, a peering set of eyes that flash laser beams out of each pupil. From here the film follows Ra as he encounters various groups of people on earth: NASA scientists, the American media, the Black Youth, amongst others. Ra tries to recruit them for his new world or sends them away as ineligible. This is interspersed with scenes focused on The Overseer which depict his corruption and support for the overarching capitalist system that keeps the ‘black race’ in a position of subservience. These scenes offer some comic relief by depicting the jealousies of his companion Jimmy Fey. The film builds towards Ra’s concert which he has agreed to put on to save Earth from its own destruction. Ra is then kidnapped by a group of NASA scientists who want to know the secrets of his mysterious technology. He almost misses his concert but is saved at the last moment by three black teenagers. There is an attempt to assassinate Ra at the concert which fails, and those that helped him are teleported to the spaceship and allowed into the new world.
The difficulty with Sun Ra’s film and his wider artistic project is at its heart a question of reality. Space is the Place shows us Sun Ra refusing to accommodate his life and history to the ‘realist’ norms of a (white-dominated) Earth. For context, the ‘real-life’ Sun Ra, originally named Herman Blount, claimed to have come from Saturn, being sent down to earth by aliens in order to ‘heal the world through music’. (Eshun, More Brilliant Than The Sun (1999), p. 155.) In the film, Sun Ra is clearly aware of the alienating consequences of his mission and origin story. When he goes to visit the ‘Black Youth’ activists, they are heavily sceptical of him, the majority laughing and dismissing him throughout. They ask him how he can prove that he is for real. Ra says to them, ‘I do not come to you as reality, I come to you as the myth. Because that’s what black people are in this society, myth’. For Ra, in other words, black people do not properly exist in this current society, the ‘real world’ does not protect them against persecution and discrimination, their lack of adequate rights and liberties in the real world makes them equivalent to myth.
It is the music which allows a new world to be born. The music, like a futuristic technology, opens up the imagination, going beyond the confines of ‘reality’, and allowing for the possibility of future liberation. Kodwo Eshun, an important critic of Afrofuturism, says that he ‘always accepts[s] the impossibility’ of Sun Ra’s origins story; rather than trying to ‘claim it was an allegory’, he tries to ‘exaggerate that impossibility, until it’s irritating’ (Eshun, p. 193). Eshun shows us here how Ra’s project aimed to push against the comfortable and the ‘normal’, in the hopes that we might imagine beyond our present conceptions of reality. We can see this idea played out before our very eyes in the voices which form a part of the BLM movement today. Christian Cooper, the bird watched recently subjected to racist harassment by Amy Cooper in Central Park shows us the possibility of a different future, one found outside of the systems of today. Despite the horrific nature of her actions, Christian Cooper has refused to press charges; he argues that charging her ‘reinforces the idea that justice can only be found in the carceral system we’ve created’. What from one perspective looks like yet another racist escaping punishment, from another angle looks like a refusal, by a black man, to play by the rules and norms of an institution which is both structurally racist and responsible for the murder and incarceration of innumerable people of colour.
Space is the Place offers a new perspective on reality, or what we like to think of as reality. An intriguing experiment in merging film and music, its strength lies in its self-awareness. When we see those on Earth laughing and dismissing Ra we are forced to pause and question our own presumptions as to what constitutes the unrealistic, the futuristic, and the out-of-this-world. Maybe the idea of a music that teleports us to a new space, a new place for the future of the world, isn’t as ridiculous as it might at first seem.