African-American spirituality has been expressed in a profound musical tradition dating back to the first days of slavery in the United States. One of the genre’s consistent lyrical themes is the temporality of life, its transience and impermanence, the problem of evil, and the promise of a better world to come. Jimi Hendrix explored these topics when he sang of “Castles made of sand, that melt into the sea, eventually” and “I’ll meet you in the next world, don’t be late.” Its primary exponent in recent years, however, was the great Sun Ra. He understood this dynamic better than anyone. Not only that, he expressed it in beautiful poetry and music infused with a mystical Egyptians-in-space cosmology.
Sun Ra’s concerns go beyond a possible after-life or a world that is an alternative to this one. More fundamentally, he was concerned with the meaning of being in this world. Although he may have aspired to it, Sun Ra did not believe he actually came from another planet. Rather, this aspect of his metaphysics is a proxy for the sense of estrangement he experienced in this one. As an intergalactic wanderer, he had no home; he was unheimlichkeit (homeless, or living outside of one’s own country). Space is not some other “place” but a metaphor for the milieu in which he found himself and the differentiation and alienation he encountered as he navigated its contours.
Sun Ra had experienced all there was to experience and seen all there was to see. As an itinerant black musician in the 1950s – 1980s, playing odd music with a large entourage, he experienced blatant racial discrimination as well as crushing financial impoverishment. Notwithstanding, Sun Ra extended his hand to the listener as a guide, like Dante’s through the Inferno. He was indifferent to the constraints of this world and his temporal embodiment in it, even as he reveled in them as the fundamental premise of being.
Illustrative is an untitled Declamation that appears at 8:25 on Live at the Horseshoe Tavern (recorded March 13, 1978, disc III), an amazing CD available through Transparency Records, which has undertaken to release many archival Sun Ra recordings. Other partial versions appear elsewhere, but this the most complete, and the most compelling. I exercised some modest editorial license, particularly towards the end. I combined various versions and rearranged the order of the lines. I also eliminated some repetition, which is wholly appropriate in the context of the work as performed, but seemed redundant in a transcription. Without question the best part is Sun Ra’s knowing, ironic laugh after he says, “This is not life!”
I have many names –
Names of mystery, names of splendor, and names of shame.
You sleep in the deep dark Babylonian night,
Dreaming, thinking this illusion that you call life is real.
It’s just an illusion, an infinite conclusion.
This is not life!
They think this is life, they think this is real.
How could you dare to say this world of misery is the ultimate of being?
How can you dare to call this thing of existence, life?
This is not life – this is death disguised as life.
It is not real.
This misery, this world of pain and distraction, is not life.
I know what life is – life is not full of tears – Life knows no death.
How can it be life, if there is truth?
No, this is not life. You are only asleep and dreaming.
Just dreaming of sleep, in the deep dark Babylonian night.
You are dreaming that you are doing all the things you did, before you die.
You will die dreaming.
Cry, cry for the people of earth, cry to heaven.
Maybe heaven will hear, and the people no longer will have to die.
Why should you have to die? Is there any reason why? What does it prove?
Look for something else. Bypass dying, and by bypass death.
Look for being – all that you can be – and continue to be, just as millions of beings.
Being – immortal, eternal being. It’s not life, it’s not death.
Let us do it together, across the sea of immortality, beyond the furthest stars.
Let us journey together across the sea of immortality.
Let us go somewhere there, many light years in space,
Where human beings have never been,
That human eyes have never seen,
And human feet have never trod.
I know that I’m a member of an angel race,
My home is somewhere there out in outer space.
I could have enjoyed myself on this planet, if the people had been alive,
But this world is not my home.
The satellites are spinning, the world is just awakening.
Where happiness is pending, a better day is breaking.
The galaxy’s awaiting, for planet earth’s awakening.
What do you do when you know that you know, that you know that you’re wrong?
You’ve got to face the music, you’ve got to listen to the cosmos song.
We sing this song to a great tomorrow,
We sing this song to abolish sorrow.
Come on, and take a journey.
Take my hand, I’m a stranger from paradise.
In some far place, many light years in space,
I’ll build a world of abstract dreams,
I’ll wait for you, somewhere there, many light years away,
Traveling a strange celestial road.