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Missives from the Nebula: ‘Looking for The Perfect Beat’

Universal b-boy, looking for the perfect beat
Mortal motivations, looking for the perfect beat
Mighty Zulu Nation, they have found the perfect beat
Afrika Bambaataa, I present the perfect beat beat beat beat

After Planet Rock exploded onto the scene in the early ’80s, my country butt would go to Waxie Maxie’s record store in the Valley Mall every week to scour the “Dance” bins to find the follow-up. And then I discovered Looking for the Perfect Beat, it hit even harder with me than Planet Rock. Looking back, it was my earliest exposure to the nascent Afrofuturism movement courtesy of the Universal Zulu Nation.

(I won’t touch on what’s become of Bambaataa, who is now persona non grata due to his alleged child molestation charges. He has his own conscience to live with, and I’m sure if the charges are true, he must go to sleep each night knowing that.)

Then I saw the film, Space is the Place. I had never heard of Sun Ra at the time, (I was the only Black kid in my elementary school in a small town, things came to me slowly) but this film was another step forward in my Black Speculative Fiction education. Here’s a purported quote of his:

“I’m thinking about the future of black Egypt, which is outside of the realm of history. History has been very unkind to black people, so actually what I’m always talking about is the myth, and nothing that has ever been is part of what I’m talking about, because I’m saying that black folks need a myth-ocracy instead of a de-mocracy. Because they’re not gonna make it in anything else. They’re not gonna make it in history.”

My first job out of college was digging graves and cutting grass at a Graveyard outside of Baltimore. It was a pretty dirty and physically hard job—when you were actually working. It was a large cemetery, so we all used Golf Carts to get around. My attitude was more like Prince in Raspberry Beret “’Cause I was a bit too leisurely.” I would find all sorts of places to park my cart and chill when there wasn’t a funeral or other pressing work to do.

One day I was hanging out under a tree and Mr. Smittty drove up. Mr. Smitty was a 60 something year old Black man, who you could tell by his demeanor had a lot more going on than every other employee in the cemetery. (For reference, the boss of the operations name was Brian, but his personalized license plate said Brain. I could never figure out if he misspelled his own name or he thought he was intelligent, he wasn’t) He pulled up so that our carts faced opposite ways, so that our drivers sides lined up, and pulled out a massive joint, sparked it up, and passed it my way. I’m not one to be impolite when offered the sweet bud, so I took his offer. As the herb took effect, he began to regale me with stories as old men are wont to do.

He was like a sage. My very own Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Not only did he discuss Transcendental Meditation, music theory, film history and yes, Afrofuturism, he also knew Octavia Butler in and out. I was blown away, I had read some of Ms. Butler’s work, but I learned more about her that day than I would have in a collegiate lecture. (Please check out my friends John Jennings and Damian Duffy’s recent graphic novelization of Butler’s Parable of the Sower to be blown away.)

I was taught a valuable lesson that day about not judging someone by their appearance or occupation. From our earlier interactions, I made assumptions about this brilliant man’s character. But that was one very insightful conversation, one that I’ve carried with me ever since.

Continue to learn.

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Andre Owens is the creator of the comics Force Galaxia and The Bovine Leauge, as well as the screenwriter of the forthcoming Screen Gems, feature film Reparations. He is a former Director of Photography who has been hiding out in Los Angeles for the past 22 years. His company website is at www.hirounlimited.com.

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