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The Radical Experimentation of Black Psychedelia

The Radical Experimentation of Black Psychedelia

One final reason Black psychedelia has not been heralded or even identified as such is that its distinctive contributions have been usurped by discussions of Afrofuturism — a longstanding movement that critics named in the 1990s and that drew energy from psychedelia once the 1960s’ fight for radical change ran up against radical backlash. If, as Errico puts it, Sly and the Family Stone had seemed to land on “The Ed Sullivan Show” from Venus, by the mid-1970s, many Black artists were going back up, imagining themselves as pioneers of outer space. It was a spectacular conceit, and quite an American one: 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 commentary that Gil Scott-Heron crystallized in his 1970 track “Whitey on the Moon”), the popularization of Black science fiction that would come to be known as Afrofuturism acknowledged that space travel had its allure. Labelle sang about being “Space Children” (1974), Stevie Wonder recorded a paean to “Saturn” (1976) and Parliament devoted a whole concept album to the “Mothership Connection” (1975). These works, while funky, playful and ironic, were something of a post-revolutionary after-party in which African American artists conceded, as the long ’60s turned into the longer ’70s, that another world might not be possible anywhere on Earth — not even in an idealized Africa. This was an era of political conservatism and economic downturn marked by Richard Nixon’s “benign neglect” approach toward Black and brown communities, an increasingly militarized police force greenlit by the war on drugs, and the channeling of Black Power’s remaining energies into electoral politics. No wonder that the architect of otherworldly Black dreams, Sun Ra, amped up his own extraterrestrial efforts in the experimental 1974 film “Space Is the Place.” At the end of that film, Earth explodes, and he and his followers escape on a spaceship.

To seek out finer distinctions among different forms of radical Black creativity is to see that the story of Black psychedelic culture is the story of coalitions of artists who made new worlds closer to home. When Sly and the Family Stone sang about wanting to “take you higher,” they were conjuring sensual, possibly drug-enhanced experiences that you could have without leaving the ground. The future wasn’t distant, it could be tomorrow, and space didn’t signal far-flung galaxies so much as enclaves of people and the plain fact of air. Gilliam once said of 1968, “Something was in the air, and it was in that spirit that I did the drape paintings.” He was, on the surface, describing a cultural zeitgeist. But his comment also points to the way those works give shape to the actual atmosphere in a room.

Black psychedelia was among the 20th century’s boldest experiments 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 have rerouted early rap’s obsession with the economics of drug culture back 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’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” (2014), while the mellower, more personal dimensions of the psychedelic imagination inform new music and videos by the singer-songwriters Arlo Parks and Kadhja Bonet, as well as the narrative and perceptual experiments of Michaela Coel’s 2020 TV series, “I May Destroy You.” The impulse not to simply shore up Black community but call it into being motivates Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew’s “Black Futures” (2020) — a 500-page anthology that, despite its title, bespeaks a presentist urge to display the richness of contemporary Black writing and art. The urge to go big without always making sense is, finally, manifest in the collages and sculptures of the Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu. Four of her massive, seven-foot-tall bronze caryatids — human-goddess hybrids — were installed in the niches of the facade 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 it. These figures serve as embodied reminders that the space of Black psychedelia was no less powerful than the dark side of the moon, but also not as distant: It was right around the corner, just above your head.

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