George Clinton's Mothership Heads to the Smithsonian
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?