The Radical Experimentation of Black Psychedelia

One of the most lasting and influential artistic movements of the 20th century was created with and for Black artists. Why has their contribution been so overlooked?

IN DECEMBER OF 1968, the TV show host Ed Sullivan introduced the group Sly and the Family Stone onto his stage. An ensemble of seven Black and white men and women in sequined blazers, platinum wigs and vinyl vests, they played a rapid-fire medley of their most affirming hits: “Everyday People,” “Dance to the Music,” “Sing a Simple Song,” “I Want to Take You Higher.” They had just released their third studio album, “Life” (1968), and everyone looks excited, although Sly Stone alone appears confident that the whole thing will come off. We see why when he leaves the organ and heads out into the studio audience with his sister Rose: After her solo, he performs a dance routine drawn from Africa, patting juba. “We look like we just landed in a spaceship from Venus,” the group’s original drummer, Greg Errico, tells me of the clip. Men in the audience are wearing suits that “weren’t even cool suits — they look like accountants.” Before heading back to the stage, Stone finds what may have been the one Black man in the crowd and slaps him five. If the group couldn’t make any more time for themselves (hence their pack-it-all-in medley), they could make a little more space and, for a moment, paint it Black.

Their brief invasion of Sullivan’s studio audience, while unusual for the show, followed a long tradition of Black artistic expansion — of “playing out,” “styling out,” “showing out.” These phrases describe African Americans’ longstanding, extravagant defiance of repressive musical, fashion and behavioral codes. We might not be surprised, then, to find Black artists at the vanguard of one of the most “out” movements in U.S. history — psychedelia — even as the equally long history of co-opting and erasing Black innovation helps to explain why the term now conjures images of young white people dancing lethargically to the Grateful Dead.

The psychedelic movement generally describes the convergence of accessible hallucinogenic drugs with youth movements such as antiwar agitation, civil rights and the New Left; its soundtrack was music that evoked the time-bending, echoic, disorienting effects of an acid trip; its visual aesthetic privileged color blends and a meta-perceptual flourish, as in the poster for the 1968 rock musical “Hair,” with its racially ambiguous mirrored images in green and red, or Milton Glaser’s iconic 1966 poster of Bob Dylan, in which the singer’s black silhouette sprouts yarnlike strands of multicolored hair that appear to contain the word “Elvis.” The few historians who take psychedelic culture seriously assume its most important actors were white. Many accounts of psychedelic rock begin in 1966, with the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and the Beatles’ “Revolver,” and end in 1973, with the melancholic drama of Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.” (Jimi Hendrix is included in these histories, but less as an innovator than as a Black beneficiary of white influence.)

The whiteness of these figures aligns with the scientific and philosophical architecture that lent them legitimacy and gave the psychedelic movement a cerebral edge over hippies’ appeals for peace and free love. The annals of psychedelia as they’re commonly written include figures such as Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who stumbled upon LSD in 1943 while working for a pharmaceutical company; the British writer Aldous Huxley, who popularized and elevated the use of hallucinogens through his 1954 treatise, “The Doors of Perception” (the inspiration for the Doors’ name); the Day-Glo-bus-based exploits of the San Francisco area’s Merry Pranksters, led by the novelist Ken Kesey and documented by the journalist Tom Wolfe in his 1968 book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”; and the American psychologist Timothy Leary, who conducted drug experiments at Harvard in the 1960s. Like many countercultural movements (including Surrealism, the 20th century’s earlier consciousness-altering project), white psychedelia looked to people of color, whose cultures seemed to form the marginalized counter to the mainstream culture, for visions of an alternative life.

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The artist and legendary musician with the Parliament-Funkadelic collective discusses the work of Lauren Halsey.CreditCredit…Tony Floyd

But Black artists were creating their own concurrent psychedelic scenes, initially centered in the musical realm but later expanding to literature and visual art. While their experiments might have looked and sounded similar to those of their white counterparts (with whom they once collaborated), the meaning of Black psychedelia, shaped as it was by Black history and culture, was distinct. While white psychedelics were using drugs to achieve mind-expanding glimpses of a universal human community of which they were the default center (and the ones with the power to call others to “come together,” in the words of the Beatles), Black psychedelics were testing and extending the contours of Black art and community.

The political stakes of their work are easy to miss. They did not espouse any particular program, were often monastically devoted to their work and seldom addressed race explicitly. While civil rights protesters dressed like churchgoers and the Black Panthers adopted military uniforms, the Black psychedelics wore platform shoes and rainbow-colored jumpsuits. But Sly and the Family Stone’s interracial, mixed-gender coalition showed what integration (a rallying cry of civil rights) actually looked like — bringing the future into being before people were ready for it, and dealing with the consequences. Other Black psychedelic artists carved out spaces that reclaimed aesthetic practices associated with Africa and explored the inner depths of Black life. The movement, for all its seeming abandon, therefore functioned as a quite disciplined, pointed exercise of freedom that worked in tandem and in tension with more organized Black radical movements, by reasking questions that Black activists tended to regard as settled: What is Black Power? What is the Black community?

The Black psychedelic canon includes musicians and groups such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Chambers Brothers, the 5th Dimension, Rotary Connection, Sly and the Family Stone, Miles Davis, Betty Davis, Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire — all of whom united the esoteric insight of the Age of Aquarius with an equally esoteric understanding of new recording technology in order to expand the sonic and lyrical possibilities of jazz, soul and rock. Their music, like all psychedelic music, was marked by heavy reverb and an elastic approach to time. A similar impulse animated the experimental approach to narrative form, poetics and storytelling advanced by writers such as Ishmael Reed, Alison Mills Newman, Clarence Major and David Henderson. Black psychedelics also included visual artists such as Sam Gilliam, Betye Saar and Senga Nengudi, all of whom made intensely beautiful, abstract but also visceral works that challenged the borders of canvas, as well as the museum and gallery itself; filmmakers such as William Greaves (“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One,” 1968) and Bill Gunn (“Ganja & Hess,” 1973), who broke with linear form to tell riveting yet elusive stories; and architects such as John W. Moutoussamy, whose flamboyant Johnson Publishing Company Building, erected in Chicago in 1971 (with colorful carpeting and swirling abstract wallpaper), was the home of Ebony and Jet magazines. These artists took paintings and made them sculptures; took pop songs and strung them into operatic concept albums; made poetry out of memoir and art films out of horror movies. They took galleries and theaters and brought them outdoors. The Modernist mandate to make it new had birthed the more specific New Age impulse to make it bigger, take you higher, push things further out.

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A poster for Isaac Hayes’s 1973 concert film, “The Black Moses of Soul.”Credit…Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Lush and immersive, dreamlike and daring, Black psychedelia was a world of big colors and feelings, the peak of which was Eddie Hazel’s guitar solo at the start of Funkadelic’s 1971 album “Maggot Brain” — a 10-minute sonic funeral, thick with echo, inspired by the bandleader George Clinton’s direction that Hazel play as though he had just learned his mother was dead. That work spoke to the distinction between Black psychedelia and the science fiction-based strain of Black creative pursuit that it would energize (with Clinton at the helm): Afrofuturism. While Afrofuturists such as Sun Ra, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler tended to privilege future worlds or outer space — the “absolute otherwhere,” as the Black poet Robert Hayden once wrote — Black psychedelics tended to focus on the present, the earthly plane. They drew absurdity and sublimity from ordinary sites, such as New York’s Central Park (as in Greaves’s postmodern documentary “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm”) or a highway underpass in Los Angeles (as in Nengudi’s 1978 performance “Ceremony for Freeway Fets”). Their totems of transcendence were birds rather than stars; their vehicles of transport were dreams and drugs, not time machines or spaceships.

“Excuse me for a minute. Just let me play my guitar, all right?” Hendrix asked the crowd at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival while covering Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” This was, on the one hand, a coy device — he was going to follow his muse through the song with or without the audience’s consent — but it also signaled a cognizance that Black psychedelia was built on: Not everyone was going to get it, but you would find out who your people were by seeing who came along.

THE TERM “PSYCHEDELIC” is thought to have originated from the Greek words for “soul” (psyche) and “reveal” (deloun). The force of that revelation was audible. Near the end of the Chambers Brothers’ biggest hit, 1967’s “Time Has Come Today,” which features the refrain “My soul had been psychedelicized,” Lester Chambers unleashes a series of carnivalesque screams. These are not primal shrieks of fear or rage, Chambers, now 81, tells me, but assertions of an uninhibited spiritual state: “I’m happy. I can do this. I can do this because it’s all right!” The psychedelic era was a time of extended solos, concept albums, double albums, a time in which even song titles announced creative largess (Isaac Hayes’s 1969 track “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic”). These innovations, as deployed by Black artists, did not announce a narcissistic break with the status quo (to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” as Leary said of his LSD-inspired life philosophy) but a thrust toward the utopian. At a time when everyone seemed to be stretching out and taking the true believers in, the interplay between Black and white men had just as much impact on rock innovation as, say, the legendary day when Dylan introduced the Beatles to cannabis at Delmonico’s Hotel in New York.

Although they are rarely given credit for doing so, Black psychedelic artists pioneered the integrated rock band: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Love, Rotary Connection and the Chambers Brothers all had Black and white members. (Reversing the white trope of describing Black domestic workers as being “just like one of the family,” the Chambers Brothers affectionately introduced their white drummer Brian Keenan as “Brian Keenan-Chambers” onstage.) While earlier jazz artists such as Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday had used drugs, they were often criminalized or institutionalized for it. The majority-white spaces that Black psychedelics entered — whether integrated bohemian clubs such as New York’s Electric Circus or, indeed, Woodstock — were less heavily policed than Black jazz scenes and so allowed Black artists a greater degree of freedom.

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The paintings of Sam Gilliam’s 1968 “Double Merge,” at Dia:Beacon in New York.Credit…© Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy of the Dia Art Foundation

Stone’s ensemble, which included white men as well as Black women, who not only sang but played instruments, was perhaps the most iconic of the mixed groups. Stone was a church-raised multi-instrumentalist, studio wiz and popular Bay Area D.J. and producer whose group included his brother Freddie on guitar, Rose on keyboards and vocals, the Black bassist Larry Graham, the Black trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, the white saxophone player Jerry Martini and the white drummer Errico. They first met up in December of 1966, when Errico (who is now 73) was 17, in the basement of the home that Stone had bought his parents. During that first meeting, Errico tells me, they didn’t play; they just talked. “Everyone’s kind of looking at each other with this gleam in their eye like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be cool. …’ It was unspoken; it was just the spirit in the air.” That self-belief sustained them through a great deal of cultural pushback. “Think about the times,” Errico says. In the midst of racial violence and tension (which the group would name outright in their 1969 song “Don’t Call Me N****, Whitey”), the primary feedback the band received, from people across the racial spectrum, was, “You can’t do this.” Stone’s assertion, as Errico relates it, was, “‘Who cares that it’s not usually done? These are human things.’ He comes from a church background. … So maybe in the spiritual sense,” he says, Stone felt “it was bigger than all that. And it turned out he was right.”

Still, such interracial scenes didn’t ensure Black psychedelics’ visibility or success. Sam Gilliam, despite being among the most inventive members of the artist enclave known as the Washington Color School (which included white painters such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, in addition to Black artists like Gilliam and Kenneth Victor Young), was long overlooked. While his colleagues were engaged in the fairly conservative project of extending Abstract Expressionism, Gilliam, who at 88 is now garnering the attention that eluded him at other points in his career because his work did not fit into any tidy narrative or genre, was painting 150-yard-long abstract canvases that he sprang from their frames and hung from ceilings and walls. He once described these Technicolor paintings turned sculptures, known as drape paintings, as enactments of “confidence”: “That attitude that allows you to spread, to use the whole shop in working.” But they express another form of confidence by claiming the right to be elusive. Two of these works make up the installation “Double Merge” (1968), which has been on view at Dia:Beacon in upstate New York since 2019. Encountered today, it is a kind of monument to an alternate history that is still too often ignored. One is struck not only by the suspended expanse of silver and emerald splatters against sunset color fields but also by the small, nubby heads of canvas, carefully gathered and tied with leather strips, from which aircraft cables have been attached to hold the whole thing up. Just as poignant as these reminders of the craftsman’s labor is the intimation that some of the spectacle remains hidden from view. Parts of the paintings are obscured within the drapery’s folds, and the drapes work together with the museum wall to form a soft, irregular cube. It’s a room we can’t see inside — an interior in public. This combination of scale and mystery — what one might call the Black sublime — is a key to Black psychedelia. At a moment when Black artists were expected to produce realist depictions of Black identity, Gilliam’s aesthetic of audacious evasion constituted its own political statement.

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A kitchen at Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Company, in a building that was designed by John W. Moutoussamy and opened in 1971.Credit…Lee Bey

IN THE 1970S, Black psychedelics followed the turn from a civil rights model of interracial alliance toward a Black Power investment in self-determination by creating their own Black-run musical and artistic institutions. As the conceptual artist Nengudi has said of the time after the Watts uprising in 1965, the mind-set of Black artists changed: “OK, we no longer want to knock on the door; we want to create something for ourselves.” Autonomous Black artists’ cohorts such as Studio Z — the Los Angeles-based group of which Nengudi was a part — admitted more room for Black women’s voices than did the homosocial interracial collectives of the 1960s. In contrast to the machismo of the more canonical psychedelic scene (whatever personal demons that troubled Janis Joplin, whose career in music lasted less than five years before her death in 1970, were only made worse by the sexism she faced), Black psychedelic culture in the 1970s began to host Black women’s innovations across the arts.

It was as part of one of these Black networks that the funk pioneer Betty Davis unleashed her own genius. She nudged her then-husband, Miles Davis, toward fusion, before creating her own erotic, proto-punk songs that inspired other Black women artists such as the futuristic trio Labelle (not to mention Prince). Davis, who died this week at 77, married Miles (who was 18 years her senior) in 1968, when she was working as a model and a songwriter and he was developing the modal, electric jazz he would announce most dramatically on his 1970 double album (with his own integrated band), “Bitches Brew.” By then, she had already persuaded the Chambers Brothers to record her song “Uptown,” which became a hit. (She later met members of Sly and the Family Stone, who would play on her own first solo album, which Errico produced.) She introduced Miles to Hendrix, sparking his interest in electric instruments. Davis never identified with psychedelic culture. But what the cultural critic Greg Tate wrote about Hendrix was true of her, as well: She was “part of a group of experimental pop musicians who … refused membership in anybody’s camp but that of musicians,” a defiance of social or stylistic constraints that typified the psychedelic ethos. She and Miles listened to “Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff and Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone,” Davis told me in an interview last fall. They seldom went out, preferring to sit home by the fire and roast marshmallows. Their marriage lasted only a year — Davis would later describe Miles as violent — but during that time, Miles often played her his work in progress, seeking her advice: “He would ask, ‘What do you think, Betty?’ And I would say, ‘I think you should add more bass to that.’” Their life in music together gave Davis the confidence, even after they separated, to produce her own work.

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The jazz musician Sun Ra, a pioneer of both psychedelia and Afrofuturism.Credit…Courtesy of Jim Newman and the Dilexi Foundation

Alison Mills Newman was, like Davis, emboldened by a romantic relationship fostered by a Black cohort, to tell a vibrant, experimental story about Black female desire. Her profoundly underappreciated 1974 autobiographical novel, “Francisco,” is driven by its author’s vernacular wit and the narrator’s effort to “love an alive life.” Newman began her career as an actress; her most visible role was that of the babysitter on the TV show “Julia,” which starred Diahann Carol. When she tried to move from TV into film, she tells me, she was at every turn blocked by men who expected her to sleep with them. Newman, who is now 70, left Los Angeles temporarily for New York, where she met a cadre of experimental Black writers and artists: the saxophonist Ornette Coleman; the poet Jayne Cortez; the writers Ntozake Shange, Ishmael Reed, Toni Morrison and Amiri Baraka. Here were Black men who treated her as an equal, and Black women who paid no heed to Hollywood’s diets and wigs. As the women of Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” assert at the end of the choreopoem (which originated in Berkeley, Calif., before its Broadway premiere in 1976), “I found god in myself & I loved her / I loved her fiercely.” “Francisco,” which was published by Reed’s press and featured a blurb from Morrison, was as experimental as Morrison’s own form-breaking 1970 debut, “The Bluest Eye,” but even less candid in its messaging — it was an impressionistic exploration of Black womanhood that tracked the internal dynamics of a coterie of young Black artists, as well as the early days of the narrator’s relationship with a man based on Newman’s future husband, the filmmaker Francisco Newman. (The two characters listen frequently to Hendrix, who had by then died of an overdose in London in 1970, at age 27.) Like Gilliam’s works, the novel didn’t make a clear statement about Black identity but still resonated as a collectively meaningful statement of radical individualism. This was one implication of the transformation Aretha Franklin described when, in 1971, she told Ebony that she and other Black people were “falling in love with ourselves just as we are.”

THIS INDEPENDENCE, OFTEN coded as racial separatism, is one reason the Black psychedelic movement has been excluded from histories of the American counterculture. It was easier for the dominant culture to imagine, as Wolfe did in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” that Black people had simply vanished from what Wolfe describes as the “dying” culture of the Haight-Ashbury district (“It had … gotten to the point that Negroes were no longer in the hip scene, not even as totem figures,” he writes) than that they had left to create their own scenes. The art created in these scenes, moreover, operated at a scale and with a level of abstraction that challenged conventional ideas about what Black art was supposed to be. Instead of clear-cut, self-contained statements of protest and self-affirmation, Black psychedelics privileged intimate encounters with the unknown, be it private desire or inarticulable experience.

The American legal system in the ’70s and ’80s, partly as a response to the more liberal 1960s, restigmatized recreational narcotics, and generally targeted Black and brown people for using illicit substances. It’s why the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson — who, like Stone, was a celebrated musician from the West Coast who turned toward harder drugs and a reclusive lifestyle — is remembered as a complicated genius, while Stone is framed as a bitter, pessimistic menace (or, at best, because of his 1971 album, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” as an unwitting prophet). And Stone does indeed look menacing compared with the corporate parody of white psychedelia produced later in the 1970s by bands like the Eagles, who blithely encouraged listeners to “take it easy,” or a group like the Grateful Dead, who preached mellowness and fun.

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An original work made for T by the artist Wardell Milan, “Gifts for the Psychedelics” (2021).Credit…Courtesy of the artist and David Nolan Gallery, New York

One final reason Black psychedelia has not been heralded or even identified as such is that its distinctive contributions have been usurped by discussions of Afrofuturism — a longstanding movement that critics named in the 1990s and that drew energy from psychedelia once the 1960s’ fight for radical change ran up against radical backlash. If, as Errico puts it, Sly and the Family Stone had seemed to land on “The Ed Sullivan Show” from Venus, by the mid-1970s, many Black artists were going back up, imagining themselves as pioneers of outer space. It was a spectacular conceit, and quite an American one: As much as Black citizens had criticized the government for spending billions of dollars on the Apollo 11 mission instead of using the money to alleviate poverty (a commentary that Gil Scott-Heron crystallized in his 1970 track “Whitey on the Moon”), the popularization of Black science fiction that would come to be known as Afrofuturism acknowledged that space travel had its allure. Labelle sang about being “Space Children” (1974), Stevie Wonder recorded a paean to “Saturn” (1976) and Parliament devoted a whole concept album to the “Mothership Connection” (1975). These works, while funky, playful and ironic, were something of a post-revolutionary after-party in which African American artists conceded, as the long ’60s turned into the longer ’70s, that another world might not be possible anywhere on Earth — not even in an idealized Africa. This was an era of political conservatism and economic downturn marked by Richard Nixon’s “benign neglect” approach toward Black and brown communities, an increasingly militarized police force greenlit by the war on drugs, and the channeling of Black Power’s remaining energies into electoral politics. No wonder that the architect of otherworldly Black dreams, Sun Ra, amped up his own extraterrestrial efforts in the experimental 1974 film “Space Is the Place.” At the end of that film, Earth explodes, and he and his followers escape on a spaceship.

To seek out finer distinctions among different forms of radical Black creativity is to see that the story of Black psychedelic culture is the story of coalitions of artists who made new worlds closer to home. When Sly and the Family Stone sang about wanting to “take you higher,” they were conjuring sensual, possibly drug-enhanced experiences that you could have without leaving the ground. The future wasn’t distant, it could be tomorrow, and space didn’t signal far-flung galaxies so much as enclaves of people and the plain fact of air. Gilliam once said of 1968, “Something was in the air, and it was in that spirit that I did the drape paintings.” He was, on the surface, describing a cultural zeitgeist. But his comment also points to the way those works give shape to the actual atmosphere in a room.

Black psychedelia was among the 20th century’s boldest experiments in using art to reopen questions about power and identity in this world. This explains its persistence in the 21st century. Hip-hop artists such as Outkast (who collaborated with Clinton on their 1998 track “Synthesizer”), Young Thug and Future have rerouted early rap’s obsession with the economics of drug culture back toward its recreational value, while pushing the boundaries of intelligibility via a mumbling delivery. The work of expanding Black expressive possibility while maintaining the right to illegibility similarly shaped Erykah Badu’s “Amerykah,” parts one and two (2008, 2010), and D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” (2014), while the mellower, more personal dimensions of the psychedelic imagination inform new music and videos by the singer-songwriters Arlo Parks and Kadhja Bonet, as well as the narrative and perceptual experiments of Michaela Coel’s 2020 TV series, “I May Destroy You.” The impulse not to simply shore up Black community but call it into being motivates Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew’s “Black Futures” (2020) — a 500-page anthology that, despite its title, bespeaks a presentist urge to display the richness of contemporary Black writing and art. The urge to go big without always making sense is, finally, manifest in the collages and sculptures of the Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu. Four of her massive, seven-foot-tall bronze caryatids — human-goddess hybrids — were installed in the niches of the facade of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019, reframing the space with an enigmatic force that is both of this world and beyond it. These figures serve as embodied reminders that the space of Black psychedelia was no less powerful than the dark side of the moon, but also not as distant: It was right around the corner, just above your head.

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