The Everything and Nothing of Sun Ra

Namwali Serpell at the NYRB:

Ming Smith: Sun Ra Space II, New York City, 1978

Pictures of Sun Ra often suggest chaotic hybridity: priestly futuristic costumes and sets, ancient Egypt and the planet Saturn forming a palimpsest of past and future utopias. His sound synthesized big band, swing, hard bop, reggae, Afropop, electronic music, and Walt Disney musicals. His references—expressed in his lyrics, poetry, and pamphlets—showcased this eclecticism too: Kabbalah, gnosticism, freemasonry, pan-Africanism, Zen. When he taught a course at the University of California, Berkeley in 1971, his syllabus included The Egyptian Book of the Dead; the theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky, the nineteenth-century Russian medium; Henry Dumas, a brilliant poet gunned down by New York City Transit Police in 1968. He often cited George G.M. James’s Stolen Legacy (1954), which claimed that Greek philosophy had filched its ideas from Egyptian mythology.

In Sun Ra’s various writings and interviews, he always maintained that there was a metaphysical basis for what he called his “equations”: non sequitur chains of koans and runes, of numerology and etymology.

more here.

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