Lil Wayne and the Afronaut Invasion
Why have so many black musicians been obsessed with outer space?
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.
Correction, June 23, 2008: The article originally stated that Lil Wayne was the first hip-hop artist to fantasize about munching on his competition. In fact, other rappers have contemplated consuming their rivals. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Photograph of Lil Wayne by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images.