The AfroFuturism of the Fifth Dimension: Freedom Dreams in the Age of Aquarius

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The AfroFuturism of the Fifth Dimension: Freedom Dreams in the Age of Aquarius

By Joseph Orosco (July 28, 2021)

I was listening to the interview with Questlove on NPR the other day.  He was talking about the new documentary he produced (Summer of Soul) on the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 and discussing the performance of the group, The Fifth Dimension.  The Fifth Dimension, for me, is always connected with the songs from the musical, Hair, namely “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” so I always associated them with images of the largely white, hippie, Woodstock generation.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who made this association.  In the film, lead singer Marilyn McCoo talks about how important it was for them to perform at the festival:

“MARILYN MCCOO: We were constantly being attacked because…

BILLY DAVIS JR: Yeah.

MCCOO: …We weren’t, quote, unquote, “Black enough.”

CORNISH: Marilyn McCoo, a member of The 5th Dimension – she teared up while watching footage of their performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “SUMMER OF SOUL”)

MCCOO: Sometimes we were called the Black group with the white sound. We didn’t like that. That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us – because we wanted our people to know what we were about.”

 

Hearing this made me go back to listen to the songs again and to see if I could find any videos of them from the era.  And what popped out at me was that The Fifth Dimension can definitely be thought of  Afrofuturist in 1969, and those songs from ‘Hair” as being infused as messages from what Robin D.G. Kelley calls the Black Radical Imagination.

In terms of the Afrofuturist aesthetic, check the the original video for “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”:

 

Nigerian writer Munachi Ogsebu calls this video a “major moment” in Afrofuturism!

I’ve also been reading Kelley’s “Freedom Dreams” (2002) and came across this important passage:

“Progessive social movements do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does; transport us to another place, compel us to relive horrors and, more importantly, enable us to imagine a new society.”

Kelley thinks music is an important component of social movements because they give life to this poetic/radical imagination:

“When movements have been unable to clear the clouds, it has been the poets–no matter the medium–who have succeeded in imagining the color of the sky, in rendering the kinds of dreams and futures social movements are capable of producing.  Knowing the color of the sky is far more important than counting clouds.  Or to put it another way, the most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.”

With all of this in the background, I have started to hear “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” in a new way, as part of the tradition of those freedom dreams from the Black Freedom Movement:  spirituals, blues, jazz, and soul.  Especially when you look at the lyrics, these songs are definitely in that utopian tradition of imagining a different world in order to provide hope and soothe pain in the struggles of the present.

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius
Aquarius
Aquarius
Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
Aquarius
Aquarius
When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius
Aquarius
Aquarius
Aquarius
Aquarius
Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in
Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in
Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in
Oh, let it shine, c’mon
Now everybody just sing along
Let the sun shine in
Open up your heart and let it shine on in
When you are lonely, let it shine on
Got to open up your heart and let it shine on in
And when you feel like you’ve been mistreated
And your friends turn away
Just open your heart, and shine it on in

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