Women Who Fly: Nona Hendryx and Afrofuturist Histories
A Sun Ra tribute concert by a member of the pathbreaking pop group Labelle leads to reflections on how Black women artists and scientists have often been at the vanguard of their disciplines—though most are still awaiting due recognition.
April 6, 2021
Apr 6, 2021
15 Min read time
Labelle's Sun Ra tribute concert shows how Black women artists and scientists have often been at the vanguard of their disciplines—though most are still awaiting due recognition.
On the last night of Black History Month, February 29, 2020, I attended a concert held in the Temple of Dendur, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—the last such event that I would attend, it turned out, for a very long time. Those who have visited the room will know that it resembles a massive display case: a pavilion-like wall of glass exposes the temple to the sky, and a reflecting pool frames it below. On this night, the temple glowed lavender in the dark behind 600 folding chairs that had been set up to face a makeshift stage. A DJ played songs like Parliament’s “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” while four dancers roamed the aisles, voguing and tilting into deep penchés. One dancer, a very tall person with a beard, wore a visored helmet, silver wings, and a skirt made out of a tarp. Before long, a line of people wearing similar costumes and carrying instruments processed up to the stage and started to play—saxophone, synthesizers, arca, drums, bass. A poet, Carl Hancock Rux, recited lyrics about the future. A singer, Keyontia Hawkins, performed incantatory chants.
Afrofuturism, despite its status as a perennial cutting-edge pop culture trend, has a history and a trajectory. It has a gender. And it has ancestors who are still with us.
It was the day before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in New York, and several days before the Met would close its doors altogether. But the news was already bad enough that stores were running low on hand soap and it was hard to sit comfortably in a crowd. In this context, the performance felt ominous. Some future was being invoked, and another one receding, but the enigma and the darkness intensified what we always surmise, but seldom admit: there is no telling where we are heading.
Lightly but firmly holding all this sound, dance, and feeling together was Nona Hendryx, the visionary singer best known for her work, in the 1970s, with the women’s group Labelle—itself remembered for performing in silver space suits, recording the hit song “Lady Marmalade,” and launching the solo career of Patti LaBelle. Hendryx, who is now seventy-six, took a more experimental route than Patti, exploring new genres, technologies, and collaborations with groups such as the Talking Heads and the Black Rock Coalition. Her sheer stamina for sonic innovation across time is matched by very few American artists—George Clinton and Prince, perhaps, as well as the icon to whom her show at the Met was dedicated, Sun Ra.
Ra, who was born in 1914, was a jazz musician, bandleader, and poet who saw ancient Egyptian advances in the arts and sciences as ancestral African inheritances that offered keys to a mythic future. The music he performed with his band, the Arkestra, which he led from the 1950s through the 1990s, was designed to transport listeners to another world. Ra’s commitment to myth and space travel—“The sound becomes like a spaceship and lift ’em on out there,” he said of his music—has made him a key figure of Afrofuturism. The concept is now used to broadly encompass Black engagements with sci-fi and fantasy, from the 2018 film Black Panther to the music of artists whose work, in addition to Ra’s, Hendryx was exploring through a year-long residency at Harlem Stage: in the fall of 2019, she staged a tribute to Grace Jones at The Armory, and she had plans to honor George Clinton which were cancelled due to the pandemic. But Hendryx is herself an exemplar of the concept, an artist who embodied Afrofuturist tenets decades before scholars gave them a name.
In the performance some future was being invoked, and another one receding, but the enigma and the darkness intensified what we always surmise, but seldom admit: there is no telling where we are heading.
At the Met, she wore a costume that recalled Sun Ra’s aesthetic, as well as mid-1970s Labelle: black helmet, silver headdress, bodysuit, and thigh-high boots. In an alto voice burnished but not weakened by time, she sang esoteric lyrics: “The sky is a sea of darkness when there is no sun to light the way.” She was serious, but not overly earnest. “Welcome to the Afrofuturecalifragilistic evening,” she said as she greeted the audience. “We are here to honor Sun Ra. More honoring will happen now.” Although the museum setting, sacred though it was, threatened to frame Sun Ra as a relic—an artist embraced by those who were lucky enough to have been there, but inaccessible to everyone else—the event nonetheless served as a reminder that there was a there to have witnessed, or missed. Afrofuturism, that is, despite its status as a perennial cutting-edge pop culture trend, has a history and a trajectory. It has a gender. And it has ancestors who come not only from ancient Egypt but from places as local as New Jersey, who are still with us.
• • •
These days, the word Afrofuturism serves as a catchall for work across artistic and diasporic spectrums—the fiction of Samuel R. Delany and N.K. Jemisin, the visual art of Wangechi Mutu, the music of Janelle Monáe, the films of John Akomfrah. But the term, which was coined by scholar Mark Dery in 1994, arose in response to quite specific conversations about the near future. Discussions of cyberculture in the nineties often marginalized people of color and treated race as a liability. Whether theorists celebrated cyberspace as an “escape” from racial identity or worried that race-based hierarchies would only deepen due to the “digital divide” (unequal distribution of access and skills), both camps, scholar Alondra Nelson pointed out in 2002, shared “the assumption that race . . . in the twenty-first century is either negligible or evidence of negligence.” Afrofuturism was, in Nelson’s terms, an alternative “critical perspective” that acknowledged, without necessarily lamenting, the difference that race could make—in cyberspace, and in the history of science and technology generally.
Afrofuturism acknowledged, without necessarily lamenting, the difference that race could make—in cyberspace, and in the history of science and technology generally.
That critical lens helped scholars to expose and reframe the work of Black inventors—to see a figure such as Madame C. J. Walker, for instance, not only as a haircare guru but as a chemist. The Afrofuturist paradigm also revealed how Black speculative fiction challenged white sci-fi and fantasy worlds in which Black characters were absent, demonized, or among the first to die. And it showed how Black life under modernity had been “sci-fi” from the beginning. If, as scholar Tricia Rose argued, chattel slavery had made Black people the first robots—human figures forced to serve other humans—it had also made Black life in the United States surreal and fantastic. Slave narratives bear this out. What could be more sci-fi, writer Greg Tate recently asked me, than an enslaved man, Henry “Box” Brown, literally mailing himself to freedom?
Nearly twenty years after Nelson’s landmark assessment, Afrofuturism has become not only an analytical framework but a cultural current with powerful emotional reach. It gives self-described Black nerds a sense of community, and provides others with a non-fatalistic vision of Black identity—one “rooted in the past,” Nelson writes, “but not weighed down by it.” Literary historian Britt Rusert recently told me, “Afrofuturism, today, has come to be increasingly inflected by the sentiments of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ‘radical’ idea that Black people deserve to exist and thrive in the future.”
Still, discussions of Afrofuturism often privilege male figures. Even those who recognize Black women’s presence in the tradition tend to downplay their leadership of it. (A recent article by Jonita Davis bucks this trend, as does a chapter in Ytasha L. Womack’s 2013 book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.) Female Afrofuturists are generally framed as exceptions to male rule (June Tyson’s role as a vocalist with Sun Ra’s all-male Arkestra) or as accessories to male power (the Brides of Funkenstein who performed with Funkadelic). But Black women have not only worn the space-age costumes, they have designed them; have not only sung the songs but produced them. Put metaphorically: they have been riding the Mothership, but they have also been manning it. Hendryx’s career embodies this principle. To make this point is to write her into a Black male–dominated narrative of Afrofuturist innovation just as insistently as scholars such as Maureen Mahon and Sonnet Retman have written her into (or into productive tension with) a rock genealogy presumed to be the domain of white men. Who better to ask about her early and ongoing work with Afrofuturism, I figured, than Hendryx herself?
• • •
The day after her Sun Ra tribute, I met with her at the Redeye Grill in midtown Manhattan. Looking tired yet stylish in a tailored jacket and scarf, she explained that her first love was not music but science. Growing up in Trenton, New Jersey, in the 1940s and ’50s, she was obsessed with astronomy, space travel, and what was then called not “technology” but “electronics.” She watched her brother fix cars, and sat mesmerized as cartoon space ships floated across her TV screen. “Music was not the object of my desire,” she said. “It was not anywhere in the realm of my thinking.” But her friend Sarah Dash invited her to join a singing group, and before long, the group, the Bluebells—Dash, Hendryx, Cindy Birdsong, and Patricia Holt (later Patti LaBelle)—had a manager and a Top 10 hit.
Afrofuturism has become not only an analytical framework but a cultural current with powerful emotional reach. Still, discussions of Afrofuturism often privilege male figures.
Even as Hendryx’s career in music took off, she continued to dream of the future and outer space. While on tour, she read Superman comics and watched late-night cult movies like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). She loved singing with the women in Labelle, who were like her sisters. But what sustained her life in music was the art and science of recording. She wrote poems, which became songs, and learned how to use technology to translate her musical ideas into sound. “That’s when I thought—oh, this is amazing.” She studied every aspect of the process, from the synthesizers and sequencers to “the oxidation of tape, and how air is compressed—how you get the sound of my voice onto tape.”
These skills and interests were not expected of women in the industry. “You were told to look pretty and sing,” Hendryx said. “It was a man’s world. The business was run by men.” There were some women who ran labels and played instruments, but the rules of engagement were limited: as a woman, “you could write songs, you could sing the songs, you could front the songs, but it was really—it was Phil Spector, it was Bob Crewe, it was the guys who made the music. They had the labels, they were the people in charge. The fashion, even the makeup, was male-dominated. Women were secretaries.”
But the late sixties—an era that sent astronauts to the moon and everyday people to Vietnam—was a catalytic moment for tech-minded artists with dreams of better lives and other worlds. At a certain point, Hendryx explained, the zeitgeist seemed to be on her side. The British Invasion, “the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll–flower power mixture,” and the innovations of producers like John Cage and Suzanne Ciani forced a reckoning: “Either as an artist you were willing to change, or you were going to become a sort of caricature of what you were in the sixties—you know, a girl group still wearing gowns, still wearing wigs and gloves and singing.” Labelle connected with artists in Europe and on the West Coast, and drew inspiration from women like Grace Slick, Chaka Khan, and Betty Davis (the latter was a kindred spirit, not only because of her “huge Afro and African Space aesthetic,” but because she led her own band). So began the group’s voyage into glam rock iconicity.
Larry LeGaspi, a Puerto Rican designer and Labelle groupie, had a shop in the West Village called Moonstone that “was a moonscape,” Hendryx recalled, filled with black and silver “moon rocks and things we imagine as the moon.” LeGaspi started to make space-themed costumes for Labelle (taking over the role from Hendryx herself). Meanwhile, Hendryx wrote songs about the future: “Cosmic Dancer,” “Space Children,” “A Man in a Trench Coat (Voodoo).” Before long, “Lady Marmalade” topped both R&B and pop charts, and Labelle became the first Black female group to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. Their visual and sonic evolution culminated in 1975 with their legendary “wear something silver” concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. People came as “nuns dressed in silver, horses and carriages, and Salvador Dalí. Just the really insane people of New York came to the Met,” Hendryx said. “That was the real crux of the Afrofuturism movement.”
Afrofuturism has reemerged, having picked up a name and new meanings. But Hendryx resists the idea of a renaissance in favor of continuity. Afrofuturism has “always been there,” she said.
Now, forty-some years later, Afrofuturism has reemerged, having picked up a name and new meanings. But Hendryx resists the idea of a renaissance in favor of continuity. Afrofuturism has “always been there,” she said. “There’s a whole group of speculative fiction nerd people, of which I count myself one,” who connect online and eventually collaborate—“you sort of come out of your Afrofuturism closet at some point and go ‘Ah, yes, I am just a nerd as well! I may look like this,’” she said, gesturing at her glamorous self, “‘but this is what I am.’”
For the past decade, she has turned a great deal of her collaborative energy toward education. In the Berklee College of Music’s Electronic Production and Design Department, she nurtures students’ (especially young women’s) interest in sound recording. And she has founded a high school mentoring program, SistersMATR (Math, Art, Technology, and Robotics), to encourage girls of color in STEM fields. Insofar as her pedagogical and creative roles intersect, the stage itself is a laboratory for her. Realizing this, I came to see that the point of the Sun Ra show had not been to christen the audience with Sun Ra’s cosmic vibrations, but to demonstrate a historical principle: that Black women have long been authors and architects of science and myth. Both online and in real life, they have built the kinds of networks of which cyberspace optimists dreamed—but they have done so while cherishing the identities that those enthusiasts denied.
Toward the end of our conversation, Hendryx waxed oracular on networks, quantum theory, and the interpenetration of all things. The subject of COVID-19 came up, as was inevitable: New York’s first case would be breaking news mere hours after our lunch date. “The scientists that are looking at the virus now,” Hendryx said, “they know there is no separation between us and it. And it is far more powerful than we are. . . . And it is constantly mutating as it’s evolving. We just evolve so much slower because we are a larger virus than it is.” She wasn’t afraid, she said, because “there’s no such thing as the future.”
I came to see that the point of the Sun Ra show was to demonstrate a historical principle: that Black women have long been authors and architects of science and myth.
“There’s no such thing as the future,” I repeated dumbly, a writer whose entire subject seemed to be on the verge of unraveling. “No,” she said. “There is always now. I can’t be anywhere else but now. Which is fantastic, because it’s everything. And whatever the next second is, that is that. And whatever the last second is, is really of no consequence. So there’s nothing to be afraid of, because, I can say that that was that, and I can surmise that that’s going be that. But what I do know is this moment.”
To extend this theory to Hendryx’s music is to realize that its purpose is less to launch us into imagined elsewheres than to embed us more deeply into the exclusively knowable now. Nonetheless, her musical tributes, to figures like Sun Ra and Grace Jones, also maintain the importance of history. Quantum theory might challenge conventional notions of time, but history, the way the past gets told, remains as important as ever. “I didn’t learn about Black history,” Hendryx noted on a livestream panel held in October in tribute to Little Richard. “When you don’t learn about your history . . . you don’t push that history forward.” History teaches us, for one, that Black women artists, thinkers, and activists have long been perfecting techniques for propelling themselves and others beyond an impossible present. What else do you call the grassroots activism Stacey Abrams performed to flip the state of Georgia from red to blue in the 2020 presidential and Senate elections? This is what it is to be told by some that the future is not for you—and to go about making one anyway, be it fantastic or blessedly mundane.
“Now we’re finding out about all these ‘hidden figures’,” Hendryx told me. “Katherine Johnson, who just died—she was one of my heroes, who I knew about, but nobody else knew about these women.” It matters when Hollywood represents such women in films such as Hidden Figures (2016), and when the culture at large grants them, however belatedly, recognition and respect. It might matter especially to Black women themselves, who still need to find each other, and who have sometimes been the only ones pushing each other into their own eccentric futures. Hendryx spoke about African American astronaut Mae Jemison, an idol of hers who has since become a friend. “She did what I wanted to do,” Hendryx said. “And I met her, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, you fulfilled my dream.’ And she said, ‘Well, the song I listened to as I prepared for my travel into space was your song, “Women Who Fly.” That was my inspiration.’”
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April 06, 2021
15 Min read time