I was first introduced to the term “Mothership” in the summer of 1968. During that time, it was very common to find African American male youth hanging out in the inner city, enjoying the simple pleasures of summer vacation. There were no trips to Disneyland or summer camp. Just treks to our neighborhood public swimming pool at South Park, bikes, skates, balls, and the large magnolia tree (which we would congregate under, if there was no money to pay for swimming), and Brother Eddie Grayson, a member of Mosque No. 27 of the Nation of Islam Los Angeles, who all the neighborhood boys knew as the recruiter.
Brother Grayson had a mission, and it was to get all us young Black boys to the temple to learn the ways of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The six or seven months he was attempting to recruit us proved fruitless. We would respond to his polite requests with “maybe next time” or “I have something to do.” All untruths, and he knew it. However, he remained vigilant and one day, unbeknownst to him, he had a secret weapon and he unwittingly used it.
That day my younger brother had just built a model of a Saturn rocket and was proudly displaying it to a group of kids outside our house. Soon after, Brother Grayson walked up, pointed to the rocket and said, “We have one of those. We call it the Mothership, and it circles the planet earth with weapons and is flown by Black people.”
He had our attention that day.
Throughout time the term “Mothership” has appeared in Black history, first as a vehicle of the middle passage and later as a secret weapon to end oppression. P-Funk historian Douglas Higgins once said “The term Mothership became an integral part of the P-Funk mythology, and its mission was to fly to earth and disgorge its Funk to the people; a beautiful mission.” However historically, in relation to Africans, the first mention of Mothership was a vessel that carried the bodies of African slaves through the Middle Passage, as seen in the classic drawing tittled ‘Description of a Slave Ship,’ by James Phillips (London, 1789). This may have been the first association Blacks had with the term Mothership.
African American Muslims, under the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, learned of another “Mothership” around 1932—it was a large bomb-carrying spacecraft built by the Japanese for the Nation of Islam, capable of destroying earth.
The most recent appearance of the Black Mothership took place during the mid-1970s. It was the Parliament Mothership, and this one has continued to stand the test of time via George Clinton’s efforts (music, book, upcoming museum exhibit).
Los Angeles resident Milton Clark or “Uncle Milton” as he was known by his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, had the privilege of traveling with the band Parliament/Funkadelic during the late 1970s as a member of its entourage. He remembers the Mothership and believes individuals like Brother Grayson had formed a special bond with Clinton.
“The Nation of Islam had become fans of Parliament as a result of the Nation’s belief in their own Mothership,” said Clark. He remembers scanning the audience from backstage and observing members of the Nation (identified by their signature bow ties and well-manicured appearance) attending in large numbers.
Some of the members of Parliament’s entourage believed they were bodyguards or a Parliament Funkadelic Secret Service, according to Clark. They were always reserved in public but became excited during the concerts and the landing of the Mothership.
The Nation of Islam claimed to possess a large spacecraft known as the Mothership or Mother Wheel according to an April 1996 article in the New Yorker magazine written by Henry Louis Gates Jr. The scholar wrote that Farrakhan “was a man of visions.”
Just weeks before the Million Man March, Farrakhan told congregates in a Washington, D.C., church about the “Mother Wheel”—a heavily armed spaceship the size of a city, which would rain destruction down on White America, but save those who embraced the Nation of Islam.
Parliament’s Mothership was an extension of Clinton’s fascination with science fiction and Afrofuturism, an idea he came up with after releasing Parliament’s fourth album “Mothership Connection” in 1975. He approached the president of Casablanca Records, Neil Bogart, and told him, “I want a spaceship,” according to Clinton in a 2013 interview with Our Weekly. Bogart nodded his head and got a one million dollar loan for the Mothership. In his book, Clinton describes the loan transaction as the “beginning of a bit of trouble.”
“My management (charged) a commission on the loan, which you’re not suppose to do, and a good deal of the spaceship money went to buy cars for everyone connected to the band. Cholly got a Jaguar. Boogie and Calvin got Sevilles. Gary and Ray got Thunderbirds, and Bernie got a Volvo. I think there were 26 cars in all. I didn’t need a car. I didn’t drive. I just wanted my spaceship.”
The Mothership was assembled in Manhattan, N.Y., and made its first descent in New Orleans from the rafters of Municipal Auditorium on Oct. 27, 1976.
“That first night was really huge for us,” Clinton says. “But we made one mistake.” The band unveiled the Mothership at the beginning of the show—an impossible stunt to follow. The next night, in Baton Rouge, the ship didn’t land until much later in the set.
“Once you landed the Mothership on stage, you were in constant competition with it, so it was better to hold off and land it as the finale,” said Clinton.
Jules Fisher, David Bowie’s tour producer and renowned lighting and designer, was the original designer of the first Mothership which resembled a lunar spacecraft from the 1960s. It was shaped like a dodecagon (polygon with 12 sides and 12 angles), with 10 booster rockets that also served as legs. During Clinton’s concert tours, it was lifted in the air by cables that were masked by lighting and appeared as if it were flying. Once the Mothership landed on stage, Clinton would make his appearance through a door that opened on the side of the space craft. One memorable moment is mentioned in Clinton’s recent book: “Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?: A Memoir.”
At a Capitol Center gig on April 25, 1981, Clinton stepped out of the Mothership, tossed his gold-lamé cape over his shoulder and strutted across the stage naked.
“The audience went crazy,” says Clinton’s promoter Brooks Kirkendall. “Carol and I looked at each other like, ‘We’re in so much trouble. Our career is over.’ But nobody said a word. I guess the officials didn’t see it. The unions didn’t see it. But the audience saw it.”
The Mothership will soon be resting in historical splendor. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired the second incarnation of the space craft, and it will become an exhibit when the museum opens in 2015.
“I’m about to cry!” Parliament-Funkadelic’s Clinton said during a phone interview with the Washington Post. “They’re taking the Mothership! They’re shipping it out! But I’m glad it’s going to have a nice home there.”
The Mothership on display at the museum will not be the original prop, which debuted during the funk band’s 1976 tour, but instead is a 1,200-pound aluminum replica that was built in the mid ’90s. According to a Clinton in an interview with the Washington Post, the original ship was dumped in a Maryland junkyard in 1982 by the group’s management company. Although the Smithsonian attempted to acquire the original, no trace could be found.