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Composing the African Atlantic: Sun Ra, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and the poetics of African diasporic composition

James G Carroll, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation undertakes a comparative analysis of the musical, written, and spoken production of Sun Ra and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti with respect to the larger African Atlantic intellectual environment, situating the two artists as both shapers of an Atlantic intellectual culture as well as artists who were, in turn, shaped by that culture. Through a reading of their creative work, the dissertation argues that, even given the obvious cultural, temporal, and temperamental differences between Sun Ra and Fela, both artists' orientations toward musical composition and performance share similar preoccupations with the recitation of cultural memory and the dialogic creation of historical narratives which is called Composing the African Atlantic. In the dissertation the concept Composing the African Atlantic is proposed as a means of describing an African diasporic version of musical composition which includes many of the so-called extramusical elements of text and performance—audience participation and dialogue being key—as constitutive elements of composition such that, in their absence, the music is not fully realized. Stated in the active present tense (Composing), identified as culturally rooted (African), and formed within a broad and discursively contested space (Atlantic), Composing the African Atlantic describes the means by which composers such as Sun Ra and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti conceive of performance as an essential part of composition, enabling the musicians and audience to craft the true Text of the music through the activation of communal memory and the dialogic contestation of history. The result, in the case of both artists, is the creation of a singular compositional and performative style which maintains its connection to its core audience through the use of ritualized concert performance, the challenging of historical myths, and the performance of historical narratives which refute the Hegelian contention that Africa is "no historical part of the world." In the process, both artists assert that there is a common African cultural memory which exists throughout the African diaspora as a result, fundamentally, of the Atlantic slave trade, but which is also a living, contemporary, cosmopolitan dialectic of representation and re-presentation.

Subject Area

African Studies|African American Studies|Music

Recommended Citation

Carroll, James G, "Composing the African Atlantic: Sun Ra, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and the poetics of African diasporic composition" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3589004.