George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic made an indelible mark on both music and science fiction, with their afro-futurist space voyages. But what the funk does it all mean? The Alchemists of Kush author Minister Faust explains, in a new excerpt from the Adventure Rocketship anthology.
The Adventure Rocketship anthology is the first volume of a new series that mixes fiction, interviews and essays. The first book has fiction by Lavie Tidhar, Liz Williams, Tim Maughan, Martin Millar and Nir Yaniv, essays by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, David Quantick, Sam Jordison, NK Jemisin and Jason Heller, and interviews with China Mieville and others. You can pre-order it here, and attend events for the book in London on May 16 or in Bristol on May 18.
But What Does George Clinton’s Mothership Mean?
- Minister Faust -
Starchild! Citizens of the universe! Recording angels!
We have returned to claim the pyramids.
Partying on the Mothership, I am the Mothership connection
Mothership Connection (Starchild),
When this time is up, the Mother Plane comes into the atmosphere to take in fresh air for our Brothers inside, she retakes her position. At the dropping of the bombs… America will burn 390 years and take 610 years to cool off. The Great Mystery Babylon (America) will perish…
Supreme Wisdom Department, Our Mother Plane
Elijah Muhammad, co-founder of the Nation of Islam
George Clinton, as everyone knows, is the singer and composer, the founding Funkitecht, the speaker of Parliament, the jester, the judge of doomed America, the Afrofuturist Neo to Sun Ra’s Morpheus, the prophet of humanity coming together (and coming together), the Star Child, and the revealer of the great vehicle of soular salvation, the Mothership. Just as accurately, you can say he’s the rainbow-dreadlocker who propelled the evolution of hundreds of hip-hop acts while partying eternally in the slap-bass depths of sex, drugs and penisoid spaceship album covers.
What George Clinton is not – and could never, ever pass for – is a bow tie-wearing, bean pie-slinging, Supreme Wisdom-quoting member of the Nation of Islam. Which is contradictory when you consider he’s the same man who has configured a Mother Plane/Mothership connection in his musical mania.
To explain for those who don’t keep up with NOI scripture, it’s prophesised that the Mother Plane will one day destroy the Euro-American Empire in an Afro-Asiatic Ragnafunk. So was Clinton merely mocking the hyperdestructive, apocalyptic starship from Elijah Muhammad’s religion when he came up with the Mothership? Or was he reverse-engineering the vehicle so that humanity – of all colours – could be elevated from the misery and the madness of the Empire and united into One Nation Under A Groove?
Yes, George Clinton’s Mothership was a metaphor, and maybe a parody, and definitely a remix. But it was also a literal thing, a gigantic prop-vehicle descending onto the stage of Parliament Funkadelic concerts so that Clinton could pop out in his alter-ego of the Starchild, a name invoking Arthur C Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s psychedelic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, and its celestially evolved astronaut, Dave Bowman. Clinton’s Starchild emerging from his starship also summoned up peace-messenger Klaatu (rather than galactic executioner Gort), disembarking his own cosmodisc in Edmund North’s and Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and the Christ-like, slender alien (and interstellar orchestra conductor) from Steven Spielberg’s Mothership in 1977’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
What’s unspoken and all-too-often unnoticed in the above is just how completely white a universe those stories projected. The only Africans in 2001 are literal animals; most of the film’s sets gleam as white as the movie’s final scene in the Astro-Hilton. CE3K depicts a 1970s USA that would be a Republican racial utopia, and its hyperevolved aliens (like its own Star-Christ) are actually albinos (even whiter than almost all of Star Trek’s super-intelligent xenomorphs, because in Trek, the darker the aliens, the more primitive and usually the more violent). Klaatu, of course, was as white as everyone else the day that Euro-America stood still (although it’s remotely possible, however unlikely, that inside that robot suit, Gort was actually a brother).
So in the ancient days when hard SF still ruled the genre but the New Wave was crashing upon its shores, why would George Clinton (with bassist Bootsy Collins, horn-men Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, keyboardist Bernie Worrell and vocalist Philippé Wynne), or any other African (or Asian, or Latin-American) give even a demi-damn for a genre that screamed nothing but silence about their mere existence? When even a masterpiece such as Phil Dick’s The Man In The High Castle reduced the absolute, planetary genocide of Africans to a single sentence?
What is the meaning of George Clinton’s Mothership when connected to a literary form that made all Africans into (not in HG Wells’ sense, but in Ralph Ellison’s) invisible men and women?
SF fans – and people who caricature them with the familiar catalogue of clichés – know that SF has strong appeal for the alienated, not the least for its depiction of aliens. And SF wouldn’t be the first venue of the excluded to exclude yet somebody else. But because the very nature of SF is yearning for the unknown (even inside ourselves) and deliverance from the mundane or the world of pain, SF, despite its long history of pure whiteness, has ensnared many of those whom the White Empire attempted to banish to the Phantom (or maybe Spook) Zone.
As science fiction scholar Lisa Yaszek recounts in Afrofuturism, Science Fiction, And The History Of The Future, Afrofuturism is as old as SF itself. Not only was intellectual giant WEB Du Bois creating Afrofuturist fiction in the early 20th century, the subgenre goes back to the 19th century. Key texts include Blake, Or The Huts Of America (1857), by liberationist Martin Delany, in which West Africans in the USA and Cuba mount a triumphant revolution; and Edward A Johnson’s Light Ahead For The Negro (1904), the story of a time-travelling African-American propelled into a future “racially egalitarian socialist America.”
Between 1936 and 1938, conservative journalist George Schuyler wrote a serialised SF novel, Black Empire, that while being a satirical attack on early pan-Africanism (perhaps most of all on Marcus Garvey’s spectacular, two million-strong Universal Negro Improvement Association), it was also damn near the Star Wars of African-American culture, whose members embraced, without the intended irony, Schuyler’s story of a pan-African global revolution led by a super-scientist mastermind, Dr Henry Belsidus.
Nor was Afrofuturism restricted to literature. The brilliant painter Aaron Douglas repeatedly invoked ancient African civilisations while depicting Africans not merely dwelling in but constructing their own futures, as in 1944’s Building More Stately Mansions.many of Douglas’s paintings vibrate with dancing figures who could easily be moving to Scott Joplin, Ellington, Fela, or to P-Funk itself.
Perhaps no Afrofuturist artist is more famous than Sun Ra, the jazz artist in permanent self-delusion (or kayfabe?) whose costumes and presentation fused ancient Egypt with ancient aliens. Sun Ra claimed he himself descended from the “angel race” of Saturn, years before Erich von Däniken published Chariots Of The Gods?
If the ultimate source of all epic fantasy is religion, certainly epic SF owes a great debt to it too. So it should be no surprise to find Afrofuturism at the heart of the Nation of Islam, which like many US-grown religious movements such as Mormonism and Scientology contains a cosmology far more developed (and cherished) than anything in SFF: a fusion of Ancient Egyptian, mystical Islamic, Freemasonic and other esoteric philosophies, producing visions of a technotopian Afroasiatic past destroyed by white villains and a black future ensured by millenarian vengeance. The NOI’s eschatology references the Book of Ezekiel’s wheel-within-a-wheel (often cited by ‘ufologists’ as the one of the earliest attestations of extraterrestrial vehicular visitation). That wheel alternates, in NOI beliefs, between a massive orbital disk (the Mother Ship) and a gigantic bomber (the Mother Plane). The NOI scripture called Supreme Wisdom Department: Our Mother Plane explains the apocalyptic role of the Mother Plane/Ship: specifically, to destroy “America, the Great Mystery Babylon”:
[The Mother Plane’s] position is 40 miles out from the Earth’s sphere… At the dropping of the bombs, the flames will reach 12 miles, in all directions… Allah will even cause the air which we breathe to ignite along with the atmosphere. Every atom will burn in and over America from a height of 12 miles down.
Afrofuturism – in fiction, in art, in music, in religion – offered everything from deliverance and utopianism to apocalyptic vengeance. Since SF is so frequently escapist, why wouldn’t it appeal to people living under the dictatorship of Jim Crow and his mutant sons, whose ancestors had been ripped from their home civilisations to toil in the savagery of a continent-wide gulag and rape-camp? The 19th-century liberationist Harriet Tubman famously observed that she freed a thousand Africans, but could have freed more if they’d understood they were not already free. So the question should never be, “Why Afrofuturism?” so much as “Why not Afrofuturism?”
Enter George Clinton.
The liner notes to the retrospective album Tear The Roof Off: 1974-1980 read in part:
Funk upon a time, in the daze of the Funkapus, the earth was on the One. Funk flowed freely and freedom was free from the need to be free. Even Cro-Nasal Sapiens and the Thumpasorus Peoples lived side by side in P(eace).
But soon there arose bumpnoxious empires led by unfunky dictators. These priests, pimps, and politicians would spank whole nations of unsuspecting peoples – punishing them for their feelings and desires, constipating their notions and pimping their instincts until they were fat, horny and strung-out…
The descendants of the Thumpasorus Peoples knew Funk was its own reward. They tried to remain true to the pure, uncut Funk. But it became impossible in a world wooed by power and greed. So they locked away the secret of Clone Funk with kings and pharaohs deep in the Egyptian pyramids, and fled to outer speace [sic] to party on the Mothership and await the time they could safely return to refunkatize the planet.
Combine liner notes such as those with a series of outlandish, spacey, silly-sexual album covers by artist Pedro Bell (and no, they don’t rival the Afrofuturist art of Douglas or the Dillons, but they delivered the effective dose of fun and funk), the stunning psychedelic guitar work of Eddie Hazel (mute the sound during Dave Bowman’s hyperspace plummet at the climax of 2001 and play the guitar solo in Maggot Brain at full blast), costumes that could make KISS blush and the Starchild emerging from his own UFO, and you have an unforgettable Afrofuturistic spectacle that has influenced artists for generations to come, including more than 440 songs (and counting) energised by P-Funk samples, as itemised by whosampled.com.
The Africentric/Egyptian-focused 1990s hip-hop crew X Clan would never have existed without P-Funk supplying the swagger and the samples at the base of its songs. Public Enemy’s video for Do You Wanna Go Our Way? leaps from the P-Funk mould of Afrofuturist struggle against the Empire (although with more aggression). Kelis’s Flesh Tone and Janelle Monáe’s ArchAndroid descend from P-Funk’s Afrofuturist concept albums.
Reginald Hudlin, producer of Django: Unchained and writer/resurrectionist of Marvel Comics’ Black Panther and BP animated series, told me: “George Clinton is the number one influence on me as an artist. His motto. ‘Nothing is good unless you play with it,’ and the aesthetic that extends from that, shapes my own take on Afrofuturism. He is a genius.”
And as Afrofuturist commentator Greg Tate wrote to me, seating Clinton and his fellow Afronauts inside the same spacecraft: “The cool thing about George, Sun Ra, [and authors Samuel] Delany [and Octavia] Butler, is they were science fiction fans who all decided to put blackfolk and black mythology in the frame. Afrofuturism is of course just the trendy-going name for what they were all just doing to satisfy and explore their own imaginations – beauty of which is you get to listen to Cosmic Slop, Mothership Connection, Clones Of Dr Funkenstein, Motor Booty Affair and make the links to Afrofuturism via [their references to] space operas, Marvel comics, Egyptian mythology, [and] Atlantis.”
But does Clinton really care about any of this Afrofuturism stuff, or has it all just been showjizz? Check out YouTube footage of Clinton interviewing himself on a Martian-looking landscape, and it’s hard to think he wants anyone analysing him too deeply:
George Clinton: I know you’ve heard it a lot of times, but I’m going to ask anyway: what is the question you hate most from journalists?
George Clinton: That question.
George Clinton: Last thing. Fuck’s up with your hair? What’s that shit for? Like, is there some kind of a “I lost my virginity braid?”
George Clinton: Man, fuck you.
So which is it? Parody, homage, sampling, remixing, or just plain riffing? P-Funk’s lexicon includes terms such as funkintelechy (funk + intellect + technology), reminiscent of the NOI term ‘tricknology’. The song Mothership Connection announces: “We have returned to claim the pyramids, partying on the Mothership,” reflecting Pan-Africanism’s larger intellectual project of reclaiming Ancient Egypt as an African civilisation.
Still, as P-Funk scholar Ted Friedman explains, Clinton’s Mothership mission wasn’t NOI radioactive vengeance, but radio-active dance. Parliament’s late 1970s concept albums include the war between the Starchild and his nemesis, Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk. “Starchild’s goal,” writes Friedman, “is never to kill Sir Nose, but to make him dance – to catch The Funk, the way unwilling victims catch Jes Grew in Mumbo Jumbo… Starchild ‘funkatises’ Sir Nose by shooting him with his weapon, the ‘Bop Gun.’”
Indeed, the Mothership looks way too much party to serve The Party, but it wouldn’t be the first time something ultra-Africentric got denatured on the way to market. When Bob Marley sang One Love, he wasn’t anthemising pan-racial harmony, he was singing Garvey’s slogan for African unity and self-determination. Dreadlocks used to be the marker of devotion to Haile Selassie I, the incarnation of God who was soon to destroy the global White Empire, rather than the marker of white hipsterism, marijuana ‘non-addiction’, bad hygiene and total absence of African friends they are today.
Then again (again), how serious does Clinton have to be about the Mothership or anything else for Africentrists to take him Africentrically? So what if P-Funk is 99 per cent style, spectacle, and sex? It’s pop music, goddammit. Did Clinton create a coherent Afrofuturist übernarrative to convey personal and planetary evolution? Fuck no. Did Boston’s UFO album covers emulate HG Wells’ anti-imperialist novel War Of The Worlds? Outside of rock operas, how much pop music ever aims at telling coherent übernarratives? Neither U2’s No Line On The Horizon nor Lady Gaga’s Born This Way is exactly Der Ring Des Nibelungen. Nobody expects them to be, and nobody should demand more of Clinton than the gigantic alms he offered into galactic palms.
So where’s the Mothership now? Not with Clinton, who’s still planet-hopping with his latest P-Funk incarnation, the P-Funk All-Stars. Instead it’s on its final mission, keeping the original model of the USS Enterprise company at the Smithsonian Institution. Is that sad? Clinton’s frequently misquoted slogan, “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” clarifies that no matter how funky the beat, the intellect should be in command. Doesn’t matter that the physical Mothership is mothballed. The real Mothership is in your mind.
Minister Faust is the author of the critically acclaimed The Coyote Kings, Book One: Space-Age Bachelor Pad, and the Kindred Award-winning Shrinking the Heroes. His latest is The Alchemists of Kush, which writers and readers alike have already hailed as superb; novelist Sparkle Hayter calls the book "brilliant." A radio broadcaster since 1989, he hosts Africentric Radio (formerly The Terrordome), for which he's interviewed luminaries such as Tariq Ali, Molefi Kete Asante, Martin Bernal, Noam Chomsky, Chuck D., Austin Clarke, Angela Davis, Karl Evanzz, Tom Fontana, Glen Ford, Nalo Hopkinson, Reginald Hudlin, Ice-T, Janine Jackson, Michael Parenti, Ishmael Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Vandana Shiva, David Simon, Scott Taylor, and many more.