Black Outside I: Sun Ra

Is our most important music venue the open air?

Part of being abducted and transported from your natal land to another hemisphere with different and much more inclement weather, is being at the mercy of the outside/inside binary more often than in a tropical or subtropical climate like West Africa’s. Black American music is certainly a product of the way sound is policed and exiled from the natural world in the United States, and a product of the way it’s cold outside. The fact that our music’s experimental roots begin in the church and the field because those are the places we were allowed to be, legally, as property which needed to either be engaged in forced labor or elective indoctrination to maintain its value— the fact that our music can code switch between forms and tones because that is how we had to be, the fact that it can steal itself back from popular projections because that is how we had to weaponize our sound, as where we can be most assertive and real. Slicing through that realness are stifling traditions of confinement and propriety, the acceptance of daily life and social life being annexed to buildings, zoned, therefore easier to control, therefore less rooted in nature and ritual and more loyal to habits of consumption, economic before spiritual. 

When we sing or play or dance outside and call it our music, our birthright, there’s an element of total justice in what emerges, whether it be formal or casual. I thought I was obsessed exclusively with ‘black backstage’ as the covert territory where we override imposed sociality and demand our own in tiny rituals of performance, but beyond backstage with its dingy bleakness, is the sometimes reluctant or hidden radiance of what I’m calling “black outside,” a term Fred Moten coined when I told him of my search for images and evidence of black music happening outside on its own terms as well as black music and black people gathered outside, especially those who we know from TV and media as public figures who live in rooms and boxes in our imaginations. Seeing James Baldwin outside, for example, is like seeing him again for the first time, hearing Betty Carter sing outside is like noticing her vocal shimmer again for the first eternal time. By Black Outside I don’t mean us traipsing and performing compulsory shows at  massive commercial festivals that create an amusement park atmosphere where music flourishes only in spite of other commerce if it does at all in those spaces. What I mean is the style of congregating that began in Congo Square, slaves on their day off meeting to drum and dance and pursue a trance of impossible liberation together as an impromptu but intentional ensemble. What I also mean is Sun Ra, in Egypt or New York City, talking in an endless stream of consciousness, wearing a cape or gold god mask, twirling or conducting by grabbing patches of air and sound and shooting them from his prone palm toward the musicians in his Arkestra, and them responding with a jubilant chorus.

Ra had a habit of pacing while he spoke to interviewers outdoors, reciting poems and brief speeches, more at parables, and then pausing to haunt whatever speechlessness those inspired with his slender, sometimes-goofy smirk. One of my favorite formal film recordings of Sun Ra outside features him somewhere in Philly with three brass angels above his head. He’s filmed from beneath, an intentionally intrusive camera down by his feet, so that it looks like a halo of statuesque angels looms above him and he paces their orbit and recites his incantation: In another place in space, beyond what you know as time, where the gods of mythology dwell, gods that are not real to you, gods who have created the illusion that they do not exist to the planet earth… he continues, suggesting that we should ask ourselves if his myth is lie, is that lie more profitable to us than whatever so-called truth we subscribe to now, and if it is, why not live in it and make the other truth a lie. He was a master of inversions, in sound, and in language and idea. In this case also visually and spatially—we’re seeing him from the bottom as if cast to an underworld his parable might lift us from if only we can hear its spiral unwind in ourselves. 

Other times it’s less glamorous outside with Sun Ra and he’s just disembarked from a flight wearing jumbled layers of wool and pushing a cart of heavy instruments and albums while his host shoves a camera and a microphone in his face as he gets himself situated, and it’s almost painful to see him this down to earth, this at the mercy of the toll of constant travel, and in his seventies and eighties when a lot of this type of footage was taken, still this adaptable and humble and under-appreciated. You haven’t witnessed the true tonal range of your favorite musician until you’ve seen them outside, where the human voice mingles with noise pollution and bird song and wind and sounds most like itself, where the soul begins to enliven and shake off the arbitrary edges that buildings impose on it. The legacy of fixation on “outness” in black music indicates that we’ve long been restless with the venues where find ourselves sonically and commercially. In nature, the very cosmos functions like a Showtime at the Apollo— rain, thunder, or neutralizing brightness will boo us off the stage when it’s time, we don’t have to wait for someone with private property to give us permission to make good noise inside of it. This is real justice for our music, chaos too, but a sensible and healing kind of chaos. The life force we stifle in buildings is amplified for black outside and we can hear that enhancement and feel it in how songs translate. It’s the difference between being by the ocean vs. watching an ocean sunset in a film. One reminds you to get outside, while the being outside reminds you who you are. Sun Ra outside reminds us who we are.

Acoustic instruments belong in nature. I’m sure Sun Ra himself would recognize that our bodies are acoustic instruments, and are as entitled to outness as to their native or more concealed music. There are fractals outside that detox the numbing right angles of indoors, and the music sounds different against trees, better than it does against plaster and synthetic lights, and it feels better when the song and sun have to compete for our attention. So much of Sun Ra’s uncontainable project on this planet is laced with a warning: get out. Get out of your mind, get out of your petty narrow tone, get off your ass, get out into space, get out of restrictive habits of thought, get into a rhythm that will help you find your way out or as his gorgeous song indicates they plan to leave. Seeing him physically outside is seeing him deliver his whole message, unobstructed, especially when he’s playing music outdoors or vocalizing a memorized poem. And to best hear Sun Ra’s music you have to experience it like light hitting your skin before you even open your eyes in the morning, the body’s premonition that it’s time to get out of its unconscious state and arrive again in the day.