Tracing Afrofuturism Pioneer Sun Ra’s Record Designs, from Shoestring-budget Magic Marker to Gold Foil

In the latest of our Under the Covers series looking at records and their design, we looked at how how French electro duo justice turned the cross symbol into a third band member. Here, we speak to some of the designers behind the more recent releases from the legend that is Sun Ra.

Few artists have embodied gesamtkunstwerk, or a “total work of art,” like Herman Poole Blount. Born in 1914 and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Sun Ra preferred to tell people he was from Saturn—by way of Egypt—a pretense he undoubtedly came to believe himself as the years wore on. Sonny, as he was known to his friends, not only created an all-encompassing artwork with his band at the centre; he also started a movement, Afrofuturism, a synthesis of Black power and cosmology.

Part of this independence of thought resulted in an independent label, the forward-thinking El Saturn Records, which was founded in the late 50s and enabled Sun Ra and his Arkestra to release music whenever they felt like it  (under many variations on that name). Being in a perpetual state of penury, though, meant that many of these releases were ramshackle at best, often photocopied and crudely stuck together by band members, or decorated with rudimentary pencil drawings by Sun Ra himself, and then colored in with magic markers if there was time. In his lifetime, Ra put out more than 125 LPs with his rotating free-jazz outfit, sometimes on other labels like Impulse! or A&M (which might afford him a small budget), but more often than not everything was done in-house and on a shoestring.

Ironically, those records that were hand-pressed and drawn or colored by hand, now fetch obscene amounts of money: “Sun Ra was such an egalitarian guy,” says Minnesota-based graphic designer Jon Hunt, who has been working on the heritage catalogue at Modern Harmonic for the last six years, creating the designs for ten sleeves for Ra, with more in the offing. “I think he’d be pleased that it was out there, and people can afford it, rather than it just being a rich man’s game. It would have pissed him off that rich collectors were hoarding his stuff. He was a man of the people so I’m glad his stuff is getting out there.”

And getting out there it is, thanks in part to Irwin Chusid, a respected musicologist, bastion of outsider art and the executor of the Sun Ra estate. Chusid, who published the lauded book Songs in the Key of Z about outsider music in 2000, offers a guiding hand to the designers, often providing never seen before photographs from the archive. The variability of quality of the original sleeves, means that sometimes the reissues will try to assimilate the original designs, like with A Fireside Chat With Lucifer or Celestial Love (“That one is directly from one of Ra’s hand drawn album covers, and one where Irwin was really in love with the artwork that was already there”), or the designer will start more or less from scratch (“There was an original cover for Astro Black which is on the back cover of ours—it’s just a weird painting of a dude floating in outer space.”)

“Honestly, I couldn’t help but feel some kind of guidance… his approach to his art meant that he would be immortal whether you believe he was an angel from Saturn temporarily visiting Earth or not.”

Modern Harmonic, which deals mainly in unreleased or unearthed music from the 70s and 80s, is not the only label Chusid licenses Sun Ra music to. Strut, too, has reissued an impressive amount of Ra dating back to the 1950s, and last year it brought out a brand new Sun Ra Arkestra record under the watchful guise of legendary 97-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen, a player who was with Sun Ra from the 50s, and who has continued the mission after the cosmic jazz master’s death in 1993. Responsibility for the sleeve of the new record fell to Lewis Heriz, a graphic designer based in Bethnal Green, East London, who has previously worked on a number of titles, including the Singles collection and a Gilles Peterson Presents… compilation.

Sun Ra records

“Being approached for Swirling felt like a confirmation that I could be trusted with a new Arkestra release thanks to my previous work, so I felt a great deal of pressure to deliver,” he says. “I adore the Arkestra, so to be given this opportunity is beyond anything I would dare dream of. Its not only an Arkestra album, it’s the first Arkestra album in 20 years! And musically it’s amazing.” Visually, it’s amazing too, a Vorticist-like melange of old and new, though Lewis is keen to spell out the ideological polarities between futurism and Afrofuturism when I ask him about it, in case of any confusion. 

When creating, did Lewis feel the hand of Ra on his shoulder? “Honestly, I couldn’t help but feel some kind of guidance since I was listening to his lectures, reading his books, immersing myself in the music he wrote and the artwork that adorned his walls, and watching his films. Whatever you believe, souls live on through collective memory at the very least, but his approach to his art meant that he would be immortal whether you believe he was an angel from Saturn temporarily visiting Earth or not.”

Sun Ra, Swirling

Swirling (2020)

Lewis Heriz: “The cover was supposed to be black and white with a silver Pantone or foil, to echo the covers from the 50s, but Marshall [Allen] correctly felt that it was too sombre for what the album stood for: a celebration of Ra’s legacy and the arrival of the band’s first studio album in 20 years. So I had to go about converting the image into color. Instead of silver, we agreed that gold would be appropriate, since the garments they wear contain a lot of it. It was then a case of agreeing on a complementary color.

“I began with a photo of Ra that was sent to me, and began to build these rays around him. I wanted to start with him since it all started with him, and then add the band in the planetary landscape. The band photos were all taken from the recording sessions for the LP, which meant that I had to dress them with hand-drawn versions of the clothes they wear on stage. Because this was a very complex task, I had to work digitally, hand drawing directly onto the digital photos sent to me.”

Sun Ra, Crystal Spears

Crystal Spears (2018)

Jon Hunt: “This was a lost album that was intended for release in 1975. Crystal Spears is quite a short and digestible album, and for that we had a photo to work from. If I remember rightly it was a picture of Ra that was partially obscured. It was black and white and I think there was something in front of him, so we had to create this photo on the cover. It happens a lot in the record cover biz: ‘here’s a picture of a band but you can’t see the lead singer’s face—what can you do?’ A lot of the time Irwin [Chusid] will want to put something out and he’ll say: ‘Oh, by the way, I have this artwork’. 

 “The background is fake too. I’m really pleased with how it all turned out—it looks like it was from the period too, which is always really important for me as a designer. The stenciled letters are a [Milton] Glaser font as well. I always reach for the Push Pin Studios stuff whenever I can. Any chance I get to steal or borrow from them, I do it.” 

Sun Ra, Astroblack

Astro Black (2018)

Jon Hunt: “Sun Ra very much epitomizes Afrofuturism both in his music and persona, his poetry and the way he lived. It was very ahead of its time in a way, tying the black experience in with outer space and futuristic elements. They’re bringing in stuff from Egypt and African motifs too. It’s cool as hell. When I was working on this one, I remember looking a lot at an artist named Mati Klarwein who did the cover of Santana’s Abraxas and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. He was a German painter and he was a white dude, but for some reason he worked in that Afrofuturist motif very respectfully, and not in a way that culturally appropriated at all. There are a lot of beautiful and strange pieces, and I remember digging into them before I started this collage. Hopefully I captured a little bit of that weirdness.” 

John Cage meets Sun Ra, The Complete Concert

John Cage Meets Sun Ra (2016)

John Hunt: “This one was early in our relationship with the Sun Ra stuff, and when I got it, I tried to approach it more like it was one of John Cage’s sleeves. He’d been on a record label named Tomato and Milton Glaser was their main designer. Glaser was the best ever! With Tomato, all their covers had an interesting, round shape—to echo the tomato theme, I guess. So I made a mandala out of some of the prepared pieces Cage used for the treated piano stuff. Just in terms of simplicity, I think that one is my favorite for sure. There are little objects on there: spoons, screws, a metronome arm, and it’s just nice to look at.”

Sun Ra, In the Orbit of Ra

In The Orbit Of Ra (2014)

Lewis Heriz: “In the Orbit of Ra was the first cover I produced, and it laid the foundations for my approach to all the others. Firstly, I got the commission while I was in Buenos Aires, 7000 miles away from my studio. So I had to improvise and work with what I had, which was a sketchbook, a camera, and a slightly battered laptop. I worked very fast, alone upstairs in a café, for a day, with the album on repeat in my headphones. I used India ink and a brush, allowing the shapes to emerge on the page without any plan. 

“Once I had some designs I liked the feel of, I photographed the pages and brought them into Photoshop so I could work with the digital photo of Ra— an exquisite shot of him at the keyboard, eyes closed, listening as the band plays around him. It was a photo I’d been sent, taken by the great Val Wilmer. Seeing him in that [reverie], I wanted to evoke the sonic universe he appeared to be experiencing through the abstract shapes that echoed Ra’s hand-drawn freeform artwork on the cover for The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra. So I brought his head up full-frame, and merged it with the ink work. This dissolving of the internal and external, the fusing of the human and the cosmic scale, is the approach Ive taken with all the covers since.”

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