“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
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)
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.”