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Why Sun Ra Is Dominating Chicago’s Culture Scene

The father of Afrofuturism and onetime local is having a big influence on six artists’ upcoming projects. What gives?

The artist Nick Cave models a Sun Ra-influenced Soundsuit on March 20   Photo: Brian Sorg

May marks the centennial of the birth of Herman Blount, the father of Afrofuturism. Born in Alabama, Blount moved to Chicago in 1946, claiming that aliens from Saturn had told him to quit school and take up music.

He changed his name to Sun Ra, and by the 1970s he was at the helm of a cultural movement that was a bizarre concoction of science fiction, African American history, magical realism, and free jazz. Twenty years after Blount’s death, interest in Afrofuturism is surging.

“Part of what’s appealing about Sun Ra to artists is the fact that he was not constrained to a single medium,” says John Corbett, co-owner of Corbett vs. Dempsey, a gallery in Wicker Park that collects Blount’s early work. “[It’s] a sensibility that’s very current.”

To meet six innovative Chicago artists with new projects influenced by Sun Ra, see below.

Sun Ra
The Guru

Sun Ra, 1914–1993

Photo: Chris Felver/Getty Images

Six Other Afrofuturism Acolytes Worth Checking Out

David Boykin
The Sax Man

David Boykin, 44

Photo: Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune

On any given Sunday, you can find multi-instrumentalist David Boykin jamming with other free-jazz aficionados at the University of Chicago Arts Incubator in Washington Park. “Sun Ra was among some of the first records I heard, it was totally an awakening,” says the Greater Grand Crossing musician who started playing jazz in college. “[Sun Ra’s] music always sounded like it was happening right now. No one else sounded like that.” On Sun Ra’s birthday, May 22, Boykin plans to invite 100 saxophone players to salute to the musician at the Arts Incubator (301 E. Garfield Blvd.). They’ll kick things off with “Happy Birthday,” naturally.


Nick Cave
The Performance Artist

Nick Cave, 55

Photo: Ratko Radojcic

Walking into Nick Cave’s South Loop studio—a behemoth of a loft littered with piles of branches, neon-dyed hair, and thousands of vintage tchotchkes—is like entering a wacky, warped world that is at once tribal and futuristic. Famous for his wearable Soundsuits (opulent assemblages that are part sculpture, part dance performance), Cave has long said he culls inspiration from Sun Ra’s eccentric rhythms and choreography. “I think we just need to keep everything funky and keep it moving,” says the artist, who, like Sun Ra, often performs in costumes that play off ritual African dress. Cave will perform on May 2 in Millennium Park at the School of the Art Institute’s annual fashion show. For tickets, saicfashion.org.


Lupe Fiasco
The Rapper-Writer

Lupe Fiasco, 32

Photo: Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP

This South Side hip-hop artist known for polarizing public appearances is also a burgeoning author. Last December, he began writing a noir-Afrofuturist novel on Twitter about Teriyaki Joe, a Harlem detective. The blaxploitation–meets–Double Indemnity project has 1.3 million followers, who get frequent updates such as “.45 on the desk. Digital cigar burning. Sun-Ra coming out the speakers. Antique Rick Ross poster on the wall.” The account is private, so you’ll have to request access to @LupeFiasco.


Jamal Moss
The Sound Artist

Jamal Moss, 40

Photo: Celeste Sloman

A musician who uses the stage name Hieroglyphic Being, Jamal Moss has recorded over 300 experimental electronic tracks and outlined another 3,000, all rich with spiraling, atonal melodies inspired by Sun Ra’s 1967 album Strange Strings. In March, Moss recorded an album with Marshall Allen, the sax player who has led Sun Ra’s band, the Arkestra, since its leader’s death. “[Sun Ra] stuck to his guns . . . no matter how many people might have ridiculed him,” says Moss, whose new untitled record is set to hit the shelves this fall. “He carved a niche for himself on this planet.” For a taste of Moss’s music, hear the song “A Synthetic Love Life.”


Jeff Parker
The Guitarist

Jeff Parker, 47

Photo: Jim Newberry

This seasoned avant-garde guitarist and backbone of the band Tortoise says the 1970 album My Brother the Wind “opened my mind to a lot of experimental stuff.” His side project Isotope 217 also pays homage to Sun Ra with a noisy synth-heavy sound that Parker says is influenced by the Afrofuturist’s 1974 film Space Is the Place. “He is a very important musician to me conceptually, just in terms of having a more metaphysical, spiritual connection through your music. . . .[Afrofuturism] is a cultural reflection of what African Americans are dealing with in their art.”


Cauleen Smith
The Filmmaker

Cauleen Smith, 46

For this Kenwood artist and experimental filmmaker, inspiration struck while standing in line at the DMV. “There was one song in particular, called ‘Love in Outer Space.’ I just listened to it over and over and over. I was like, I should be wanting to kill myself right now, but I feel great,” says the artist. Smith became a Sun Ra scholar of sorts and has spent the past four years knee-deep in his archives at the University of Chicago and the West Loop gallery Threewalls. Recently, she has been weaving his writings on American politics and the black diaspora into multimedia installations, including the one on view at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas through May 3.

Bonus: Here’s a behind the scenes look at the photo shoot with Nick Cave, as he tries out the Soundsuit in our lead photo.


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