George Clinton's Mothership Heads to the Smithsonian

More

The funk superstar's iconic entrance vehicle will ascend into U.S. history
mothership2.jpg

George Clinton, bandleader for Parliament, Funkadelic, and the P-Funk All-Stars and hero to potheads everywhere, was also the most visible 1970s manifestation of Afrofuturism, a distinctly black and ultratechnological phenomenon. The symbol of Clinton's quixotic imagination was the mothership, an Apollo-inspired conical stage prop that blinked and strobed to its own beat during his shows. Now, what began as an outsider musical phenomenon will be enshrined at the Smithsonian, the Washington Post reports.

Clinton and his band of merrymakers could seem silly -- indeed, they invited silliness, reveled in it, wearing wildly improbable costumes on stage (Clinton's Afronaut uniform was bedsheets scribbled on with crayon) and just having more fun than seemed logical or possible. But beneath the wild chop of the show, there was a mythological depth to their gatherings. In his excellent book, Black Space, Cal-State University Northridge scholar Adilifu Nama found in Clinton an accessible version of "cosmic blackness" that used sci-fi imagery to present a mesmerizing vision of uplift and change. Nama quotes Ricky Vincent's distillation of Clinton's importance:

P-Funk's fantastic science fiction created a series of spectacular "other worlds" that Africans could inhabit freely, in which one could be loving, caring, sensual, psychedelic, and nasty without fear of cosmic retribution, and whites simply did not exist. The symbolic connections of P-Funk's concepts to one's earthly struggles for freedom were felt by many listeners, particularly black teenagers. Furthermore, the assertion of a black worldview that incorporates modern technology, the demographics of the seventies, and a black aesthetic was a profound theoretical breakthrough, despite the silliness. Such grand visions of black people were not found in black film, black literature, or black politics in the late 1970s.

For those familiar with the easy-to-parody George Clinton of the last few years, it's easy to miss that his particular vision of black science fiction had a fantastical power. Unmoored from anything everyday, the P-Funk galaxy was an escape, but given the deteriorating state of many black neighborhoods during the 1970s, the value of escape should not be overlooked. And lurking inside the vision of flying away to some better world was the idea that you could come back to transform this world with your bop gun, and what not.

In fact, the (re)arrival of the Mothership was a key part of the narrative of a Clinton show. Here's how Scot Hacker described its arrival in his essay "The Cosmology of P-Funk":

With commandments like "Shit! Goddam! Get off your ass and jam!", you knew that whatever, and wherever "the beyond" was, it was going to be funky... you knew very well what was going to take you there: the same vehicle from which George descended out of a massive blue denim cap and down to the stage in bad-ass righteousness: The Mothership. Just as protestants distinguish between the icon of the Messiah and the true, ineffable spirit, we knew that George's silver saucer was but a model -- a mechanical and ideological messiah figure represented in the terms of the day, as the glory of UFO contact for a generation reared on honky Star Trek and honky Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But it didn't matter whether The Mothership was a prop, because the hallmark of a myth is that you don't go peering around behind the curtain -- you simply believe. As usual, P-Funk co-opted the pop mythology, made it black, and made it intergalactic -- in this case the mythos of (funky) contact. And so shows began with the descent, and ended with the subsequent Assumption, of what was at once a symbol and a reality: Clinton's arrival on the scene in his glorious ship through backlit fog and the incantations of the crowd: "The Mothership connection is here!"

I'm not sure I know what it means to put such an artifact into the Smithsonian. Does the institution rob it of its outsider power or does making it part of the official history of the nation mean that the Mothership's arrival is finally complete?




Via @debcha

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In