The Mythology of Sun Ra

Louis Barnes
4 min readJan 20, 2023
This is a nice cover photo for this article

I had it all planned out. Sun Ra is a character that I’ve always wanted to write about. I briefly mentioned him in a couple of my articles, but never delved deep into a character study of him. Originally, I wanted to write a tongue-in-cheek informational article from the POV of a Sun Ra disciple titled “How To Live the Philosophy of Sun Ra in Your Daily Life”. I had it all planned out but, the more research I did on Sun Ra, the more I discovered how convoluted and vague his beliefs were. So, instead of my original approach, I thought this article would be best done in this personal and frustrated way as I attempt to explain The Mythology of Sun Ra [roll credits].

Who Is Sun Ra? — According to the mythology, Sun Ra is a messiah-like figure sent from the deep outer cosmos to help humanity (mainly black people). While his phrases may be cryptic and confusing, his overall message is simple: The answer lies out in the stars. Humanity should focus all of its efforts to live in the endless dark vacuum that is space. Only there is where humanity can reach its full potential and live in paradise.

In a more practical sense, Sun Ra is a bandleader and main piano player of his big band, named his Arkestra. They mainly play avant-garde music, but are heavily influenced in the jazz tradition. Echoes of the blues and soul can be heard in the Arkestra. Ra is also one of the godfathers of the Afrofuturist movement. Afrofuturism is a movement that focuses on the physical, spiritual, technological, basically all the “-al” advancement for black people across the world.

Wait, so is this a cult? While there is a whole bunch of spiritual imagery in Sun Ra’s music, I wouldn’t say it’s a cult. Sure, the fashion sense of the Arkestra is definitely unorthodox, and a lot of famous cults have an obsession with outer space and aliens, but I can assure you that there’s nothing malicious happening in the Arkestra. This is mainly due to the fact that Ra was an artist at the end of the day. The Arkestra (which still exists to this day) is a jazz band. In fact, the main source of energy that Ra explains will take humanity to the stars is music. Music is the main focus for Ra and his Arkestra. In his 1974 movie, Space is the Place, the music that he and his band play power the spaceship that he arrives and leaves in.

“SQUAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD” -Waka Flocka Flame, poet

Ohhhh, it’s a bit, then… — I wouldn’t go that far. Ra seems genuinely invested in the mythology that he has created. This is supplemented by the fact that nobody really took Ra seriously in the time that he was playing. He only had a niche fanbase (I refuse to say cult following because that would contradict everything I said lol). A true entertainer would know when to drop a bit if it isn’t working on the crowd.

Ra wasn’t delusional, either. I think he knew that people were trying to figure out if what he was doing was a performance or if he was being 100% genuine. This sort of gray area of “performance vs belief” was the main source of frustration as I researched for this article. There’s no official Sun Ra canon out there. Maybe you could consider his movie Space is the Place, but that’s more of an art project than it is a statement on the beliefs of Sun Ra. Ra likes to throw out “spacey” words and concepts like omniverse, alter-destiny, working on the opposite side of time, and things like that. Because of this, my mind slowly believed that this whole space thing was a bit. However, he’s stuck with this performance for many decades, all the way up to his death. Not to mention that this supposed bit would have taken a LOT of effort to pull off. That means he must’ve had SOME faith in his mythology.

All great research papers have three points, a thesis (your main point), an antithesis (arguments against your point), and a synthesis (your main point after addressing the arguments). My original thesis while researching this article was that there was this great mythology behind Sun Ra and I wanted to go over it in full detail. The antithesis as I went into researching this article was that the whole space theme was just a schtick that distinguished Ra from the other artists. With these two conflicting ideas in my mind, I came to my synthesis: does it really matter?

Let’s think about what Sun Ra wants. He wants humanity to be the best that we can be, which is achieving space travel. The answers to our questions lie out in the universe. Ra doesn’t want us to focus on him and his origin story, but instead on bettering ourselves. Maybe that’s why he’s kept the mythology on himself as vague as possible, because he’s not the main character. Just listen to the music and better yourself for the sake of humanity. We’re far behind and we need to catch up, because Space is the Place to be.

This is my favorite image of Sun Ra. Such a striking pose and outfit juxtaposed with a mundane environment.

Thanks for reading!