The other day my old friend DJ FTL, a tireless champion of conscious hip hop, posted this video by Madvillain on his Facebook page:

As you can see it’s a tribute to the legendary cosmic jazz progenitor Sun Ra. The footage is from the 1974 film Space Is the Place, which was written by and stars Sun Ra and features his music. Here’s the original footage:

Sun Ra is well known for combining pan-African consciousness with some wild intergalactic personal mythology. Throughout his life he claimed in all seriousness to be from the planet Saturn, saying he realized his unearthly origins during an out-of-body experience. Just so you know he may have not regarded this film as science fiction.

Whether he was a visionary or a little crazy is up for discussion. The important thing is he paved the way for Afrofuturism, and made the world safer for freaks of all kinds, from Jimi Hendrix to De La Soul to Underground Resistance. And in any case, he was a musical genius and innovator when he was back on Earth composing and leading his famous Arkestra. Check this out:

But the real reason I bring it up is that while watching the footage from Space Is the Place, I couldn’t help but notice that the hooded figure with the mirror for a face seems to be the very same creature seen in Janelle Monáe’s brilliant video for “Tightrope”:

(I’m really sorry for the stupid ad that precedes the clip; there doesn’t seem to be a way around that. And it drives me nuts that the blasted record label has disabled embedding; I’ll work on finding a bootleg video, but for now at least it only opens a new window instead of taking you to another page.)

Pretty cool! I knew Janelle was on some future-freak stuff, and of course the music-video industry perpetually absorbs avant-garde influences. Still, it’s amazing to discover a direct visual reference to Sun Ra of all people in a hugely popular commercial video. And, speaking of strange beings with artificial faces, it figures it had to be Madvillain that brought it to light for me. (Is there anything that motley crew can’t do?) I haven’t yet heard Monáe’s debut album, The ArchAndroid (a high-concept set of “suites” about time travel and liberation inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), but this makes me want to go out and get it.

I quickly googled “Janelle Monáe Sun Ra,” but could not find any direct explanation of the connection between the mirror-face creatures in the 1974 film and the 2010 video. Nor could I find any good images of the creatures themselves. I did see some more general musing about how Janelle fits into the cosmic pantheon, including this densely academic article that has a lot to say about the relationship between pop music and Afrofuturism – a lot of it very interesting, but read it at your own risk. (I actually love to see stuff like this. I often worry that I’m too wordy; this guy makes me feel like I’m doing all right.)

FTL is based in Brooklyn. Check out his blog page, Faster Than Light Music, featuring lots of downloadable hip-hop mixes.

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