When the aliens came for Sun Ra, they explained that he had been selected for his “perfect discipline.” Not every human was fit for space travel, but he, with his expert control over his mind and body, could survive the journey. According to Ra, this encounter happened in the nineteen-thirties, when he was enrolled in a teachers’-training course at a college in Huntsville, Alabama. The aliens, who had little antennas growing above their eyes and on their ears, recognized in Ra a kindred spirit. They beamed him to Saturn and told him that a more meaningful path than teaching awaited him. They shared knowledge with him that freed him from the limits of the human imagination. They instructed him to wait until life on Earth seemed most hopeless; then he could finally speak, imparting to the world the “equations” for transcending human reality.
This instruction guided Ra for the rest of his life as a musician and a thinker. By the fifties, the signs of hopelessness were everywhere: racism, the threat of nuclear war, social movements that sought political freedom but not cosmic enlightenment. In response, during the next four decades—until his death, in 1993—Ra released more than a hundred albums of visionary jazz. Some consisted of anarchic, noisy “space music.” Others featured lush, whimsical takes on Gershwin or Disney classics. All were intended as dance music, even if few people knew the steps.
Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, to a supportive, religious family. He was named after Black Herman, a magician who claimed to be from the “dark jungles of Africa” and who infused his death-defying escape acts with hoodoo mysticism. Early on, Ra showed a prodigious talent for piano playing and music composition. After his purported alien visitation, he left college and eventually moved to Chicago, where he played in strip clubs, accompanied local blues singers, and found a place in a big band.
During Ra’s childhood, archeologists had discovered the intact tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. The news inspired many African Americans to draw pride from the Egyptian roots of human civilization. Chicago exposed Ra to new interpretations of Scripture by Black Muslims and Black Israelites, as well as to suppressed histories of Black struggle and works of science fiction. These influences soon permeated his playing. In 1952, he changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra—Sun Ra for short—after the Egyptian god of the sun. On Chicago’s South Side, he circulated mimeographed broadsheets with titles like “the bible was not written for negroes!!!!!!!”
Ra formed a band, later known as the Arkestra, which featured the saxophonists Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, and Pat Patrick. Rather than employing tight swings and ostentatious solos, they played in a ragged, exploratory style, with squiggles of electronic keyboard and off-kilter horns. In the early sixties, Ra and his bandmates moved to New York, and became known for wearing elaborate, colorful costumes that felt both ancient and futuristic.
In his album notes and interviews, Ra began sketching out an “Astro-Black mythology,” a way of aligning the history of ancient Egypt with a vision of a future human exodus “beyond the stars.” The specifics of Ra’s vision remained hazy, but he seemed to believe that the traumas of history—most notably of American slavery—had made life on Earth untenable. Humanity needed to break from it and travel to a technological paradise light-years away. “It’s after the end of the world / Don’t you know that yet?” the singer June Tyson asks in the 1974 film “Space Is the Place.” Ra referred to his teachings as “myths”—they were stories about the future, meant to guide us.