Ancient Egyptian Symbolism In Black American Music


The aim here is to trace the origins of the use of ancient Egyptian iconography in black American music. It can be found as far back as the 1950s with artists such as Sun Ra, continuing with Alice Coltrane in the 1960s, through to Earth Wind and Fire, X Clan, KRS One, Erykah Badu, and a host of others in-between and after.

While Western composers such as Mozart and Verdi had made reference to ancient Egypt in their work (The Magic Flute & Aida), a unique set of historical circumstances led to black American artists doing the same.

Thus I wish to draw attention to artists whose use of the symbolism was an expression of pan Africanism, nationalist politics, their awareness of history, and identification with African culture and spirituality. This perspective has been overlooked of late, due to the focus on more contemporary pop/rap music incorporating the same ancient symbols, but in ways that are far more materialist and often darker in theme (the so-called ‘Illuminati music videos’).

In retracing the history, hopefully this essay will help towards shedding light upon the more positive connotations of the symbolism.

Post World War 2: A New Mood In the Air

The period just after the Second World War saw a series of important societal changes that would impact upon the music of black America. Let us briefly outline some of the shifts that took place.

First of all, during the 1950s and 1960s the civil rights struggle was in full swing. Not since the times of Marcus Garvey in the 1920s had the American black community been so galvanised. It coincided with the independence movements taking place in Africa and various Caribbean islands. Pan Africanism and black nationalist ideas were becoming increasingly widespread.

Among American blacks, especially the young, there was a new-found interest in finding out more about their ancestral heritage, with a particular thirst for learning about African history prior to slavery & colonialism. Malcolm X’s work and charismatic presence was a great catalyst in this area, both during his time with the Nation of Islam and thereafter. Along with other nationalist street orators of the day, during speeches Malcolm would consistently refer to the accomplishments of ancient black civilisations to inspire audiences. History books, journals and magazine articles on this theme began to gain popularity. Among the popular writers were J.A Rogers, George G.M James, William Leo Hansberry, John G. Jackson, John Henrik Clarke, Cheikh Anta Diop, Yosef Ben Jochanan and others.

The arts - and music in particular - always reflects the social climate in which it is created. Not surprisingly, this culturally charged atmosphere had an effect upon musicians and informed their creative output.

How the Music Was Affected

The African influence took many forms. In terms of sound (without getting too technical here) it affected the way musicians approached rhythm, melody, and ways of writing/arranging music. A number of musicians began employing the use of African instruments, especially percussion. The 1940s bebop movement had heralded some of these musical innovations, especially in its use of Afro Cuban rhythms and conga drums in some pieces. It’s worth mentioning that black artists drew upon a range of musical influences across cultures; it is the prominent African aspect that this essay focuses upon.

We also begin to see musicians using their art as a platform of social commentary to protest at the status quo, or as a vehicle for spiritual practise. The new mood was expressed visually too. Relevant to this essay is the consistent reference to ancient Egyptian themes by a variety of musicians - whether in record sleeve artwork, song titles, attire, stage settings etc.

What now follows is a selection of music and visual examples.

Sun Ra

Sun Ra pioneered the reconnecting of ancient Egypt to the African diaspora’s music tradition. A relatively underground figure, he was hugely influential. His groundbreaking work was the prototype of the Afrocentric/cosmic themes that occur later on with the likes of John Coltrane, EWF, Afrika Bambaataa, X Clan and Erykah Badu. From his 1959 album Jazz In Silhouette, this is 'Ancient Aiethiopia':

Another late 1950s Sun Ra album sleeve, The Nubians of Plutonia:

Max Roach

The album We Insist! Freedom Now (1960) captures the mood of the civil rights struggle. The track 'All Africa' featuring Abbey Lincoln also celebrates the pan African spirit that was influencing musicians at that time. Here is a 1964 performance from Belgian television:

Randy Weston

Pianist Randy Weston has always given prominence to the African elements in his work. Here's the 1960 album Uhuru Afrika which featured the renowned poet Langston Hughes.

(Fast forwarding a few decades, below is the sleeve of Randy's 2005 album Zep Tepi)

John Coltrane

Sleeve for the album Cosmic Music by saxophonist John Coltrane. Notice the sphinx on the left hand side; it’s accompanied by symbols from each of the world religions. Trane said ‘I believe in all religions’ and he appears to have been moving towards a non-sectarian, metaphysics based view expressed through music.

Alice Coltrane

Alice Coltrane’s late 60s and early 70s solo work, often in collaboration with Pharaoh Sanders, continued the spiritual legacy of her husband John Coltrane. With titles such as Ptah the El Daoud, The Ankh of Amen Ra, Isis and Osiris & Blue Nile, her music embraced the mystic tradition of Egypt.

Featuring Alice on harp, this is ‘Lovely Sky Boat’ from 1968.

The Last Poets

Along with people such as Gil Scott Heron, The Last Poets were a precursor to conscious hip hop. Their poem E Pluribus Unum (1972) addresses the presence of African symbols on the US dollar bill and the masonic background to the founding of the United States.

Gary Bartz

Saxophonist Gary Bartz was a protégé of Max Roach, and brought a similar pan African sensibility to his work with his band Ntu Troop. The sleeve of his album Follow The Medicine Man (1973) features a variation of the ankh and scales of Maat.

Lonnie Liston Smith

Pianist and composer Lonnie Liston Smith played with Miles Davis in the 1970s (as did Gary Bartz). ‘Sais’ (Egypt) is taken from his Cosmic Funk album; ‘Sais’ is the Greek rendering of the name of an Egyptian town.

Earth Wind and Fire

The spiritual ethos of EWF was and is as much a driving force as their stellar musicianship. Interestingly, founder member and leader Maurice White briefly played with John Coltrane in the saxophonist’s latter years. Here's the sleeve for their 1977 album All and All.

Gary Byrd (Imhotep Gary Byrd)

Gary Byrd's classic 'The Crown' (1983) was a major hit in the early 80s. A few years later, KRS ONE's 'You Must Learn' followed in the same lyrical vein.

X Clan

X Clan were one of the greats of the late 80s/early 90s 'Golden Age of Hip Hop'. They came about at a time when Afrocentricity, The Nation of Islam and Gods & Earths teachings were exerting a major influence over hip hop culture. X Clan brought a strong African centred lyrical content and visual presentation which still resonates today.

Erykah Badu

I always felt Erykah Badu was coming from the same worldview as X Clan, albeit with her own distinctive artistry. Her album Baduizm (1997) was a calming breath of fresh air as so-called 'gangsta' and bling were dominating the airwaves. Erykah's image - note the ankh on her finger - offered a welcome alternative.


The above list of artists is by no means exhaustive and provides an introductory taster for anyone wishing to explore further. A study of the actual meanings and functions of the symbols themselves would provide additional insight for researchers. Above all, these artists have shown in multifaceted ways how music can uplift, inform AND entertain – something that today’s music makers can learn much from.

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by @ImaniHekima {Leeds, United Kingdom:EU}

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