The radical experimentation of black psychedelia


A final reason why black psychedelia has not been heralded or even identified as such is that its distinctive contributions have been usurped by discussions of Afrofuturism – a long-standing movement that critics have named in the 1990s and which drew its energy from psychedelia once the 1960s struggle for radical change. encountered a drastic backlash. If, as Errico says, Sly and the Family Stone had seemed to land on “The Ed Sullivan Show” from Venus, by the mid-1970s many black artists were coming back up, imagining themselves as space pioneers. It was spectacular, and utterly American vanity: as much as black citizens had criticized the government for spending billions of dollars on the Apollo 11 mission instead of using the money to alleviate poverty (a comment that Gil Scott-Heron crystallized in his 1970 piece “Whitey on the Moon”), the popularization of black science fiction that came to be known as Afrofuturism recognized that space travel had its appeal. Labelle sang about being “Space Children” (1974), Stevie Wonder recorded an anthem to “Saturn” (1976), and Parliament devoted an entire concept album to “Mothership Connection” (1975). These works, while funky, playful and ironic, felt like a post-revolution after-party in which African-American artists conceded, as the long 60s turned into the long 70s, that another world never was perhaps possible anywhere on Earth – not even in an idealized Africa. It was an era of political conservatism and economic downturn marked by Richard Nixon’s “benign neglect” approach to black and brown communities, an increasingly militarized police force enlightened by the war on drugs and channeling the remaining energies of Black Power into electoral politics. No wonder the architect of otherworldly black dreams, Sun Ra, stepped up his own extraterrestrial endeavors in the 1974 experimental film “Space Is the Place.” At the end of this film, the Earth explodes and he and his followers escape on a spaceship.

To look for finer distinctions between different forms of radical black creativity is to see that the history of black psychedelic culture is the story of coalitions of artists who created new worlds closer to home. When Sly and the Family Stone sang about wanting to “take you higher,” they were talking about sensual, possibly drug-enhanced experiences you could have without leaving the ground. The future wasn’t far away, it could be tomorrow, and space signaled not so much distant galaxies as enclaves of people and the simple reality of air. Gilliam once said of 1968, “There was something in the air, and it was in that spirit that I made the drapes. It described, at first glance, a cultural zeitgeist. But his commentary also highlights how these works shape the real atmosphere of a room.

Dark psychedelia was one of the boldest experiments of the 20th century in using art to reopen questions about power and identity in this world. This explains its persistence in the 21st century. Hip-hop artists such as Outkast (who collaborated with Clinton on their 1998 track “Synthesizer”), Young Thug, and Future hijacked early rap’s obsession with the economics of drug culture toward its recreational value. , while pushing the boundaries of intelligibility via a mumbling delivery. The work of expanding black expressive possibility while maintaining the right to illegibility similarly shaped Erykah Badu’s ‘Amerykah’ Parts One and Two (2008, 2010), and D’s ‘Black Messiah’. ‘Angelo (2014), while the softer, more personal dimensions of the psychedelic imagination inform new music and videos by singer-songwriters Arlo Parks and Kadhja Bonet, as well as the narrative and perceptual experiences of the 2020 TV series by Michaela Coel, “I May Destroy You”. The impulse to not just nurture the black community, but to birth it, drives Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew’s “Black Futures” (2020) – a 500-page anthology that, despite its title, bespeaks a presentist urge to display the wealth of the contemporary black community. writing and art. The desire to go big without always having meaning finally manifests itself in the collages and sculptures of the Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu. Four of his massive, seven-foot-tall bronze caryatids — human-goddess hybrids — were installed in the facade niches of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019, reframing the space with an enigmatic force that is both of this world and beyond. These numbers serve as embodied reminders that the space of dark psychedelia was no less powerful than the dark side of the moon, but not quite as distant: it was just around the corner, right above your head.


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