Photo courtesy Zora! Festival and the artist
The 33rd annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts goes big this weekend with the two-day Outdoor Festival of the Arts, featuring a headlining performance by music legend George Clinton and his band, Parliament Funkadelic, which helped inculcate the values of Afrofuturism in American culture during their 1970s heyday and beyond.
Similar themes of Afrofuturism were featured throughout this year's Zora! Festival during the ongoing celebration in historic Eatonville. Fantastical as some of the content may be, the origins of the genre are deadly serious. Black Americans were isolated more or less completely from their ancestral history, family legacies, tribal dialects, etc., pretty much through the late 1800s. After the end of slavery, piecing together the shattered fragments of this lost history was on the agenda, but true freedom remained elusive until the 1960s.
The first 60 years of the 20th century were replete with icons and innovations: George Washington Carver, WEB DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Wallace Fard, CLR James, Haile Selassie I, Alvin Ailey, Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson, Adam Clayton Powell, Bumpy Johnson, Langston Hughes, Augusta Savage, Louis Armstrong, Reverend Ike, Katherine Dunham, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and countless others — including, of course, Zora Neale Hurston, whose specific contributions to American culture are underrated to the extreme, but we’re working on that right now. We also had gospel, the blues, Dixieland, second line, boogie woogie, swing, bebop, rebop, post-bop, hard-bop, doo-wop, rhythm & blues and the early years of rock & roll.
It was at this point in history that our subject, George Clinton, entered the chat. Born in 1941, Clinton was already five years in the game before he was old enough to drink (although I’m sure that didn’t stop him). He released his first single, “Poor Willie”/“Party Boys,” in 1959. His band, The Parliaments, issued eight more singles over the next decade, and then essentially re-branded as “Parliament-Funkadelic,” which was actually two different bands, with enough members over the years to fill two symphony orchestras.
Clinton is also among the all-time great talent scouts among American bandleaders, in the same league as people like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, James Brown and Prince. At least 216 people have worked in the group over the years, including core members like Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Eddie Hazel, Bernie Worrell and Bootsy Collins, all individual icons on their respective instruments who are still doing quality work today. His other collaborators have included Roger Troutman (the founder of Zapp), Catfish Collins, Bill Laswell, the Brecker Brothers, Dennis Chambers, Lili Haydn and even the sainted Sly Stone, the man who made Miles Davis go electric in 1968.
All together, the P-Funk era has given us 25 studio albums and 46 singles. That’s a lot of music. If you’re new to their work, you also have 33 compilation albums to dip your toes into. This material made Clinton a founder of funk, and also a trailblazer of what’s now known as Afrofuturism, which is a central theme of this year’s Zora Festival. It’s a catch-all term that can encompass a vast range of media and a diverse array of talent who worked mostly independently of each other. The term was actually coined by a white man, Mark Dery, in 1993, but it’s been synonymous with sci-fi author Octavia Butler (1947-2006).
The concept is probably represented to the widest audience today by Black Panther
in the MCU. The gorgeous visuals of that film, and the seamlessly syncretic fusion of fantasy and fact, makes it an ideal introduction to Afrofuturism in its broadest sense. The central, singular figure in any study of the genre (besides Butler) must be the late, great Sun Ra (1914-1993). Born Herman “Sonny” Blount in Alabama, he worked his way up the jazz ranks before an abrupt aesthetic shift around 1952 changed music history, and American culture forever..
Fusing elements of Egyptian mythology with science fiction, Sun Ra recontextualized traditional liberation theology with a comic book aesthetic, a collectivist worldview advanced through a relentlessly creative approach to capitalism. In a sense, he did for music what H.G. Wells did for literature; the full scope of his influence defies explanation. For example, Sun Ra was one of the very first artists to ever start his own record label, Saturn Records, and he kept it going for 40 years. He was also among the first to utilize electric instruments like Moog and clavichord into jazz, years before the psychedelic era began.
Crucially, Sun Ra also ran one of the top 10 best big-bands to ever exist — and it still exists, almost 30 years after his death. It was Sun Ra who inspired George Clinton to develop his own mythology for P-Funk, and it was Clinton’s success that turned mainstream attention towards Sun Ra in the 1970s and ’80s, and that is the only reason that any of us know who he is.
It’s a sort of cosmic quid pro quo, and there’s no one who would’ve appreciated all this more than Zora Neale Hurston. She’ll be watching, remotely, from somewhere deep in the cosmos.
George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic play the Zora! Festival's Outdoor Festival of the Arts on Saturday, June 4. The Outdoor Festival happens Saturday-Sunday, June 4-5 at the Preserve in Eatonville. Performing on the Sunday are Kim Waters and Tom Browne. More information and tickets can be found at the Zora! Festival's website
Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly newsletters, and consider supporting this free publication. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you Central Florida news, and every little bit helps.