Meshell Ndegeocello on the Sonics of Sun Ra and the Gospel of James Baldwin

Dean Budnick on July 1, 2024
Meshell Ndegeocello on the Sonics of Sun Ra and the Gospel of James Baldwin

photo: Charlie Gross


“You don’t want to cover Sun Ra. You want to continuously try to live and grow from his melodic information into some improvisational space of your own imagination,” Meshell Ndegeocello says of the spirit that informed her new album, Red Hot + Ra: Magic City.

The record, which is part of the Red Hot series celebrating the music of Sun Ra, also features the then-99-year-old Arkestra leader Marshall Allen, along with Pink Siifu, Immanuel Wilkins, Darius Jones, Justin Hicks, Deantoni Parks, Hanna Benn, Rashaan Carter, Kojo Roney and many others.

Ndegeocello adds, “I wanted to do something different with Sun Ra and respect the fact that the man worked his whole life to play his own compositions. He went around trying to get arrangement jobs and spent a life reading and in thought. He wanted to change the philosophy of the world and find something different through sonics and tone. So with this recording, I wanted to apply that reasoning. That’s why it has some original compositions that use his lyrics or poems. I wanted to take the arrangements and sort of expand upon them out of respect for him.”

In anticipation of the project, she read John Szwed’s acclaimed biography Space Is the Place, which she describes as “life-changing.” Ndegeocello indicates that Sun Ra’s musical ethos influenced her previous album, 2023’s The Omnichord Real Book—her Blue Note debut, which received a Grammy for Best Alternative Jazz Album. Ndegeocello’s second release for the label, No More Water: The Gospel of James Baldwin, will follow in August, helping to mark Baldwin’s centennial. The record was sparked by the multimedia piece Ndegeocello created for Harlem Stage in 2016.

She notes, “Sadly, I didn’t get his work until much later in life. Imagine if I had gotten this as a child. That’s what we work on now, especially Paul Thompson, who’s featured on the record. We try to have this taught in high school, to give some idea of the systematic racism that has been imposed on people of color since the beginning of this country. He’s very prophetic in the sense that we’re at a breaking point, and I think much like mental illness in the individual, if you build your house on a foundation of sand, it’s bound to fall apart. I think that’s what’s happening in America. The delusion and the illusions are falling to the wayside. I’m just hoping we create something much better.”

Sun Ra’s personal narrative has had a profound impact on you. How important do you think it is for someone to be aware of that backstory in order to connect with the music?

I think his origin story very much affects the music. There’s that period of time when he’s in our reality and then he goes through the portal to explore some other thoughts. Perhaps that happened during the time he was incarcerated for draft-dodging. Who knows, is it so-called mental illness or astral travel?

Also, part of him wanting to be within the music 24 hours, some would see that as selfish, but I imagine the synergy created between all the bodies living together, eating together, thinking together and reading together really must affect how they play together.

But everything is just a bridge. I hope the album makes people go check out the original compositions. This Sun Ra album, instinctively and personally, is an opportunity to show the genius of Marshall Allen, the genius of Rashaan Carter, Kojo Roney, Justin Hicks, Deantoni Parks and Immanuel Wilkins. I think where I am in my career is that I’m trying to create experiences that highlight the genius, compelling musicianship and creativity of others.

Can you talk about working with Marshall Allen on this album?

Oh man, it was the day of a lifetime. We all drove to Philly and used the studio that was close to him. He knew Immanuel, and those two seeing each other after a long period of time was beautiful to watch.

There wasn’t a lot of talking, but I really enjoyed his presence. I wanted to use every moment just to play, so I just tried to keep the session moving. We brought down tracks we had already started and started tracks anew. “Rocket Number 9” is the three of them in the room having an experience together. All I wanted was to create an environment for them and capture the moment.

I recently interviewed Marshall and he recalled that Sun Ra would say to him, “I don’t want to hear what you know, I want to hear what you don’t know.” How do you receive that message in the context of Sun Ra’s work?

I think that not knowing is being open enough when you play the music live to not rest on your laurels or your licks or the things you practice and your chops. You’re trying to connect with the audience and the other musicians and find something you don’t know, that’s not tried and true—that’s an exploration of your mind, body and soul.

It’s all just the moment. Marshall says, “You’re not doing it for sex; you’re not doing it for the money and drugs. You are trying to find something in the music that perhaps will only speak to you to give you some transcendence.” So I’m not really concerned about right or wrong, up or down, better than/less than. Look where the binary has brought us.

I’m trying to find something else. Any musician will tell you that, at the end of the day, you make an attempt to express yourself as honestly and sincerely as possible. That’s all you have. It’s great when you get the accolades, but even after that, you’re just alone, sitting with yourself. I think that’s what I take from Sun Ra. That’s what I take from Marshall Allen and from June Tyson. But I also take that you should have some fun, have a laugh, have a sense of humor and enjoy this experience.

At times, Sun Ra’s music can be so intense or celestial that the humor can be overlooked.

They’re not there to entertain you per se; they’re trying to open up a portal and maybe you can find out something about yourself. That’s the thing that I hold onto. I’m there to help you maybe find something in yourself that you don’t know about, even if you hate it or it’s uncomfortable.

Do you think there’s something about the music or message of Sun Ra that’s particularly resonant in this moment?

Space is the place. It’s the foundation. Once you’re ready to deal with that, literally and metaphorically, it’s time to escape the planet. Since he came to the planet, it’s been the time for him. It’s eternal. I love his poetry book, Prophetika. He’s been constantly trying to tell us what we’re going to experience. It’s always the right time for Sun Ra. You have to be ready, but Sun Ra is beyond ready.