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Sun Ra Arkestra by Andy Newcombe, via Flickr

Invitation to Space: On Sun Ra’s Arkestral Mission

“That night in 2015, I understood Sun Ra as a spacemaker.” Stephanie Bailey on the Afrofuturism of Sun Ra and why, with tech billionaires striking out into space, it’s crucial that we heed the message…

Have you ever been to space? I have. It was on the 8th of June 2015, sometime after 10pm, after intermission, as The Sun Ra Arkestra circled a standing crowd in London’s Café Oto, chanting again and again, ‘Space is the place’. 

It all felt so clear. The phrase reverberated from that present moment—the now, then—to when Sun Ra proclaimed it back in the 20th century. Space is the place. A place you could assume from Sun Ra’s cosmology was located in the galaxy where Sun Ra was reborn while at university in Alabama, when an out of body experience took him to Saturn. There, aliens told him to speak with his music back on earth, so he did.  

But at that moment in 2015, space was right there—here, now, with others. Space—where we stood—was the place. You could feel it, see it, touch it. It had been conjured by high priests building sonic geometries around us, wearing shimmering cloaks and hats. The costume emerged as a band trademark in Chicago between the mid-1940s and 1960s—‘A visual link between past and present’, writes Rebecca Bengall, with ‘breastplates and robes channel[ing] the slaves and kings of Egypt as much as they did the comets and planets.’ [1] (Sun Ra, Bengall points out, came long before Bowie, Jones, Gaga and Kanye—indeed, as some have observed, before psychedelia itself.)[2] 

Space is the place, and in an Arkestra performance, the audience is as much an instrument as the ones that the band plays on stage to get there. Each living, breathing soul contributing to the universe that comes into being as musical notes flicker and curve, shoot out and pull back, weaving a sonic grid—what Sun Ra called ‘Strange mathematics, Rhythmic equations’—across and through bodies so as to transport them together somewhere else.  

That night in 2015, I understood Sun Ra as a spacemaker, whose theory his band puts into practice, in which ideas espoused by the likes of Henri Lefebvre—that space is what people make of it—and Soja—that space contains multitudes—are made powerfully concrete. ‘This world,’ Sun Ra said, ‘is not my own.’ [3]So the Arkestra creates new ones, opening thresholds into the unknown, which Sun Ra valued over all else. ‘Humanity’s life depends upon the unknown’, he said [4][4] — depends upon opening up to the possibilities contained within voids yet travelled—a condition manifested in the free improvisation that intervenes in sets that move between ordered chaos and unbridled experimentation. 

‘Sun Ra taught me that there are no boundaries and no limitations. His music wasn’t about making sense: it was just about receiving these transmissions, this knowledge’, recalls DJ and producer Jamal Moss, aka Hieroglyphic Being. ‘It was a shock to the system at first.’ [5] That feeling is often felt by those experiencing an Arkestra performance for the first time. ‘I and my musicians are musical astronauts. We sail the galaxies through the medium of sound,’ Sun Ra said; ‘we take our audience with us where we go whether they want to or not.’ [6] In one documentary, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer recalls playing a concert with Sun Ra in the 1970s, and watching a predominately white rock’n’roll crowd not know what to make of the sonic dissonance. That is, Kramer notes, until ‘they heard it.’ [7]

‘You see, music is a universal language,’ Sun Ra proclaimed; by which he meant ‘a spiritual language’ that ‘represents the people of earth’. [8] For anyone who’s experienced the Arkestra live, that language is palpable. It creates a universe that the Arkestra was trained to conjure and continues to bring into being whenever and wherever it plays, untethered by what 96-year-young band leader Marshall Allen has called ‘earthly things’. [9]

Sun Ra is knotty. He worked in spirals. So says Allen, whose home in Philadelphia has been the headquarters for the Arkestra’s intergalactic mission since the late 1960s. This may explain why The Theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky was on Sun Ra’s reading list for his 1971 UC Berkeley Course, ‘The Black Man in the Cosmos’.[10] Blavatsky co-founded the 19th century theosophy movement, which sought to bridge and intersect Sun Ra’s twin concerns—spirituality and science, or ‘MythScience’, as he called it—and the spiral form appeared in Theosophist cosmology in relation to the universe, evolution, history, and time. [11]

The spiral is circular without being closed. It portrays ascendance—that is, transcendence—from a ground that Sun Ra refused because it limited his existence. As he proclaimed in ‘Freedom from Freedom’: ‘I myself am rising up above what they call liberty and what they call equality’—because ‘I don’t like what I see and I don’t want to be a part of it.’[12] So his music invites you to another party. Invites you to become radically alien on a ‘discontinuum’, quoting Kodwo Eshun, that ‘operates not through continuities, retentions, genealogies or inheritances but rather through intervals, gaps, breaks.’ [13]

The layers run deep. There are the roots of Afrofuturism in Sun Ra’s radical pursuit; of Black liberation; of free jazz; of collectivity and communality, both through the core of an enduring big band bound by ideas and ideals, and the concentric circles that reverberate outwards, as audiences and influences have grown over time with a band that keeps evolving. Then there is the conception of life itself; lived fully and truly in a world that has, to Sun Ra’s mind, failed humanity completely. Of a Black universalism that resists the erasure of the false universal imposed by white supremacy, and proposes a new world altogether. 

‘If we came from nowhere here, why can’t we go somewhere there?’, says one Sun Ra lyric. Allen and long-time Arkestra-naut Danny Thompson repeated that line in sync during one interview. ‘See?’ They said. ‘Simple.’ [14]


In 1978, Philip K Dick gave a speech titled ‘How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later’. He talks about ‘pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people’—the media, governments, corporations, religious and political groups—using ‘very sophisticated electronic mechanisms’ that ‘deliver pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.’[15]

The product of these pseudo-realities, Dick writes, is pseudo-humans: passive beings conditioned to accept whatever reality has been manifested by those with the power to define it. At one point Dick asks, ‘What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality?’, and he uses the cop show genre to respond. ‘Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win’—’Do not ignore that point’, Dick emphasised, because its message is insidious: ‘You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose.’[16] 

Dick’s words bring to mind the ongoing struggle against police brutality in the United States and beyond, not to mention the vital Black Lives Matter movement whose surge in 2020 laid the groundwork for the Free Palestine marches that followed; all manifestations of an historic system of racialised capitalism inscribed into the histories of an international system of nation states as much it is in the struggles of peoples across the world who stand and have stood in resistance to it. 

But they also conjure the grotesque face of Jeff Bezos, wearing a cowboy hat and space suit, as his puffy lips thanked Amazon workers and consumers for the 10 minutes he spent in a spaceship at the edge of earth. It was a moment of appalling indiscretion; an open proclamation spat at the foot of exploited workers and bound consumers. Capital always wins, Bezos seemed to say, and he made no effort to hide his victory. Space is his domain; he has extracted enough from the earth to make it so. It is his place, not yours.

Is this what Dick meant when he talked about not distrusting the motives of those ‘sophisticated’ players he described in his 1978 speech, because they are so clear? More than their motives, Dick said, he distrusted their power, because ‘it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.’ ‘I ought to know’, Dick continued; ‘I do the same thing.’[17] But he did it differently.

Dick admitted that, despite his speech’s title, he preferred to build universes that ‘come unglued’—he liked to see how his characters would cope. ‘I have a secret love of chaos’ he confessed. ‘There should be more of it.’[18] Stability and order, after all, are not always good: they can often prevent the birth of new life and new things out of the old and ossified. Sun Ra may well have agreed. ‘Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly,’ Dick points out. ‘And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.’[19] Sun Ra played for this authenticity, too; for an audience galvanised to rewrite the future and redraw the map; to refuse the oppressive framing of dominant and dominating narratives.

‘Afrofuturism’, writes music scholar Rollefson, J. Griffith, ‘is a critical project with the mission of laying the groundwork for a humanity that is not bound up with the ideals of white Enlightenment universalism’—a universalism ‘so thoroughly encoded as white that it is best left disregarded, bypassed—no longer a dream deferred but a dream discarded.’[20] But, as Sun Ra knew, to discard is not enough; to build worlds, not only must they be imagined. They must be composed, lived, made.  

Today, the Arkestra is very much Allen’s band, and he is faithful to evolving Sun Ra’s vision ‘about a future that eventually comes around.’[21] Until Covid hit, he led the Arkestra around the world, seemingly circling the globe a few times a year as if drawing a spiral around the earth to spread a gospel that embodies a simple ideal. ‘I’m playing music for my well-being’, Allen has said, ‘so I can be here next year, standing tall instead of all broken down.’[22] He’s not playing for money or sex, he says. He’s definitely not aiming to fly to space on a penis-shaped rocket like Bezos for 10 minutes just because he can, or extract anything other than a shared presence from his audience. 

What Allen seeks is clear. He says he plays to lift his spirit so that he can lift yours. ‘And that’s what the purpose is: enlightenment.’[23] An enlightenment untethered from ‘one narrow vision of the world’, so Sun Ra observed, that ‘could not possibly capture any real truth.’ [24]

The myth is the message. It is where potential lies, untethered and unbound—where possibilities are limitless. In this space, ‘the self no longer amputates itself down to a single part but instead asserts that I is a crowd,’ to borrow Kodwo Eshun’s words, ‘that the human is a population of processes.’ [25]

Space is not only high, as Sun Ra famously said, but low, too. It’s right here: a place that you make. Sun Ra worded the invitation in a song called ‘Enlightenment’. Part of it goes like this:

This Song is Sound of Enlightenment
The Fiery Truth of Enlightenment
Vibrations come from the Space World
Is of the Cosmic Starry Dimension
Enlightenment is my Tomorrow
It has no planes of Sorrow
Hereby, our Invitation
We do invite you to be of our Space World


  1. Rebecca Bengal, ‘The Interstellar Style of Sun Ra,’ Pitchfork, 18 April 2016, 
  2. Sun Ra: Brother From Another Planet (2005), directed by Don Letts.
  3. From the song, ‘This World is Not My Home’.
  4. As quoted in Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1980), directed by Robert Mugge.
  5. Andy Beta, ‘Hieroglyphic BeingJ.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl”Civilization That Is Dying”‘, Pitchfork, 10 September 2015,
  6. Quoted in Paul Youngquist, A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (University of Texas Press: 2016), 149.
  7. Sun Ra: Brother From Another Planet (2005), directed by Don Letts.
  8. Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1980), directed by Robert Mugge.
  9.  ‘Out There A Minute with Marshall Allen’, published by PWPVideo on YouTube, 23 May 2019
  10. ‘Sun Ra’s Full Lecture & Reading List From His 1971 UC Berkeley Course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos”‘ Open Culture, 21 July 2014
  11. Brent Staples, ‘Music of the Spheres‘, The New York Times, 17 August 1997
  12. Rollefson, J. Griffith, ‘The “Robot Voodoo Power” thesis: Afrofuturism and anti-anti-essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith’, Black Music Research Journal, 28(1), 96.
  13. Kodwo Eshun was discussing hip hop artist Kool Keith, whose work drew from the influence of Sun Ra, in More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction (Quartet Books: 1998), 00[ -003].
  14.  ‘Marshall Allen and Danny Thompson on The Legacy of Sun Ra | Red Bull Music Academy’, published on YouTube, 1 November 2016
  15. Philip K. Dick, ‘How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later’, 1978
  16.  Ibid.
  17.  Ibid.
  18.  Ibid.
  19.  Ibid.
  20. Griffith, 91
  21. Marshall Allen and Danny Thompson on The Legacy of Sun Ra | Red Bull Music Academy, YouTube, Nov 1, 2016
  22. Out There A Minute with Marshall Allen, YouTube.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Quoted in Griffith, 96
  25. Eshun was discussing hip hop artist Kool Keith, whose work drew from the influence of Sun Ra, in More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction (Quartet Books: 1998), 03[027].  

Stephanie Bailey is a writer and editor from Hong Kong.

This essay was commissioned as part of Imagining Disaster: Science Fiction X Contemporary Art.  Join the conversation #ImaginingDisaster

Image: Sun Ra Arkestra by Andy Newcombe, via Flickr

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