In December 1968, Ed Sullivan, a popular TV show host, introduced the group Sly and the Family Stone onto his show. It was a troupe of seven black and white women fully emblazoned in bright blazers, vests, and wigs, and they played a powerful medley of their biggest hits “Sing a Simple Song”, “Everyday People”, “I want to take you higher”, and “Dance to the music”. They had just dropped their third studio album, which was titled “Life” and they all looked pretty excited, although it was only Sly that looked fully confident that everything would work out. And we could finally see why when he left the organ and went out into the studio audience with his sister Rose. After her solo, he began to perform a dance routine he got from Africa, patting juba. Greg Errico, who is the original drummer of the group said it looked as if they had just landed on a spaceship from Venus. The men in the audience had on suits that were not even cool, with most of them looking like accountants. Before Sly Stone went back to the stage, he found a man that was probably the only black guy in the crowd and gave him a high five.
Their quick invasion of the show, which was something unheard of on the Ed Sullivan show, was part of a long tradition of the expansion of Black art, which included showing out, styling out, and playing out. These phrases illustrated the longstanding rebellion that African Americans had towards behavioral, musical, and fashion codes that seemed repressive. So, we were not surprised to see black artists at the forefront of psychedelia, which is one of the biggest “out” movements in the history of the United States. Even with the pretty long history of erasing and co-opting Black innovation helping us to explain why that term now brings up pictures of young white people dancing energetically to the Grateful Dead.
The psychedelic movement can generally describe the coming together of accessible hallucinogens with the movement of youths through civil rights and antiwar agitations. The soundtrack of the movement was music that boosted the disorienting and time-bending effects of an acid trip. The visual aesthetic brought together color blends as well as a meta-perceptual flourish, just like in the poster for “Hair”, a rock musical from 1968. It had some racially ambiguous mirrored images painted in red and green. Also, the iconic poster in 1966 of Bob Dylan by Milton Glaser where the singer had a black silhouette with strands of multicolored hair spiking out that seemed to spell out the word “Elvis”. The small number of historians that take psychedelic culture seriously believe that the most important actors in the move were white. In most accounts of psychedelic rock, it began in 1966 with the Beatles’ “Revolver” and the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”. By the end in 1973, it was Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon”. Although Jimi Hendrix was included in these, it was more as a black beneficiary of the influence of white people, instead of an innovator.
The race of these figures coincides with the philosophical and scientific architecture that made them legitimate and also gave the psychedelic movement a mental edge over the appeal of hippies for free love and peace. The history of psychedelia, as it is usually written includes people like Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist that stumbled upon LSD in the 1940s while he was working for a pharmaceutical company; Aldous Huxley, a British writer that popularized the use of hallucinogenic substances in his 1954 treatise “The Doors of Perception”; as well as Timothy Leary, the American psychologist that conducted drug experiments in Harvard in the 60s. Just like several other movements that countered cultural standpoints, white psychedelia looked at people of color to provide views of an alternative life.
But black artists were already creating their psychedelic scenes that were centered around music, although these eventually spread to visual art and literature. Although the experimentation might have sounded and even looked like the creations of their white counterparts, this Black psychedelia was shaped by black culture and history, making it distinct. Although white psychedelics used drugs to get mind-bending views of a universal community where they were the primary center, black psychedelics were pushing the barriers around black art and community.
It is pretty easy to miss the political significance of their work. They did not commit to any particular program, but they were fully devoted to their work and hardly ever addressed the factor of race. Although the civil rights protesters often dressed like Churchgoers, and the Black Panthers wore military uniforms, the black psychedelics chose to wear multi-colored jumpsuits with platform shoes. However, Sly and the Family Stone’s mixed-gender and inter-racial troupe showed true integration. And it brought the future to people even though they weren’t ready, and they had to deal with the consequences. Other black psychedelics also worked to carve out spaces that brought back the aesthetic practices that originated from Africa and also explored the intricacies of black life. The movement, therefore, worked as a pretty disciplined exercise of freedom that worked together with other more organized black radical movements, by asking questions like “What is the black community?” and “What is black power?”.
The group of black psychedelics included groups and musicians like the Chambers Brothers, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the 5th Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, Wind & Fire, Betty Davis, Rotary Connection, and Funkadelic and Earth, all of who brought together the deep insight into the Age of Aquarius with a properly deep understanding of new recording technology that allowed the expansion of lyrical and musical possibilities in the soul, rock, and jazz music. The music they created, just like other psychedelic music, had dense reverb and a “draggy” approach to time. A similar pattern also described the experimental approach that was used in storytelling, poetics, and narrative text by writers like David Henderson, Alison Mills Newman, Clarence Major, and Ishmael Reed. Black psychedelics also had other visual artists like Senga Nenguidi, Sam Gilliam, and Beye Saar making intense, abstract, and beautiful works that challenged the barriers in the galleries and museums, as well as filmmakers like Bill Gunn and William Greaves who went past their linear form to tell elusive and riveting stories. There were also architects like John W. Moutoussamy, who erected the magnificent Johnson Publishing Company in 1971. These artists all took the paintings and created sculptures, took pop songs and converted them to albums with operatic concepts, created poetry from memoirs, as well as art films from horror movies. They took theaters and galleries and placed them outdoors. The mandate of Modernism had brought about the New Age impulse that worked to make everything higher, bigger and push things further.
Black psychedelia was daring and immersive, and it was full of big feelings and colors, with the peak being Eddie Hazel’s guitar solo at the beginning of the “Maggot Brain” album released by Funkadelic in 1971. It was a ten-minute sonic funeral that had thick echoes, and it was inspired by the bandleader, George Clinton, who directed Hazel to play as if he had just learned that his mother had died. The work showed the distinction that stood between black psychedelia and the sci-fi strain of pursuing black creatives that energized Afrofuturism. With Afrofuturists like Octavia E. Butler, and Samuel R. Delany, Sun Ra chose to give the advantage to outer space or future worlds. Black psychedelics, however, moved more towards the present, earthly plane. This also caused them to draw sublimity and absurdity from ordinary sites like New York’s Central Park or a Lons Angeles highway underpass.
The word “Psychedelic” comes from the Greek words psyche and deloun which respectively translates to soul and reveal. Close to the end of the biggest hit from the Chambers Brothers, “Time Has Come Today”, which also includes the refrain “My soul has been psychedelized”, Lester Chambers led out a couple of inhuman screams. These were not shrieks of rage or fear, but Chambers said they were affirmations of a Spiritual state with no inhibitions. The psychedelic era was a time full of concept albums, extended solos, and double albums. The innovations, as they were used by black artists, did not work to announce a clean break from the regular, but it was a push towards utopia. It was a time when most people seemed to stretch out and only take the real believers in, and there was an interplay between white and black men which had a major impact on the innovation of rock.
Although they are hardly ever given the credit for it, black psychedelic artists were pioneers of the integrated rock band. Bands like Love, Rotary Connection, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the Chambers Experience all had black and white members. When earlier jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker had used guys, they were usually criminalized for it. Most of the white spaces where black psychedelics entered were not as heavily policed as the black jazz scenes, so this allowed the black artists to have more freedom.
Stone’s group, which comprised black women as well as white men, did not only sing but also played instruments. Stone was a studio wiz who played several instruments, and he was Church-raised before he became a popular DJ in the Bay area. He was also a producer whose group comprised his sister Rose on the vocals and keyboards, his brother Freddie on the guitar, black trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, white drummer Errico, black bassist Larry Graham, and white saxophonist Jerry Martini. They had initially met up in December 1966 when Errico was just 17, in the basement of the house the Stone had bought for his parents. In their first meeting, Errico says they did not even play but they talked throughout. Everyone was just looking at each other with a lot of hope and belief that was pretty tangible in the air. That self-belief helped them to cope with the cultural pushback.
Still, this interracial integration did not ensure that black psychedelia was widely acknowledged. Sam Gilliam, who was a highly innovative artist from the Washington Color School was well overlooked. His colleagues, however, were engaged in a pretty conservative project that included extending Abstract Expressionism. Gilliam, who is now 88, is now getting the attention that he did not get at other points in his career just because his work did not fit in the genre or narrative. He was painting abstract canvases that were about 150 yards long and he sprang them from the frames, as they hung from walls and ceilings. He was quoted describing these technicolor paintings that turned into sculptures as enactments of confidence. The blend of mystery and scale of these “drape paintings” forms what we can refer to as the Black sublime, which is a key component of black psychedelia. This is a time when black artists were expected to create real depictions of black identity, and the aesthetic that Gilliam produced had its political statement.
Back in the 70s, black psychedelics turned from the civil rights model of bringing together black and white people in an alliance to an investment in black power and self-determination by creating their artistic institutions and black-run musicals. Nengudi was the primary conceptual artist, and he said about the time after the Watts uprising in 1965 that there was a rapid change of mindset in Black artists. There were independent black artists’ cohorts like Studio Z, which was a group based in Los Angeles that Nengudi was a part of, and it allowed more black women’s voices to be heard than the interracial and homosocial collectives in the 60s. This was in vast contrast to the more regular psychedelic scene. It was in the 1970s that black psychedelic culture started to host the innovations of black women across the arts.
It was with one of these black networks that Betty Davis, the funk pioneer, was able to showcase her genius. She pushed her then-husband, Miles Davis, towards fusion before she began to create her proto-punk erotic songs that were an inspiration for other black female artists like the futuristic trio, Labelle. Davis married Miles in 1968, while she was still working as a songwriter and model, and he was working to develop the electric, modal jazz that he would dramatically announce to the public on his 1970 double album “Bitches Brew”. By that time, she had already gotten the Chambers Brothers to hop on her song “Uptown” which turned out to be a hit. She then went on to meet the members of Sly and the Family Stone, who would play on the first solo album she released, which was produced by Errico. She then introduced Miles to Hendrix, and this sparked his interest in electric instruments. Davis never involved himself in psychedelic culture. But what Greg Tate, a cultural critic wrote of Hendrix also applied to her. She was also a part of a group of pop musicians who experimented and refused any other membership but that of musicians in other camps. This was publicly defying the stylistic and social constraints that characterized the psychedelic culture and ethics. She and Miles hardly went out, preferring to stay home and roast marshmallows by the fire. Their marriage lasted just about a year, and Davis would, later on, describe Miles as being violent, although their making music together provided Davis with confidence that she used even after they had separated, to produce her own work.
Alison Mills Newman was just like Davis in becoming bold because of a romantic relationship with a black cohort, that told an expressive and immersive story about the desire of black females. Her well-underappreciated autobiographical novel in 1974 titled “Francisco” was driven by the wit of the author and the ability of the narrator to make an alive life seem lovely. Newman started her career as an actress, with her most notable role being the babysitter on the TV show “Julia”, which had Diahann Carol as the lead. She tried to transition from TV to film, but she was blocked at every turn by men who expected to sleep with her. She then left Los Angeles for a while and went to New York. That was where she met a couple of experimental black artists and writers including Jayne Cortez the poet, Ornette Coleman the saxophonist, as well as Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Morrison who were all writers. They were black men that worked with her seeing her as an equal, and black women that did not pay attention to the diet and wig constraints of Hollywood.
This independence, which was often portrayed as racial separatism, is a core reason why the black psychedelic movement was left out of the history of the American counterculture. It was also much easier for the dominant culture to see, just like Wolfe in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, that black people had completely moved on from what Wolfe described to be the Haight-Ashbury district’s dying culture. It had gone so far that black people weren’t even in the hip scene anymore, not even as secondary figures because they had gone on to create their own scenes. The art that they produced in these new scenes though, had a scale and a level of abstraction that worked to challenge the ideas that people had of what black art was supposed to look like. As opposed to having clearly determined, and self-centered statements of protest, these black psychedelics created deep encounters with previously unknown things, whether it was a private experience or an inarticulable desire.
Back in the 70s and 80s, the American legal system worked to recreate the stigma around recreational narcotics, and this was in part a response to the pretty liberal 60s because it mainly went for the black and brown people that used these substances. That is why Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys, who just like Sly Stone, was a well-known musician from the West Coast that took hard drugs and lived the life of a recluse, is now remembered as a complex genius. Stone, on the other hand, is regarded as a pessimistic and bitter menace, and even by some as an unwitting prophet. And Stone did look pretty menacing when comparing him with the corporately-made parody of white psychedelia that came out in the 1970s through bands like the Eagles, who jubilantly encouraged their fans to “take it easy”, or a group like the Grateful Dead, that preached about having fun and staying mellow.
One last reason why black psychedelia was not publicized or even regarded as such is because of the distinct contributions that might have been overshadowed by the discourse about Afrofuturism, which is a long-existing movement that was named by critics in the 90s and drew energy from psychedelia as the fight in the 60s for massive change was met with racial backlash. If just like Errico said, Sly and the Family Stone seemed to have touched down on the Ed Sullivan show from Venus, by the mid-70s, a lot of black artists were going back to Venus, as they imagined themselves as being pioneers of outer space. This was quite fascinating, and it was a pretty American conceit. Even though the black citizens had heavily criticized the government for spending loads of money on the Apollo 11 mission instead of using those funds for poverty alleviation, black science fiction or Afrofuturism becoming popular meant that people began to see that space travel had its attractions. Labelle then sang about “Space Children” in 1974, before Parliament created an entire concept album of “the Mothership Connection” in 1975 and Stevie Wonder had a paean to “Saturn” in 1976. Although these works were pretty playful and funky, they also helped in creating the perspective in the black artists that another world might not be possible in any other place on earth, even in a utopic Africa. This was a time of economic downturn and widespread conservatism that was marked by the neglectful approach of Richard Nixon towards the black and brown communities, as well as more military force being used in the war against drugs, as well as channeling the remaining black power into electoral politics. It does not come as a shock then, that Sun Ra, the architect of otherworldly Black Dreams, worked to boost his extraterrestrial efforts in the 1974 film, “Space is the place”. The film closes with the Earth exploding and him with his followers escaping on a spaceship.
To find the finer details in the different kinds of black creativity is to see that the culture of black psychedelia is a story about the coming together of artists that brought new worlds closer to us. When Sly and the Family Stone were singing about wanting to take you higher, they were creating the view of drug-infused experiences that you could have without your feet even leaving the ground. The future was not so far away, and it could even be the next day because space did not signal distant galaxies as much as the tons of people did. Gilliam said about 1968 that there was just something in the air, and this was the energy he drew on to create the drape paintings. He was describing the cultural zeitgeist. Although his comment also elucidates how these works created the atmosphere in a room.
Black psychedelia was one of the boldest experiments in the 20th century, and it used art to bring back questions about identity and power in the world. This helps to explain why it is persistent in the 21st century. Hip-hop artists like Young Thug, Outkast, and Future have worked to reroute the obsession of early rap with drug culture’s economics back to its recreational value, while also breaking barriers through musical wit and mumbling delivery. It is this intelligibility that helped to shape other works like Erykah Badu’s Amerykah, as well as D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. The more mellow and personal dimensions of black psychedelia also went on to inspire new music and videos by singer-songwriters like Kadhja Bonet and Arlo Parks, as well as in the experimental TV series of Michaela Coel in 2020 called “I May Destroy You”. The urge to not just shore up the black community by pushing it into becoming is what motivated Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham’s “Black Futures” in 2020. This is a 500-page compendium that presents the urge to show off how rich contemporary black art and writing are. The impulse to get big without even making sense finally comes into manifestation in the sculptures and collages of Wangechi Mutu, the Kenyan-American artist. She had four of her huge seven-foot-tall bronze caryatids erected in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2019. This helped to reframe the space with a powerful force that brings together this world and those beyond it. These figures also provide a physical reminder that the black psychedelic space was not any less powerful than the moon’s dark side, but it was also not as distant. It was pretty close, maybe just a few inches above your head.