Do we, sounding out notes, sing for each other? We do. We sing, we write, we whistle. Sarah has arranged plants and wooden animal sculptures delightfully, shrine-like, atop a bookcase that runs beneath our front window, in the midst of which hangs a triangular shard of stained glass. I sit before it and gaze upward, through the triangle of colored light, into the sky — the “up above.” Children of my time grew up admiring skywalkers and jedi warriors, as do children of today. These figures are some of our earliest heroes. Interplanetary travel of the sort imagined by the Star Wars films provided a hopeful vision of technology’s past and future. Counter to it stood the abduction scenario of Poltergeist. With those famous spell-like opening words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” Star Wars opens a portal to the myth-space of the ancient future past. Worlds are places we visit in starships. There’s the danger of Empire — the galaxy’s thanatopic death-drive — but we can fight it by joining the Rebel Alliance. Heroes are abducted from their home planet, swept up by destiny. Star Trek came later for me as an imagination-space, with its Federation-authorized Starship Enterprise, an intergalactic captained battleship. My first meeting with an Afrofuture occurred in my late adolescence or early adulthood, when I happened upon a copy of Funkadelic’s The Electric Spanking of War Babies among records belonging to my grandmother. The album blew my mind, partly censored cover art by Pedro Bell suggesting funk-powered intelligence and humor — psychedelic consciousness of a sort I’d never encountered before. “The kind of style that messes up the program.” The album is a warning about negative vibes.
After a nap in a park under a sunny blue January sky, Parliament helps me loosen up and release stress I’ve been carrying in my shoulders, neck, and upper back. Time to blow the cobwebs from my mind with the Mothership Connection. That is where I’m at and it feels good.
P-Funk had its own mythology. George Clinton performed at times as his messianic alien alter-ego, Star Child. My first encounters with “Mothership Connection” came by way of Dr. Dre’s sample of it on “Let Me Ride” from his debut solo album The Chronic, released the year of my fourteenth birthday. Robin D.G. Kelley discusses artists like Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist brand of hippie modernism in his book Freedom Dreams. These were artists who “looked backward to look forward, finding the cosmos by way of ancient Egypt.” I love the idea of a revolution you join by putting “a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip,” projecting one’s body here and now into a 3-D realtime utopian Afrofuturist “world within the world” known as the Mothership. The P-Funk song’s reference to the famous spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” used by members of the Underground Railroad as a coded form of communication to help people escape, reminds me of the Trystero group’s use of the posthorn symbol in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Other P-Funk tracks are also worthy of analysis and comment. The early Funkadelic song “Can You Get To That,” for instance, alludes to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech with its metaphor of the bounced check.
“America has given the negro people a bad check,” King intoned, “a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.” This stuff definitely ought to find its way into my course this semester — as should the work of jazz poet Ted Joans and illustrator Pedro Bell. The latter created the liner art for several key P-Funk releases. As George Clinton notes on his official website, “What Pedro Bell had done was invert psychedelia through the ghetto. Like an urban Hieronymus Bosch, he cross-sected the sublime and the hideous to jarring effect. Insect pimps, distorted minxes, alien gladiators, sexual perversions. It was a thrill, it was disturbing. Like a florid virus, his markered mutations spilled around the inside and outside covers in sordid details that had to be breaking at least seven state laws. […]. He single-handedly defined the P-Funk collective as sci-fi superheroes fighting the ills of the heart, society and the cosmos.”