Cosmic Dust and Interstellar Grooves: An Interview with Nona Hendryx
As guest Artistic Director for 'The Cosmic Synthesis of Sun Ra and Afrofuturism' at Harlem Stage, funk rock icon Nona Hendryx brings audiences to other dimensions.
It was a first for the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Labelle's "A Man in a Trench Coat (Voodoo)" bathed the Temple of Dendur in serpentine funk. The song's metallic groove greeted a sold-out crowd, gathered together on a February evening that only arrives once every four years. They awaited the arrival of "Cyboracle", alias: Nona Hendryx.
A magnetic energy suddenly filled the room. COVID-19 hadn't yet halted the shared experience of live music (or any experience, for that matter) in New York. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, the audience collectively turned their gaze towards Hendryx leading a pageant of musicians, dancers, and vocalists along the room's southern wall. "Zoom zoom, up in the air" they chanted, channeling "Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus" by pioneering composer and bandleader Sun Ra.
Liquid light projections merged and flowed on a wall behind Hendryx. Attired like a silver-plumed space empress in her Cyboracle finery, Hendryx stood opposite the Temple of Dendur. Built around 15 B.C. during the reign of Roman emperor Augustus in Egypt, the Temple of Dendur honors the Egyptian fertility goddess Isis. It's the only ancient Egyptian temple in the U.S. An invisible thread wove the air between Hendryx and the Temple's entrance, intertwining the past, present, and future.
"Welcome to the Afrofutr-califragilistic evening," Hendryx purred through a visor. Musical Director and composer/multi-instrumentalist Craig Harris, who first played in Sun Ra's Arkestra during the summer of 1976 — the same year Labelle released "A Man in a Trench Coat" — presided alongside Hendryx, while Assistant Musical Director Etienne Stadwijk anchored the band, stage left. Led by choreographer Francesca Harper, dancers moved like regal sorcerers throughout the audience.
Billed as "Nona Hendryx and Disciples of Sun Ra in the Temple", the evening proceeded with the band's interpretation of Sun Ra compositions, including "The Sky Is a Sea of Darkness When There Is No Sun", "Enlightenment", "Why Go to the Moon", "Space is the Place", spoken word pieces by Carl Hancock Rux, whose rich and resonant voice narrated several passages, plus original music by Harris, and songs that Hendryx wrote with former Tangerine Dream member Paul Haslinger. "We are dust, and where we come from, we return," Hendryx said, echoing a motif that recurred throughout different incantations and musical conversations between her co-pilots onstage.
Sun Ra is the antecedent for everything the audience saw and heard that evening. He is also the core of Harlem Stage's citywide initiative, The Cosmic Synthesis of Sun Ra and Afrofuturism. Since September 2019, Hendryx has curated several programs for the series, including Order Out of Chaos, which screened Afrofuturistic-themed films, State of Grace, an homage to Grace Jones that was staged in tandem with Theaster Gates' "Black Artists Retreat" at the Park Avenue Armory, and the interdisciplinary Sisters, Sounds, and Science of Afrofuturism featuring Hendryx, Black Quantum Futurism, and Greg Tate.
Hendryx is currently working with Harlem Stage in developing a digital literary program series focused on Afrofuturism, which she defines as "Afro-present and Afro-past. It is not only fiction, it is not only science. It is a possible future created in the mind, projected and seen through the lens of the African diaspora." Additionally, the Nocturnal Nubian Ball, originally conceived as a weekend of live events with members of Sun Ra's Arkestra, might be reshaped into a virtual concept.
Harlem Stage is just one of several creative partnerships Hendryx has forged in 2020. She composed new music for the musical Blue, which was slated to run at the Apollo Theater from April through August but is currently postponed due to COVID-19. She's also developing a technological musical, Dream Machine, for Berklee College of Music, where she's served as "Ambassador for Artistry in Education" since 2011. Hendryx describes the prototype for the musical (dubbed Dream Machine, Version One) as a "Mixed Reality Game and Augmented Online Performance" that features London-based artist Chagall van den Berg.
Technology, science fiction, and outer space have been constant guide posts in Hendryx's career. Self-penned songs like "Black Holes in the Sky" and "Phoenix (The Amazing Flight of a Lone Star)", written at the peak of her success with Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash in Labelle during the mid-'70s, reflected a sensibility that would shape notions of Afrofuturism decades later. In her interview with PopMatters, conducted at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse two days after her Met performance, Hendryx discusses why Sun Ra is a critical figure in Afrofuturism and why trailblazing artists like Betty Davis, Bernie Worrell, and Grace Jones remain singular forces in music.
There was such an impressive team behind "Disciples of Sun Ra" at the Met, from Craig Harris' Musical Direction to Francesca Harper's choreography and company of dancers, not to mention Virgil Ortiz's costumes and head sets, plus spoken word pieces by Carl Hancock Rux. Those key players each represented different mediums and modes of creativity. How did you achieve a unified vision among your collaborators?
A lot of phone calls and a lot of texts and a lot of e-mails! That's how. [laughs] We started with enough time but, as things go, you end up never having enough time! We started back in August or even before that, just really beginning to discuss it. Certain elements were already in place in terms of knowing each other, knowing each other's limitations, and also expectations and abilities. That was a big help.
I was in Santa Fe doing Virgil's pop-up art gallery in August, so we talked about things then. We worked together in Washington for the opening of "The REACH!" at the Kennedy Center. We were working in pods as we were going along. Francesca and I worked together on her project and on Carrie Mae Weems' project. In between, we were discussing things that we were planning to happen.
I've known Craig over the years. I've worked with him before with Carrie Mae on Grace Notes. We also did one of the first Afrofuturism projects in the series here [at Harlem Stage]. I had ideas and discussed things. It was that kind of rolling out of the different people that I've worked with. Carl and I wrote the piece about "Cosmic Dust" and then there were a couple of Sun Ra pieces. Carl wrote the other pieces. The "Invocation" was his. He's just such a great writer and thinker. He has an amazing voice.
Throughout your career, you've performed in several awe-inspiring venues. What did it mean for you to perform in the Temple of Dendur at the Met?
It's one of the most amazing stages that you could find to perform on. It's spectacular. We had to meet with the curator of the Temple to decide if we could actually be in it. When I first walked in to look at the space and to talk about how you can be in that space, I hadn't been there in years. It's an amazing space. There's no other performance space like that in New York. You have to go to other parts of the world to be able to be in that kind of space — the Acropolis or maybe if you could get to perform in front of the Sphinx of Giza, or maybe at the Olympics when they do these huge events. There's something about the quality of the air in that room. It's magical.
One of the songs you performed at the Met was your own song "Higher Purpose". You originally recorded that with Paul Haslinger ...
... not only "Higher Purpose" but "Beginning to End" and "Supreme Love". All three of those were written with Paul Haslinger. They were written primarily, to begin with, for Sleeper Cell, the television show. Paul and I had been collaborating since my last album on Private Music, which never came out. I nearly finished it! I thought those songs worked in relationship to Craig's music ("Ceddo", which is about this creature, and another one called "Life") and Sun Ra, the whole idea of a more cinematic musical experience in the Temple of Dendur. It's such a large — and I mean large not so much in size because it is large in size — but it's such a large, expansive space to be in, in terms of meaning, the history. The connection with Sleeper Cell and the Middle East, the whole issue of immigrants, terrorism, and the political/social relevance, I thought it was important to bring those sounds, those ideas, and the healing aspect of the music together with Sun Ra's enlightenment.
We opened with "The Sky is a Sea of Darkness" and then you have "Beginning to End". Further down you have "Enlightenment" and then you have "Higher Purpose". Then you have "Supreme Love" and then back into space, "Space is the Place". Those were my thoughts in putting the music together. We worked that way, kind of telling a story but in a loosely hung frame. There's an arc.
Nona Hendryx at Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Photo by Sekou Luke Studio.
At what point in your own evolution as an artist did Sun Ra make an impact?
Very early on. I must have been in my twenties. In Philadelphia, of course, there was so much music going on. Sun Ra was there and had the house and all of the musicians. Some of the musicians I knew because they not only played with Sun Ra, they played with other people. There were a lot of recording sessions. Philly International was beginning to happen.
I heard Sun Ra and it was like nothing I'd heard before. I didn't get it. I really did not get it! It was sort of this aberration that happened and I just kept moving because I didn't understand it. I was in a girl group and I'd do ooh's and ahh's, from singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" [pauses for emphasis] to Sun Ra, or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" [another pause] to Sun Ra. It was very much an outer space experience, but it stayed with me.
It stayed with me the same way as the first time I saw Captain Beefheart. Same kind of experience the first time I heard John Cage or Suzanne Ciani. They were like this other side of my brain that was registering this information. That side of my brain was looking at Rauschenberg as a painter, or Dalí or Magritte, much more the surrealists. There was a part of me that was strongly identifying with that but I was in this world of girl group R&B, touring with James Brown and Otis Redding and people like that, so it didn't really come together until the transition from Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles to Labelle.
There's a quote from Sun Ra that I'd like to share with you. "Those of the reality have been slaves of a bad truth, so there's nothing left now but the myth. The myth is neither bad nor good. Its potentials are unlimited." How does that reflect the tenets of Afrofuturism?
I think that what it's saying is that for people, and specifically for people of African descent, "You've been sold a myth". You've been sold a way of being that doesn't really include you. You're living this myth that this particular expression of life is the ultimate expression of life and that you should conform to this expression.
One thing that I actually said at the end of the evening [at the Met] was that we all come out of Africa, as far as we know today, that life began there, so when we look backwards, you see the beginning and you can then look forward into the future and understand that what you're being told and what you're being sold is not the truth, or the full truth. That's how it, for me, relates to Afrofuturism. If you really really look, if you're really really aware, if you're really conscious, if you're really woke, you do not buy the myth of, "This is who you are, this is all you are, so don't reach further. Just take what's here, what you're being told."
Sun Ra said that he was from Saturn. He stated that "Planet Earth is the sound of guns, anger, and frustration." In what way did his work reflect that notion?
The music. There are these beautiful moments, especially his solo piano work. He plays these melodic things that are very beautiful and tender and then he just throws all of the frustration and anger and discord into the music because that is the human experience. We come from the stars. This is science. Some people don't believe in science. I do. As far as we know, there was a Big Bang and we are now existing as a result of that. Yes, Sun Ra identified himself from Saturn and his time here on this planet Earth was colored by this violence. He did represent that within the music, but he also did represent the beauty that is here. That's what I hear in his music.
Nona Hendryx at Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Photo by Sekou Luke Studio.
Amiri Baraka once said that part of Sun Ra's legacy is about the broadening of consciousness. How did Sun Ra expand your own consciousness?
I have to think about that. Music is not what I intended to do with my life as a vocation, so my discovery of music is ongoing. When you stumble across, as I did, someone like Sun Ra, and his expression of himself and his music, for me it's like a door is opened and there's nothing on the other side. I have to go forward. It can be exciting and frightening, but I cannot go backward. Once you hear Sun Ra, you cannot not hear Sun Ra. You cannot say, "I did not hear that. I wasn't aware."
Same thing with Miles Davis. I have spent days listening to Bitches Brew (1970) because it's just that dense that you have to. Once you hear things of that magnitude, or that individual in existence, if you hear it and you really hear it, you want to identify with it, identify it, and if you just happen not to be able to hear it, then maybe you'll catch it later.
Marshall Allen joined Sun Ra's Arkestra in 1958 and is still directing the Arkestra all these years later. In getting to know the band members over the years, what have you learned about Sun Ra through their eyes that might counter any preconceptions that the industry or audiences, or even other musicians, have about Sun Ra?
If you hear the music, and you're so affected by it, then it becomes a part of your life, like food you eat. Having recently been a part of watching and listening to the Arkestra, Sun Ra's spirit is still moving the music.
I was so affected awhile ago seeing someone like Lena Horne when she was 75 or 76 years old. I was so inspired by her performance. I was probably in my 50s. I thought, This is so amazing ... and that's Lena Horne. That's not Sun Ra. It's a whole other thing. Then to see Marshall Allen at his age — I think he was 92 or 93 when I saw him not that long ago — the music is like his skin. There's no separation. It is his breath. He had a stack of sheet music and I think it was just really as a reminder because he wasn't looking at it. He was just playing. That's how the Arkestra was. It is a language. That's what I see as Sun Ra's music and the musicians who continue to play it — that they are speaking a language.
I'd like to discuss one of your contemporaries who I know you were very close to, Bernie Worrell. Bill Laswell once said that Bernie could hear the wind and tell you what key the wind is in. In working with Bernie over the years, as you did, where do you think Bernie channeled his sounds from?
[thoughtful] Bernie ... It's like trying to identify why somebody walks the way they walk. Why Bernie could hear the way he could hear was what he brought with him when he was born. We opened with a piece [at the Met] from Bernie's album that I worked on called "How Does the Brain Wave?" It starts with this kind of Bootsy-ish vocal: "It is the year 3000 ..." It's an amazing Bernie moment and I wanted to have that there.
I see people as individual. They're singular. I can't lump Bernie in with anybody else. If you wanted what Bernie did, you called Bernie, in the same way as Ronny Drayton. For me, there was nobody else who made the sounds that Ronny Drayton made. People think of P-Funk, but Bernie was a classically trained musician and he eventually transferred that to solo performances on synthesizers playing Beethoven. That's why he could hear the wind and tell you what key that particular wind was blowing in.
In an interview with Alondra Nelson at the Kennedy Center, you said that one of the artists who inspired you early on was Betty Davis. You told a story about the impression she made when you first saw her in San Francisco. You said, "That is the Barbarella I want to be." What was it about her performance that reached in and took hold of you?
There was this club and the stage that Betty was on was up above and we were sitting down, so you're looking up. The band is playing this really funky groove, first of all. Funk rock before it was even termed "funk rock". Out she comes, amazingly dressed with a huge sort of Angela Davis afro, and it was probably before Angela Davis' afro. [laughs] She has on very little. It has a lot of shine like a bustier type of thing, tights, and high heel boots. She's screaming into the microphone. That, for me, was the Barbarella of my dreams — just stunning — and from there just reached in and ripped your heart out of your chest with her command of the stage. "This is what I do. This is my stage. I'm in charge. They're following me."
I had not seen that, even with Tina Turner because at that time it was still like the "Ike show". The Ikettes were who they were, and they were amazing, and Tina was on fire, but not the front person leading this group of men into space.
Over a ten-year period, you, Patti LaBelle, and Sarah Dash went from Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles on the chitlin' circuit to Labelle in outer space. For you, it was more than just wearing fabulous costumes, you were writing and singing songs like "Space Children" and "Black Holes in the Sky", really reflecting an orientation towards another dimension. What sort of release did writing those songs give you as a songwriter?
I think it allowed me to bring into that time things that had been a part of my consciousness from when I was four years old. It was always kind of being woven through my life, being interested in science and technology or electronics. I think it allowed me to bring those interests into a musical expression, in that Labelle was not yet another girl group, that we thought beyond "My man has left me. My man is coming back. I love you. I hate you. I'm going to break up with you." It was to get beyond that.
Things had changed. We'd gone to the moon. We had the British Invasion. We had the west coast, Haight-Ashbury, sex drugs and rock 'n' roll, Flower Power, and taking all kinds of stuff to do inner exploration. All of that stuff had happened, or was happening, so all of that was a part of my life and thinking.
Dr. Francesca T. Royster is a Professor of English at DePaul University. She wrote an essay called "Labelle: Funk, Feminism, and the Politics of Flight and Fight" (2013). In the essay, she describes Labelle's album cover for Chameleon (1976). She writes, "It shows the three with their backs to us, most of the album taken up by blue sky. They are visionaries; they have seen what we might also see in the future. To further this effect, Nona wears a funky silver turban–cum–space helmet, an intergalactic Eartha Kitt. On the back of the album, we see the three women from the front, arm in arm, open smiles, laughing." Was there any particular idea that you were trying to convey on that cover?
Chameleon was much more about that we had changed and we were changing, and that we were always changing, and that we were always moving forward. We're moving forward so that's why you were seeing the back of us as the front ... and that we do have a sense of humor about the fact that we play with things in that way. The titles on this particular album like "A Man in a Trenchcoat" ... it's serious but there's also this humor. Between the three of us we had a fairly sick sense of humor ...
Nona Hendryx at Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Photo by Sekou Luke Studio.
... "Mad as a hatter" [from "A Man in a Trenchcoat"] ...
Mad as a hatter, exactly. In the same way as Sun Ra's Arkestra speaking a language in the music, the three of us had been together so long that there is a language and a shorthand that we still have to this day. If you put us in a room together, we can look at each other's eyes and we know what the other person is saying or thinking without them saying or responding to something. That's what you're seeing here [points to cover]. We're going forward. What else is on this album?
"Going Down Makes Me Shiver"...
Oh, right! That was very inspired by Betty Davis and women like Betty Davis. Josephine Baker. Any of the very strong women who were like, "This is it. This is me. Either you can deal with it or ... just don't."
And then there's "Who's Watching the Watcher" ...
Vernon Reid keeps telling me, you have to re-do that song! You have to put it out now!
"Gypsy Moths" is also on Chameleon. I've often wondered, was that song addressing Labelle fans?
It was the fans and us. We were saying that they were drawn to us and we were drawn to them — this flame — and we were like gypsies. We traveled and our fans wanted to follow us ... and you know what happens when you get too close to the flame as a moth, right?
I know you have some other ideas percolating for the Afrofuturism series, but I'd love to ask you about Grace Jones since you helped stage the tribute to her at the Park Avenue Armory last October. In what way does her career trajectory represent an Afrofuturistic sensibility?
[laughs] Grace Jones ... I don't think you can talk about Afrofuturism without talking about Grace Jones. She is one of the great artists who is singular. There is only one. I don't think she was thinking "I'm doing Afrofuturism". This was just her aesthetic and how she applied it not only in terms of music and the people that she worked with, and how she was able to hear the work she did with Trevor Horn on Slave to the Rhythm (1985) and that music, but it has to do with where she came from, the influences there. Her family, the myth of religion, and the myth of who her people were in the Caribbean and where they came from, being brought there in the slave-trading times.
There's history in how an individual evolves to become singular. How I identify Grace Jones with Afrofuturism is that she is really a core African but she also has an aesthetic about where to be and where she's going and what is coming, whether it's music, whether it's fashion, whether it's beauty ... and the idea of "What is beautiful?" For a lot of people who came to the Armory tribute in celebration of her, a lot of women said, "I didn't know that I could have my hair like that until I saw Grace Jones. I didn't see myself as beautiful." That speaks to Afrofuturism because it implies that you are setting a model for what comes after you.
Christian John Wikane and Nona Hendryx at Harlem Stage Gatehouse, 2 March 2020. Photo by Sekou Luke Studio.
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