In 1927, the Rev. A.W. Nix, a preacher from Birmingham, Ala., entered a recording studio to commit several of his sermons to wax. He intended to release them commercially on the burgeoning gospel-music circuit. A Southern Baptist, Nix had an ear for the musical possibilities of oratory and a taste for fire and brimstone. His sermons, delivered in the rich, ravaged singsong of a Delta bluesman, bore darkly chastening titles like "Death Might Be Your Christmas Gift" and "The Prayer Meeting in Hell." Tucked into this catalog of apocalyptic warnings, though, was "The White Flyer to Heaven," a rapturous, six-minute homily about riding a spaceship piloted by Jesus up to the pearly gates: "Higher and higher! And higher! We'll pass on to the Second Heaven, the starry big Heaven, and view the flying stars and dashing meteors and then pass on by Mars and Mercury, and Jupiter and Venus and Saturn and Uranus, and Neptune with her four glittering moons."
"White Flyer to Heaven" is probably the earliest recorded evidence of a phenomenon that's persevered in black music ever since: Call it the Afronaut tradition. Last Tuesday, rapper Lil Wayne put this tradition atop the pop charts with his No. 1-debuting album Tha Carter III, which sold a stunning 1,005,545 copies in its first week. Lil Wayne starts from a hardened gangsta-rap template, but outer space has figured into his increasingly loopy songs for more than a year now: During the 2006 freestyle "Dough Is What I Got," he claimed Martian provenance in a boast about his otherworldly skills; on the woozy 2007 drug track "I Feel Like Dying," he imagined playing "basketball with the moon," adding, "I can mingle with the stars and throw a party on Mars." On Tha Carter III, Wayne devotes an entire song, "Phone Home," to the subject of his alien origins: "We are not the same, I am a Martian," he announces in an E.T.-inflected croak.
The last rapper to post comparable first-week sales was Kanye West (957,000), who is currently traveling the world with a space-themed tour titled Glow in the Dark;West's set features a rocket ship named Jane, animatronic shooting stars, and a stage designed to resemble rocky, lunar terrain. The Afronaut has been a hip-hop trope since Afrika Bambaataa recorded "Planet Rock" in 1982, but this is the first time it's occupied such a significant spot in the pop mainstream.
Many white rockers—Pink Floyd and David Bowie, most prominently—have taken to the cosmos for inspiration, but space has played a particularly vital role in the articulation of African-American musical identity. As a worldview, Afronautics began to take form in the late 1930s with a Birmingham-born college student named Herman Poole Blount. While meditating one afternoon, Blount said, he was beamed to Saturn by friendly aliens, who explained that his purpose in life was to speak truths of the universe through music. By the late 1950s—around the same time that Sputnik went into orbit—Blount had renamed himself Sun Ra, claimed Saturn as his true birthplace, and formed an elaborately costumed jazz collective called the Arkestra, specializing in noisy jams full of chants about space ways, satellites, and, in one of Ra's most-quoted formulations, "other planes of there." In songs, poems, and interviews, Sun Ra mapped out the fuzzy contours of his philosophy, which combined mystical futurism with an interest in ancient Egyptian civilization, and found sympathetic ears among avant-gardists, psychedelia heads, and hippies.
Ra grew up an outsider twice over: once for his refusal to participate in military service during World War II, which earned him brief imprisonment and ostracism from his family, and again for the simple fact of being black in the American South. We can glimpse the psychological framework of his space obsession through the lens of his alienation. His 1972 poem "Tomorrow's Realm" mixes images of solitude, slavery, and cosmic escape:
I'll build a world of otherness …
And wait for you.
In tomorrow's realm
We'll take the helm
of a new ship
Like the lash of a whip, we'll be suddenly
on the way.
The whip's appearance in this fantasy brings to mind a compelling formulation from "Black to the Future," a 1993 essay on black sci-fi by cultural critic Mark Dery: "African Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees." In Ra's mythology, the future is inextricable from the past: His spaceship carries the specter of the slave ship within itself.
Another likely influence on Sun Ra—and a considerable influence on many hip-hop stars of the late '80s and early '90s—was the Nation of Islam, whose pamphleteers the jazzman associated with in '50s Chicago. Sun Ra never claimed membership in the Nation of Islam, and he disagreed with many of its teachings; still, his encounters with the group are interesting, since a racialized cosmology is central to both his and the NOI's beliefs. In Elijah Muhammad's 1965 tract Message to the Blackman in America, Muhammad writes of a massive "mother plane"—built by ancient black scientists and containing inside its metal hull "fifteen hundred bombing planes with most deadliest explosives"—that hovers above Earth, poised to rain damnation upon "the white man's evil world."
Echoes of Sun Ra and NOI are audible in the music of George Clinton, who must have had both in mind when he transformed Parliament from a doo-wop group into a mother-ship-worshipping acid-funk congregation in the 1970s. Clinton's mother ship, of course, was likelier to drop megatons of booty and cocaine than warheads, but hedonism wasn't the only goal. In the opening bars of "Mother Ship Connection," Clinton announces, "We have returned to claim the pyramids"—a nod to paleocontact theories, which hypothesize that ancient astronauts shared technological secrets with North Africans. Perceptible in this ripple of the Afronaut impulse is the yearning for and fantastical reclamation of an ennobling African history: A trip to space doubles as a return to roots.
The Afronaut universe, of course, comprises more performers than those mentioned here and extends beyond music, from the hero of Brother From Another Planet to Astronaut Jones, Tracy Morgan's ridiculous SNL creation. Where hip-hop is concerned, though, the first Afronaut to speak of is Afrika Bambaataa. A gang leader turned community activist and DJ, Bambaataa spun Parliament-Funkadelic records alongside reggae, techno, and rock vinyl and wore elaborate African-Samurai-Cherokee-cyborg costumes doubtless inspired by the Arkestra. In the burnt-out South Bronx of the early '80s, Bambaataa's Afronaut mythology—championing Zulu valor and an interstellar utopianism—offered both racial pride and an escapist-hatch out of the bleak, inner-city quotidian.
Ironically, a George Clinton fan named Dr. Dre helped push space to hip-hop's margins for the better part of a decade. In 1988, Dre co-produced Straight Outta Compton, the epochal album by ur-gangsta-rap posse N.W.A, which made the group's stone-faced "reality rap" hip-hop's dominant perspective. Cosmic journeys became fanciful departures from hip-hop's so-called "true" locus, the flesh-and-blood, asphalt-and-concrete street. In the mid-to-late-'90s, bling-era hip-hop supplanted gangsta rap, trading an exaggerated narrative of urban despair for an exaggerated narrative of upward mobility—but not the sort you get from a shuttle blastoff.
Rappers continued to construct Afronaut fantasies, of course. Underground New York MC Kool Keith fashioned himself a star-humping Marquis de Sade; Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott filled music videos with cyberpunk imagery and goofy zero-gravity effects. But Atlanta duo OutKast did more than anyone else to put the Afronaut back on the hip-hop radar. OutKast's 1996 album, ATLiens, came packaged with a comic book in which rappers Big Boi and Andre 3000, armed with holographic lions and purity of spirit, battle an alien warlord named Nosamilli. When OutKast announced that they were "extraterrestrials" in their songs, their purpose was twofold. As Southerners, they'd been excluded from hip-hop's dominant East/West axis, and they sought to turn that outsider status into a weapon. But just as important, these students of Funkadelic and Prince, bored by the conservatism of steely thugs and dollar-eyed hustlers, were arguing for the rightful place in hip-hop of that crucial figure in black postwar pop, the boa-sporting, id-unleashing, out-of-this-world freak.
So, what does space mean to Lil Wayne, the biggest Afronaut in the world right now? When he says he was born on Mars, it's a brag: He means it takes an alien system of thought to conduct his chaotic assault on sound, rhythm, and meaning. But Wayne's Afronautic vision goes beyond this. He redefines what it means to be a gun-toting gangsta, importing the anarchic values of a black spaceman: For him, space seems to signify the excesses of emotion, imagination, and appetite banging around his body and brain, dark matter the gangsta-realist idiom typically excludes. Whereas Jay-Z and 50 Cent boast about focus and composure, Wayne allows himself to sound genuinely unhinged—sobbing, spewing gibberish, breaking into fits of laughter. And whereas many rappers talk about destroying their competition, Wayne is certainly the first to fantasize so extensively about munching on his. * On "Phone Home," he raps, "I just eat them for supper, get in my spaceship, and hover." Any gangsta can level a Glock at his enemies. It takes a Martian to whip out the cutlery.