How Science Fiction Formed Jimi Hendrix

“Through the entire­ty of his short life Jimi Hen­drix was an avid fan of sci­ence fic­tion. As a young child Hen­drix and his broth­er Leon would escape their trou­bled upbring­ing by dream­ing up sto­ries of far-off plan­ets and fly­ing saucers.” So begins the Poly­phon­ic video above, an explo­ration of how sci-fi informed the apoc­a­lyp­tic images and spaced-out sounds in Hendrix’s songs. His love of sci­ence fic­tion “only inten­si­fied as an adult,” espe­cial­ly when Hen­drix moved in with Chas Chan­dler, who would become his man­ag­er and pro­duc­er, and who owned a large col­lec­tion of sci-fi nov­els.

The books Hen­drix read at the time pro­vid­ed him with the mate­r­i­al he need­ed for a psy­che­del­ic rev­o­lu­tion. He turned the “pur­plish haze” in Philip Jose Farmer’s Night of Light into “Pur­ple Haze.” The song’s lyrics ref­er­ence the dis­ori­ent­ing state of mind char­ac­ters in Farmer’s sto­ry expe­ri­ence from cos­mic radi­a­tion, while they also allude, of course, to oth­er kinds of altered states. Hen­drix didn’t just weave sci-fi themes and ref­er­ences into his songs. He and Chan­dler com­posed space-rock epics that expand­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the elec­tric gui­tar and the record­ing stu­dio.

Third Stone from the Sun” is writ­ten “from the per­spec­tive of an alien scout who is observ­ing Earth from afar.” Though he deflects with humor and innu­en­do, the alien char­ac­ter in the song express­es com­plete dis­gust with human­i­ty: “Your peo­ple I do not under­stand / So to you I shall put an end.” In “Up from the Skies,” Hen­drix sings from “the per­spec­tive of one who lived on Earth long ago, and is dis­mayed at the state of the plan­et when he comes back to vis­it.” Call­ing the Earth a “peo­ple farm,” he says to the plan­et as a whole, “I heard some of you got your fam­i­lies / Liv­ing in cages.”

The video links Hendrix’s use of sci­ence fic­tion as social com­men­tary to some of the best-known writ­ers of the genre, includ­ing Aldous Hux­ley, Isaac Asi­mov, Stanis­law Lem, and Ursu­la K. LeGuin. These are wor­thy com­par­isons, to be sure, but there is anoth­er tra­di­tion in which to sit­u­ate him, one that had been at work in pop­u­lar music since Sun Ra first stepped onstage and claimed to be from out­er space. Hendrix’s respons­es to the “apoc­a­lyp­tic” images of the Viet­nam War and the mass protest, civ­il unrest, and racial strife in the U.S. draws on an Afro­fu­tur­ist lex­i­con as much as from pre­dom­i­nate­ly white sci-fi.

Coined in 1995 by crit­ic Mark Dery in con­ver­sa­tion with sci­ence fic­tion giant Samuel R. Delany, crit­ic Greg Tate, and Pro­fes­sor Tri­cia Rose, the term “Afro­fu­tur­ism” describes a hybrid sci-fi aes­thet­ic that ties togeth­er past, present, and future Black expe­ri­ences. “From Sun-Ra to Janelle Monáe, the appro­pri­a­tion of oth­er-world­ly and alien iconog­ra­phy estab­lish­es Afro-futur­ists as out­siders,” writes Mawe­na Yehoues­si. Afro­fu­tur­ism is the cre­ative expres­sion of dou­ble con­scious­ness: C. Bran­don Ogbunu traces the genre back to W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1920 short sto­ry “The Comet” and argues that the abil­i­ty of Black artists to view the cul­ture as both insid­ers and out­siders can “help us to con­sid­er uni­vers­es of bet­ter alter­na­tives.”

Hendrix’s nar­ra­tors describe apoc­a­lyp­tic visions, but they do so from the point-of-view of oth­er, bet­ter worlds, or bet­ter times, or, in “A Mer­man I Should Turn to Be”—perhaps one of Hendrix’s most tren­chant critiques—an under­sea refuge.

Well it’s too bad that our friends, can’t be with us today
Well it’s too bad
‘The machine, that we built,
Would nev­er save us’, that’s what they say
(That’s why they ain’t com­ing with us today)
And they also said it’s impos­si­ble for a man to live and breathe under
Water, for­ev­er,
Was their main com­plaint
And they also threw this in my face, they said:
Any­way, you know good and well it would be beyond the will of God,
And the grace of the King (grace of the King)
(Yeah, yeah)

The per­spec­tive seems to antic­i­pate the pes­simistic, post-apoc­a­lyp­tic visions of Octavia But­ler. It’s a view Afro­fu­tur­ist the­o­rist Kod­wo Eshun links to the expe­ri­ences of peo­ple of the African dias­po­ra gen­er­al­ly, who “live the estrange­ment that sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers envi­sion. Black expe­ri­ence and sci­ence fic­tion are one and the same.” Afro­fu­tur­ism has “always looked for­ward,” Tay­lor Crump­ton writes at Clever, pro­vid­ing a “blue­print for cul­tur­al growth.” In Hendrix’s songs, we feel the urgent ten­sion between a world on fire and a desire to escape, resolv­ing, Poly­phon­ic con­cludes, with “hope in a new way of liv­ing.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Rare Footage of Jimi Hen­drix Per­form­ing “Voodoo Child” in Maui, Plus a Trail­er for a New Doc­u­men­tary on Jimi Hendrix’s Leg­endary Maui Per­for­mances (1970)

Behold Moe­bius’ Many Psy­che­del­ic Illus­tra­tions of Jimi Hen­drix

Watch a 5‑Part Ani­mat­ed Primer on Afro­fu­tur­ism, the Black Sci-Fi Phe­nom­e­non Inspired by Sun Ra

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Smith Pettis says:

    Jimi Hen­drix had a pro­found effect on me as a young writer when I dis­cov­ered him while attend­ing MSU on a pro­gram for gift­ed inner city kids in 1967 when I heard his 1st album at the ten­der age of 15! His music and lyrics made me believe that I could write lyrics out­side the box for instance a song I penned called the facts of life! Late at night a child is born/while anoth­er man must die/ some­where a man laughs in happiness/while anoth­er man cry/somewhere a baby bird has fall­en from his nest/ while a man lies in his lone­ly room his mind can’t find no rest/ these are the facts of life we all must face/ these are the facts of life that’s destroy­ing the human race/ cause there ain’t no equality/there ain’t no being free/there ain’t no brotherhood/and the bad over­ride the good …
    C 1967 smith Pet­tis

  • Chris preece says:

    I nev­er thought for a sec­ond that it was any­one else but Jimi who land­ed ‘with­out a scratch on the bot­tom’ in the machine.

  • Mike Diaz says:

    Nev­er knew Hen­drix was into Sci-Fi. What an eye open­er to his music. What a mind, Genius I believe . To meld his style with social com­men­tary with his intrest in Sci-fi and rock or as he was known for . Psy­che­del­ic rock . Now I under­stand why his music grabbed my mind the first time I heard him on vinyl. Still my favorite , always will be !!!

  • Scott says:

    1983…A Mer­man I Should Turn To Be.

    The Stars That Play With Laugh­ing Sam’s Dice.

    Yeah, Jimi was into syfi.…

  • Scott says:

    1983…A Mer­man I Should Turn To Be.

    The Stars That Play With Laugh­ing Sam’s Dice.

    Yeah, Jimi was into sci-fi.…

  • Loren Williams says:

    Yes my friends Jimi was the best ever, with an amaz­ing­ly cre­ative mind! If you’re inter­est­ed in what he might have done musi­cal­ly if he’d lived check out Jim­i’s cousin ‘Eddy Hall Gui­tarist’ on Sound­Cloud. Free to lis­ten music that glimpses at the direc­tion Hen­drix was going.
    I call Eddy Hall the best gui­tarist that no one knows about and Eddy prefers it that way. You see that way he’s free as an artist to cre­ate, play and record with­out being con­trolled by mon­ey or fame. Give a lis­ten…

  • Irena Halder says:

    Josh Jones, inter­est­ing thoughts and the­o­ry but it’s SF or sci­ence fic­tion, nev­er Sci-Fi.

  • Black Sheep says:

    Jimi was a prod­uct of his time and his music reflects that. The emer­gence and then huge pop­u­lar­i­ty of sf, space invaders/aliens nov­els and films were all sub-con­scious fears and para­noia of the ‘oth­er’ (Sovi­et Rus­sia) made real through cel­lu­loid (For­bid­den Plan­et any­one?). Fur­ther, I despair when dis­cern­ing that humankind seems to require strife, war and the threat of Armaged­don to ful­fil our true cre­ative poten­tial. When the read­er com­pares much recent music with the 1960–2000 peri­od they realise the awful truth of the mat­ter; peace stinks. Seem­ing­ly, the more sta­ble a soci­ety we live in the poor­er our cre­ativ­i­ty is…..

  • Black Sheep says:

    ‘ but it’s SF or sci­ence fic­tion, nev­er Sci-Fi.’ 👍👍

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