BLACK UTOPIA: THE FUNKADELIC ART OF PEDRO BELL
April 29, 2019
In 2016 when Childish Gambino released the brilliantly derivative Awaken, My Love, it was obvious that he’d been tripping the blacklight fantastic, and getting zooted to the angel-blunted music of Funkadelic. Borrowing and sampling from their extensive catalogue, Gambino introduced millennials to old school music that still sounds alternative decades after the original tracks were released. Still, as I laid in my darkened room listening to Gambino’s moody grooves and freaky funk, in my mind’s red eye I could see the auteur himself, wearing vintage Panasonic headphones and studying the glorious album covers of visual genius Pedro Bell, the Chicago-based artist whose paintings and drawings became a vital part of Funkadelic’s “Black acid dreamscapes and aural assault” experience.
For those who may not know, Funkadelic was a 1970s group led by conceptualist/ producer George Clinton that led the way in terms of musical, style and graphic innovation. Musically, if it wasn’t for Funkadelic there might not have been a Rick James, a Prince or a West Coast hip-hop sound, to name but three of the group’s sonic descendents. With the release of its 1970 debut album, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, Funkadelic established its mission to reclaim the roots of rock from those who would deny that Black folks were the original rollers.
Clinton, along with a cast of cosmic characters that included keyboardist Bernie Worell and guitarist Garry Shider, merrily broke down the musical barriers that divided various genres. Although Funkadelic’s sound was often considered too white for Black radio stations and too Black for white ones, the group began to amass a considerable cult following that absorbed its groundbreaking albums. It promoted a ghetto-hippie-punk aesthetic that included digesting fistfuls of hallucinogens, toking devil dust and performing wild-styled live shows that blared on for hours.
Meanwhile, dwelling in Chicago, there was a young cat in his early 20s named Pedro Bell, who started sending Clinton illustrated fan letters that got everyone’s attention including the postmaster general. “He (Bell) doodled these intricate, wild worlds filled with hypersexual characters and strange slogans,” Clinton said in his memoir Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? (2014) penned by Ben Greenman. It was through these postal exchanges that the young artist was recruited into the Funkadelic fold.
“Pedro’s correspondence gave me an idea for how we could move Funkadelic up a notch, how we could take what we were doing musically and onstage and capture some of that anarchic energy in album packages,” Clinton wrote. “I talked through ‘Cosmic Slop’ with Pedro on the telephone, and his mind translated it into a strange vision told in half-visual and half-verbal language. When he sent us his interpretation I was blown away. It was nightmarish and funny and beautiful, a perfect fit for the music.”
A decade before, both the Isley Brothers and James Brown had white models on their album jackets, but by 1973, the year Bell painted the cover of Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop, America had entered the golden age of cover art. With illustrators like Corky McCoy teaming-up with Miles Davis the year before, for On the Corner, the time was right to introduce Bell’s visual mojo, which would soon cast a spell over us mere mortals.
“I think that coming out of the Civil Rights Movement and other socially charged issues around Black struggle in our country, we needed a space for Black joy,” says artist/professor John Jennings, illustrator behind the graphic novel adaption of Octavia E. Butler’s classic Kindred. “Not to say that Funkadelic wasn’t dealing with political issues. George Clinton and his crew had a lot subversive messages in their music. But, a great deal of what P-Funk was about was the power of Black celebration and Black joy in spite of being in an oppressive mode of existence. I think Pedro Bell’s work was a worthy visual index for that expression. He helped formulate the visual language of Funk and the semiotics of a Black future.”
While Cosmic Slop was, according to Albumism critic Jesse Ducker, “an eerie, disturbing funk fusion masterpiece,” Bell’s equally unsettling cover set into motion the artistic career of a true master blaster. In Clinton’s own words, Bell’s work “was a combination of Ralph Bakshi and Samuel R. Delany and Superfly and Fat Albert and Krazy Kat and Flesh Gordon, all mixed together in Pedro’s brain with some kind of blender that hadn’t been invented yet.”
Bell’s work was Blacker than an eclipse, and fans were drawn to his dangerous visions, which were as bold as the music. Fans bought a new Funkadelic album, and the music would serve as the soundtrack to Bell’s often-funny, sometimes-bonkers, images and musings. Cartoonist/animator Tim Fielder grew-up in Mississippi where he was a student of Bell’s work from the time he was a boy. “Pedro showed that album art really could be colorful with a deep subversive streak,” says Fielder, creator of the graphic novel Matty’s Rocket. “The hieroglyphic writings with small cartoons in the corner within the explosive visual whole redefined that linear notes absolutely didn’t have to be linear.”
As with many of my musical adventures back in my boyhood, I discovered Pedro Bell’s work in my cousin Chucky’s collection of funk and soul records that were stashed in his family’s basement. While he was out cruising the streets of Hagerstown in his eight-track player-having hooptie, I was downstairs sinking into the quirky quicksand of Pedro Bell’s private world gone public. When I was a boy, my favorite cover was The Tales of Kidd Funkadelic, with its sci-fi symbolism and abundance of detail. A couple of years later, when I started reading underground comics, featuring art by Spain Rodriguez and Vaughn Bode, as well CARtoons magazine, I could see his stylistic kinship to Big Daddy Roth and Robert Williams. Still, Bell took it further faster, blasting off into the future as though his paints and markers had rocket-boosters.
Crime fiction novelist Gary Phillips grew-up in California as a fan of Marvel comics and Pedro Bell. “In Bell’s work, I see [Jack] Kirby’s organic machine-ness by way of [Steve] Ditko’s trippy magic realms (in his Dr. Strange days), mixed with acid and mescal as seen through Sun Ra’s shades. I recently wrote a short story called ‘The Anti-Oxygen Bomb Terror,’ for Something Strange is Going On, a collection of tales inspired by the whacked-out creations of primitive comics artist-writer Fletcher Hanks, wherein Bell’s imagery infused me in a section where the hero, Space Smith, encounters the Maggot Brain and must enter the Cosmic Slop.”
Bell’s work was spacey and sexual, taking Black bizarro utopia to another level. Decades before Afrofuturism turned into a catchphrase for all that is Black and different, Pedro Bell was laying down the tracks for an arty Underground Railroad that would bring the people towards imaginative freedom. For a decade, his work would grace numerous covers, advertising art and massive posters hanging inside record shops across the world. While I believe that his One Nation Under a Groove cover is his most famous, Rolling Stone magazine included Cosmic Slop and Hardcore Jollies in their 1991 feature of “Best Album Covers,” placing them, respectively, at #70 and #86.
Additionally, his work has inspired a wide range of artists, including the equally spacey Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kerry James Marshall and Nina Chanel Abney. In the literary world, Bell’s influence can be peeped in the writings of Darius James, Greg Tate and Sheree Renée Thomas. “I think my favorite covers are One Nation Under A Groove and Hardcore Jollies,” says John Jennings, who is currently graphically adapting another Octavia E. Butler classic, Parable of the Sower, which will be released in 2020. “Nation is just so symbolically powerful and understated in some ways. It functions as such a strong political statement and speaks to Bell’s strength as a designer. Jollies is perfectly balanced chaos and shows his mastery of form and color.”
Harlem-based artist Fielder, who is presently working on the graphic novel Infinitum, says, “Pedro Bell is one of the few original forerunners of Black speculative Art that broke the mainstream. He, along with Overton Lloyd, and to an alternate extent Turtel Onli, and even more obscure Ed Davis, started the public consciousness into the idea the Black people could not only live, have adventures, be funny, have sex, and groove in space.”
Fellow Windy City artist Turtel Onli, who was already a professional illustrator for Playboy, Oui and disco soul performer Captain Sky, met Bell in 1983 and began collaborating with him that first day. “I was the gallery director at a place that was connected with the Great Frame-Up and he walked in thinking that it was an art supply store,” Onli says. “He was looking for illustration board that was three-feet by three-feet, and I knew just from looking at him that it was Pedro. He looked just like one of the characters in his paintings.”
After Bell explained that he had less than 24-hours finish the cover art for You Shouldn’t-Nuf Bit Fish, Onli volunteered to help him and their friendship was cemented through an all-night session of working together. “I was travelling to New York City back then, and people were in love with Pedro’s work,” Onli says. “But, when I told him he did want to believe me. He could’ve been making that Basquiat money, but he wouldn’t follow up.” In addition to Onli’s art life, he also runs the Black Age of Comics Convention, which has honored the now sixty-eight-year-old Funkadelic artist twice.
According to Onli, Pedro Bell has been sickly for years and is currently in a Chicago hospice. Nonetheless, in his lifetime, the man has witnessed his paintings and drawings change many people’s lives, while simultaneously become a pop culture sensation and a true artist. “Pedro Bell made art that was historic,” Onli says. “He brought in a totally different and reckless aesthetic that didn’t look like anybody else’s work.”