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.