Conscious Creations: Examining the Sonics of Black Spirituality

Sound and Vision
06/17/2022
Mia Imani
Flying Lotus // photo by Dave Lichterman

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Since 2019, Black spirituality has held the main stage in the collective dialogue about healing. Also known as the "Year of Return," 2019 was a turning point for Black folx that made the pilgrimage to Ghana. The city was the last connection to the African continent for many enslaved Africans during the transatlantic slave trade. The trauma is deeply rooted. To unearth it, African descendants are acknowledging the intergenerational pain they’ve inherited and seeking ways to reconnect with their African heritage. Music has been one of the ways Black folx have maintained a cultural and spiritual link to the African continent.

 

In the 60s, June Tyson, Sun Ra, and his band The Arkestra launched Blackness into orbit. Even before the lunar landing in 1969, they saw space as a new frontier for Black people to thrive outside their Earth-bound oppressions. Their songs made intergalactic travel and living an inclusive dream where it wasn’t about colonizing other worlds but integrating into a cosmic community. 

Most people know Sun Ra as the “grandfather of Afrofuturism” from the cult classic film “Space is the Place.” The film is a visual manifestation of Sun Ra and The Arkestra’s music and is considered one of the first depictions of the futurist movement. You find Sun Ra on another planet dressed in clothes that merge ancient Egyptian and other African aesthetics into one ––connecting the past, present, and potential futures into one. With the band, he decides to make a settlement for Black Americans there. They return to Earth and use music as the way they can transport people into space. 

 

Alternative mythologies of Blackness were born and transmitted by Sun Ra and, most importantly, by June Tyson. She was the only woman in the Arkestra. She was the lead vocalist, the intergalactic oracle who gave us an invitation to a space world to experience enlightenment. Like sci-fi writer Octavia Butler outlined in her Parable series, space exploration is an opportunity to eject Black and brown bodies from the violence that occurs in a world that’s becoming increasingly dystopic. Tyson also sees Blackness flourishing beyond the Earth’s dimensions –– Singing songs to abolish sorrow.

It’s important to note that everyone doesn’t see going beyond the atmosphere as the solution. For others, it is an internal journey, a journey into yourself. Soul music was another vehicle for spiritual healing to enter everyone’s home. Just like June Tyson and Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Funkadelic used their wardrobe, and stage design to transport viewers to another world. 


 

For Funkadelic, it didn’t stop at the music. As much as they wanted people to exorcise their problems on the dance floor, they used their music to discuss esoteric concepts such as connecting with your higher self, interdimensional travel, and mindfulness in the 70s. Funkadelic brought a playfulness to a topic that’s not the most digestible. They used funk and psychedelic rock music to explore the fundamentals of developing a spiritual practice. While also recognizing the importance of joy in Black liberation. Their music gave Black folx a chance to “dance a way out of [their] constrictions.” A fact they mentioned in their song “One Nation Under A Groove”.

 

Funkadelic’s ease between rock and funk allowed them to highlight the different expressions of Blackness. By mixing instruments, BPM and topics, they invited listeners to explore more aspects of themselves. Each song became an invitation to figure out their method of spiritual expression.


 

Alice Coltrane is one of the high priestesses of Black music. She sits between the door of traditional jazz and eastern spirituality. Jazz already connects the audience, and the musicians to the divine as performers channel the next stanza through improv. They merge through a call and response you find in traditional African drumming and spiritual practices. 

With the added layer of eastern spirituality, instruments and vocals transform the ordinary into vessels for otherworldly connection. Chanting merges replaces the humming you would find in spirituals –– a way to tune into the same frequency.


Coltrane’s collaboration with Joe Henderson called “Elements” is a prime example of the mystic meeting the musical. The four-track album personifies each element through sound and reads like a meditation. Listening to the album feels like an energetic tune-up. It’s a way to embody the energy of the earth, air, fire, and water by letting your body relax and your mind wander.

We are now in a time of new visions and sounds for Black futures. Hip hop and R&B have become the new channels for spiritual expression. The lessons that Alice Coltrane, June Tyson, and more gave still float to the surface of the Black spiritual music today. Some musicians carry the tradition forward, speaking to the same cosmic connections but using new techniques and methods. Erykah Badu, Solange, and Flying Lotus, are some of the members of the new divine council.


 

Many people don’t know that Flying Lotus is the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane. You can feel it in the music, where he also deals with collective consciousness. He continues the journey of breaking and bending genres to create a sonic landscape that makes the spiritual more tangible. His music transcends space, place, and time and has created a global engagement with the concepts his great-aunt presented in her work. Even though he relies more on the digital, he merges traditional melodies like in the song “Drips/ Auntie’s Harp,” which is an ode to Coltrane. 

 

Flying Lotus is an example of answering the call, or continuing down the spiritual path his ancestors had made for him. 


 

Erykah Badu’s music declares hip hop as a tool for healing. Her songs could be read as mediations and have increasingly used technology as a metaphor for Blackness. Where liberation is possible through a reboot, refresh, and restart. Lyrics such as those in her song, “The Healer” become mantras. They get amplified by the undulating instrumentals, which mix eastern textures with sampling.


Solange’s When I Get Gome album was both a love letter to her hometown, Houston, and an artifact of her path into spirituality. In songs like, “I’m a Witness” she conjures the same energy one might find in a Black church of being a vessel, but does not confine it to that practice. The album served as a guidebook to self-care, and Black-centered practices that help heal and cleanse that which no longer serves you. 

Whether it's using space exploration to journey beyond our limitations on Earth or diving into our inner landscapes through mantras, Black folx have used the sonic landscape to host conversations about spirituality during times of hostility and hope. Using ancient melodies and emerging technology, Black musicians create platforms to explore our liberation beyond the physical.

 

Music offers hope in times of uncertainty. It holds you when you are lonely. It helps you build a new foundation when you get uprooted from your home. Spirituality has been an undercurrent of Black sonic expression from the negro spirituals birthed out of slavery to meditations on cosmic conscious on Solange’s last album. 

As we are living in a world that becomes increasingly dystopic by the day. Music allows us to both speculate new ways of living beyond our current situations and connect with a source of power and inspiration beyond this realm. 
 

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