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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  • 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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