Not merely escapist fantasy, science fiction does in fact make positive contributions to society, albeit in an indirect way. Generations of innovators have used these yarns as sources of inspiration, and as a portal to the future.
The groundbreaking television franchise, “Star Trek” had its characters using a hand-held “communicator” much like the cell phones we take for granted today as well as a precursor to the Global Positioning System (GPS) that is a staple of everyday use.
Alas, the specter of racism slithers even into the realm of speculative fiction. With a nod to “Star Trek’s” Lieutenant Uhura, people of color are largely absent from the Sci-Fi canon. But within the 20th century, legions of African American authors have stepped in to fill this void (see Our Weekly’s “Out of this World,” from 8-1-13), but a more visible expression of the desire to see a sepia-tinted presence in the future may be found in Black music of the second half of the century. The result is an ambiguous but ever expanding genre under the dual designation of Afrofuturism, or Astro-Blackness.
Among the artists and entertainers touched by this genre were/are Sun Ra, Grace Jones, Missy Elliott, and Parliament/Funkadelic, or “P-Funk” for short.
George Clinton’s dual musician collectives, Parliament/Funkadelic, stood out from the typical soul offerings of the 1970s, but actually were a calculated advancement stemming from Clinton’s own rich heritage, starting with the Doo-Wop era of the 1950s, and enhanced by the rhythm and blues stylings of artists like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly and the Family Stone.
African American studies professor Adilifu Nama encountered the music of this seminal “funkmeister” at the beginning of his own adolescence with the release of “Atomic Dog” (1982). The music video accompanying the single featured a Black dude wearing shades and a beret while he played a video game, but more importantly here was imagery Nama could identify with.
Today, as a professor at Loyola Marymount University, he explores the issue of race in popular culture as head of that school’s African American Studies department. The funkified sounds of George Clinton still hold a soft spot in his heart, as he contemplates the role Black people might play in a technologically progressive future. Academics, filmmakers, musicians, and devotees from a multitude of disciplines are attracted to this concept, still in the process of being defined, but labeled under the catch phrase, “Afrofuturism.”
Nama begins by suggesting that this term might be considered an academic word for a form of scientific “Blackness,” or a sci-fi expression of the technology and cyber culture that are and will continue to be a central part of all humanity, with an ethnic twist.
Afrofuturism’s appeal stems in no small part to its offering up the possibility of re-imagining a racially repressive society, and the chance to expand our imaginative landscape. In Nama’s words, Afrofuturism gives us “the prospect of predicting and validating our social depth.”
While music might be considered “the soundtrack of the African experience in the New World,” documenting all the attendant tragedies and trauma in the Western Hemisphere over the past 400 years, it also offers a canvas upon which the Diaspora might experiment with the possibilities of what may be available in a (hopefully) brighter future.
But to effectively address the future, one must absorb the lessons of the past.
“What can Black people imagine; what are our limits?” asks Nama.
One foot in reality…
She was well known through the ghetto
Tricks would come and then they’d go
The neighbors would talk and call her Jezebel
But always with a smile, she was sure to try to hide
The fact from us that she was catching hell, hey!
—Lyrics to “Cosmic Slop” (1973)
Speculative entertainment offers an alternative to the drabness of everyday life. Conversely, alternate reality relatable to Black folks often needs the inclusion of recognizable elements from personal experience. One of the things that gave Funkadelic its unique flavor was the experiences derived from the inner city, then channeled through the filter of Clinton’s vivid imagination, along with the able assistance of his fellow funksters like guitarist/vocalist Garry Shider, whose background included accompaniment behind gospel legends Shirley Caesar, The Five Blind Boys, and The Mighty Clouds of Joy.
Building upon this formidable musical heritage, Clinton crafted stories out of relatable scenarios from the late 20th Century. Thus, in “Cosmic Slop” the narrator weaves a childhood remembrance of his mother’s struggle to support her children through prostitution, and her efforts to shield them from the truth. Late at night, however, the narrator hears her unburden herself to God as she begs for forgiveness.
“Father, father it’s for the kids, any and every thing I did. Please, please don’t judge me too strong. Lord knows I meant no wrong.”
In the same album and in the same vein, but switching subjects, “March to the Witch’s Castle” addresses the plight of a Vietnam veteran’s return home “to the witch’s castle,” removed from the horrors of combat, but saddled with the indifference of society and the suggestion of a heroin habit, a ghastly souvenir from his service in southeast Asia, and a reminder that “the real nightmare had just begun.”
Aside from socially relevant topics which were the order of the day, Clinton’s crew kept in step with their fan base via the inclusion of tunes gauging the ups and downs of romance, a requisite component of Black music since day one. Another, even more compelling theme carried through the dozen plus albums produced under the P-Funk label was the opaque call for cooperation and unity, as a bridge towards a more fruitful, fulfilling future.
While Parliament/Funkadelic was as adventurous and experimental as any musical act during those days of exploration, they remained true to their musical roots, consciously or subconsciously. Their lyrics and subject matter demonstrated depth of thinking, but their commitment to remain grounded ensured fan loyalty; this commitment was at least partially based on a devotion to “the one.”
Defining that basic unit of time
(Bobby Byrd asks:)
What you gonna play now?
(James Brown says:)
Bobby, I don’t know but what’s it ever I play
Its got to be funky!
–from “Make it Funky” by James Brown and the J.B.s (1971)
What we call “funk” may have derived from the KiKongo language (a subset of Bantu, a linguistic label for several hundred distinct ethnic groups spread throughout Central Africa) and spoken by slaves native to what is now Angola and the Congo. Originally a reference to foul body odor or offensive smell (“those collar greens have funked up the kitchen!”), the passage of time has informed the word with a more positive, desirable meaning.
Today, the word can convey an acknowledgment of authenticity or genuineness. Younger generations constantly refer to individuals “being real,” not “fake.” Regardless of vocation, it can be a salutation or recognition of the effort one has “put in” to achieve his or her aims. For musicians, it is the ultimate accolade for the integrity of their art, as depicted in the band “Wild Cherry’s” 1976 hit single “Play that Funky Music” (with the accompanying refrain “White boy”). More accurately, it suggests elemental, primal music stripped down to its basic essence or nature. For many instrumentalists this involves intimacy with the musical term “on the one.”
Most often associated with the one and only James Brown, emphasizing the first beat in a 4/4 musical time signature. This phase entered into the lexicon of general culture when it was used in the dialogue of the hit series “The Cosby Show” during its second season in an episode featuring musical guest Stevie Wonder.
Broken down into musical terms, any explanation of “the one” seams rather simplistic, but like many things that exist on an elemental plane, it is at once complex and, yet too basic to convey with verbal expression.
Professor Nama spent several minutes “riffing” or “vamping” as musicians do, to come up with a legitimate definition.
Borrowing from the musical explanation, he agreed that “the one” is “where the beat falls,” but added that in addition to “keeping time,” everyone must be in sync with “the unity of the groove.” When this happens, everyone (performers and audience) is able to “get right,” and progress to the launch pad or gateway to transcend the shackles of the uptight world to get to “where the truth is.”
All of these phrases and slogans give an inkling of this nebulous state of being, but they only point to the futility of explaining the unexplainable, as Professor Nama agrees, because it is a place simultaneously different for everyone, and yet the groove you’re on is compatible with the groove everyone else is on.
“It’s natural, but it’s informed,” says Nama.
It’s hard to explain, but you know it when you reach it.
Taking flight on the wings of the Ancestors…
“Embrace what makes you unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable.”
Now that we’ve established that we can’t explain it, but it does exist, we can observe that “it” has been absorbed into the marrow of the next generation of music makers. The most recognizable proponent of it, and commonly associated with Afrofuturism/Astro-Blackness may be mega-seller Janelle Monáe. Like Clinton and his misfits from another epoch, Monáe sets herself apart from her contemporaries. While attractive, she does not objectify her body, choosing to perform in tuxedo derivative outfits, and celebrating her “otherness,” by being coy about her sexuality, insisting she “only dates androids.”
Perhaps more importantly, she has made a conscious effort to acknowledge her musical forebears while remaining a commercially viable commodity, as demonstrated by her inclusion in the Cover Girl line up, and her participation in photographer Eunique Gibson Jones’ “Because of Them, We Can” campaign for empowering youth.
Other musicians who’ve aligned themselves or been associated with Afrofuturism include local rapper Ras G, and artists Erykah Badu and Outkast. Music makers are at the vanguard of it all, like they usually are in media specific progress, but artists and writers have expounded on the subject of Afrofuturism as well.
And yet, pushing the musical envelope, outlandish stage costumes, and academic validation do not tell the whole story of this vague, but mushrooming movement. Those interested in learning more may do so by attending a cultural meeting of the minds at the second annual “AfroBlackness Conference” at Loyola Marymount University on Feb. 12 and 13, 2015. Later in the month, Scripps College hosts its own foray into the sphere of the future for Africa’s descendants, titled “Midnight Vistas: Afrofuturism in Conference.” It takes place on Feb. 26 and 28.
No one knows what the future may hold, but the certainty is that we will be in it.
The funkiest UFO in the galaxy
The untold story of the ‘Mothership Connection’
BY WILLIAM COVINGTON
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.