By Jenn Pelly for Pitchfork
October 26, 2016
“Basic” may be the most chilling pejorative of our time. And it is never more severe than when Philadelphia’s Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, churns it out on one austere, Nicki Minaj-sampling single from last year: “Look ma, we made it/Only lost a hundred thousand coming over on them slave ships/That’s just one ship,” she booms. “Muhfuckas, I’m jaded/I’m in one big room, and everybody basic.” Ayewa articulates so lucidly and irreducibly that it’s like she is writing with a ballpoint pen; if you have chosen to remain silent in the face of injustice, which is to say in the face of our world, this artist is staring you in the eye.
On a weekday night on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ayewa caps off a performance at a stranger’s apartment—10 foldings chairs, Christmas lights, a bevy of plants—with “Basic.” Her set, which is part of a series highlighting politically-oriented artists, is a mix of soundscapes and poetry. Phrases I jot down during the show include: “no more androids for president, no more zombie artists”; “cops are grim reapers, violence costs nothing”; “the public housing of minds”; and “at what age do we teach our daughters to play dead?” Reality is rendered as hard as it ought to be. “Everything I do is a true story,” she says to the crowded living room. “I just tell the truth.”
After a decade spent in the Philly underground—as show-booker, community organizer, punk musician, rapper, poet, and multidisciplinary visual artist—Ayewa’s work has coalesced into a total vision. It is concrete-heavy, abrasive, and generative. Ayewa reimagines protest songs as radical electronic noise montages, but her lyrics about systemic racism and historical trauma are searing Afrofuturist statements. Take, for example, this incendiary line from Fetish Bones, her recent solo debut: “I’m bell hooks trained as a sniper,” Ayewa snarls, transmuting the intersectional feminist theorist into a warrior. She then declares herself “Sandra Bland returning from the dead with a hatchet,” referencing the 28-year-old black woman who was found dead in jail after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation last year. Befitting the tremendous fire of Ayewa’s words, a 122-page book of poetry was released alongside Fetish Bones.
“I let these stories pass through me—I’m the narrator,” Ayewa tells me over Skype a couple of weeks after her house-show set. In conversation, she is a calming and genial presence; she measures her thoughts, and when she mentions Alice Coltrane, it’s not hard to imagine her in graceful meditation like the cosmic jazz swamini herself. This is in utter contrast to the unwavering anger of Ayewa’s staggering performances. “I start out so smiley, but as soon as the lyric comes, I’m pissed,” she says of her live shows. “When you’re telling the truth, and trying to be respectful to the things that are happening around you, it comes out like that.”
For Fetish Bones, Ayewa was awarded a grant from the Leeway Foundation, which supports women and trans artists whose work promotes social justice. This allowed her to create a studio from scratch in a closet of her North Philadelphia home. The process of making Fetish Bones coincided with Ayewa’s process of learning to produce electronic noise, practicing on her hardware and drum machine. “There’s so many mistakes,” Ayewa says. “Limitations helped it.” But she’s learning everyday. She mentions a recent trip to Rotterdam, Netherlands, where she had access to a studio full of synths; she used the tools to blend the Dutch version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with her own “noisy techno craziness.”
In March, Ayewa began a performance art series called “HOUR/SHIFT.” The first piece was a 14-hour endurance test, a “sonic act of protest” in solidarity with survivors of domestic and sexual assault; the second was Ayewa’s attempt at resurrecting the unmarked graves of Potter’s Field, a burial place for poor black people before the Civil War. In addition to her art, Ayewa’s projects include Black Quantum Futurism—the name under which she and partner Rasheedah Phillips lead community workshops. In June, they opened a physical space called Community Futures Lab in North Philly, which also offers discussions, exhibitions, readings, performances, and housing resources. Beyond that, by day, Aweya coaches soccer and basketball at a Quaker school; even there, her lessons naturally transcend athletics. “These kids are never meeting anyone like me,” she says with a laugh. “One of them came up to me right before a game once and she was like, ‘You know, I really didn’t like Lemonade that much,’ and then just ran onto the field.” The awkward moment eventually led to a discussion about alienation in music.
These projects all speak to Ayewa’s desire to make noise that is practical, that processes history, that can actually teach. She raises her voice and the voices of her community so that they may beget more like their own. She solidifies stories that would otherwise evaporate. She performs magic.
Born in the small town of Aberdeen, Maryland, Ayewa came up around gospel music; she sang in choir and had a rap group with friends called Sister Soldier. But when rap started sounding too “poppy” to her, she sought out harder, political artists. She ultimately got into reggae, ska, and punk via Operation Ivy, 7 Seconds, X, Sleater-Kinney, and Bikini Kill. Riot grrrl particularly inspired her song “Of Blood,” an eerie psalm for menstrual cycles. “I love how everything women were supposed to hide, riot grrrl was just like, ‘No, shove it in their fucking face,’” Ayewa says.
She eventually relocated to Philly to study photography at the Art Institute. “I grew up with not a lot of photographs of myself,” she says. “So I wanted to be a part of helping to document people who don’t have records of their families, stuff that’s not seen—but that’s really expensive, so I got kicked out of school.” She still does photography, though, and her work as a preservationist continues with Fetish Bones.
For six years, Ayewa toured as bassist and vocalist in the DIY punk bands Girls Dressed as Girls and the Mighty Paradocs. In 2012, Moor Mother grew from her desire to say much more; she’s posted some 100 recordings to Bandcamp, with samples ranging from children’s hand games to Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” bassline to the poets Maya Angelou, June Jordan, and Ntozake Shange. The poetry energizes her most. “That’s the stuff that gives me life,” she says. “Poetry is my hardcore. I will rage to that stuff.” But she brings the unsparing spirit of punk to her spoken-word: “People are so confused every time I play a show. They’ll be like ‘What? You just started screaming!’ I scream! I do poetry and I scream.”
“I’m pissed because people who are supposed to be doing what I’m doing—their lyrics are mad soft. I feel like it’s getting there, it just takes time to get back to a more political place. But with this election, it seems like people are honestly worked up about it—and not just worked up as a trending topic.”
Pitchfork: What was your introduction to protest music?
Moor Mother: My family used to listen to scary gospel—Mahalia Jackson, people who were not just waiting for Jesus to come, but being like, “This is what we’re living with, we’re going to push through. I’m climbing up the rough side of the mountain, and we’re going to get into this chariot and go to a better place.”
I grew up in Maryland right by the Chesapeake Bay, and my family was involved with the church in the 1700s. Everyone participated in these prayer choirs—where a group of women, or healers, or priests come together at your deathbed and say this soft prayer, but it’s almost like a song. That’s a tradition of the area. By the time I was coming up in the church, it was no more, but I was in the choir. I love that stuff. Not so much that I was a Christian, even as a kid—I had too many questions that just seemed weird—but I loved the music.
How else did growing up in Maryland shape you as an artist?
My neighborhood offered endless inspiration. My area didn’t have stores close by, so people would open up stores within their apartments: the candy-apple lady, the guy selling cigarettes, the guy that fixes your bike, the guy that is like the cab service, but not the cab service. That’s just so inspiring to me, how we can create our own marketplace and be there for each other without outside help. All that stuff is so vivid and beautiful.
And most of my family were not born in a hospital, like my mom, because [my grandmother] wasn’t allowed to go there. So the doctors had to come to the house. We’re still in that house that my grandmother had owned. Everyone has been born there.
What kind of music were you into playing in Maryland outside choir?
The number one goal was to try and be in a punk band. That was everything. But nobody was into punk or even knew anything about it where I grew up. So I just searched and searched. With ska being the influence of early Jamaican music and punk, I was able to find groups like the Specials. I liked Operation Ivy so much, they weren’t under any rules. Where I grew up, it seemed that you almost couldn’t do anything. You had to stay within rules just because it was, like, hood. I would get on the bus, and they would be like, “You’re gonna get out of this [punk] phase soon.”
When you were younger, was there anyone in particular who warped your brain or changed the way you thought about music?
I saw Patti LaBelle live, and she had these huge high heels and she kicked them off, and she was holding this note and slammed down on the stage and was rolling around. And I was just like: Yo, you can do anything you want. She wasn’t trying to be classy. All these people dressed in drag were giving her flowers. And I was like, I want to be like that. But I can’t sing like Patti LaBelle.
You have said that you’re interested in honoring music made by people who came from nothing, and music that is made from nothing. Can you elaborate on that?
Let’s start with tap dancing—that’s just your feet. You can put soda pop tops on and just go. I’ll sample that all day. And chain gangs—I love that all day because it’s in response to so many things: “I’m working, keeping busy at this hard task, with the chain on my ankle to the hit on the metal, like some beautiful music.” It’s every person’s history with the prison system.
One of my favorite instruments is the water drum. There’s tribes in Africa where women just play on the water. [makes sounds] There’s so many different sounds than a splash. I love that. I didn’t have instruments growing up. I didn’t know that I could ask for them. It was like this thing behind a glass case, like some Tom Hanks movie where you have to go to some fancy big store in New York to find some. So I would just fool around—pencils, desk, the wall, anything.
What was your first instrument?
A desk and a broom? I did get a broken guitar. I was using tapes to make things off the radio, but it didn’t make sense. I just didn’t know a lot. I still don’t, but it’s cool to work through trial and error. I never had a computer, but I saved up for an iPad. I used that thing up.
Do you have a personal definition of protest music?
It’s like the heartache and the troubles of the people trying to find their way. The true testimony of the people. Stuff that is heavy, that affects so many people, like breast cancer—but there’s not many breast cancer songs. Women need to be the ones doing protest music, really. I’m not trying to alienate anyone, but I feel like that would be the perfect definition: A woman singing trials and tribulations.
I read that you did a 14-hour performance to honor women who face domestic abuse and sexual assault. How did it go?
It was my protest for them. I was using sound to almost shut that man’s mouth, or make that home peaceful for that night. Because [women suffer abuse around the world] every nine seconds. That’s so much. It was an electronic set, all improv. I had a record player, this one Sun Ra record, a drum machine, every synth I had. I had this film playing the whole time, about a woman who killed her husband and was in prison for a long time; the husband was sexually assaulting the kids.
The day after the performance, I went to thank the gallery and I just cried and cried. It just all hit me what I was trying to do. The blessing was the messages of people saying: “Today, no one commented on my body going around the neighborhood.” Or hearing about the case of a woman facing 60 years for killing her abusive husband, and she got off, which never happens. That really touched me, but it was draining.
There’s a great place in Philly called Women Against Abuse, but you need a million of those. Say you finally decided to leave a [domestic abuse] situation—there’s a waiting list to find another place to live. It’s crazy. We’ve done events for people to move, to buy the U-Haul. And it’s like—why are we doing this? It happens so often, you would think [the city] had some sort of plan for this. It’s very archaic. I’ve gone to do workshops at places that are off the grid because women are in hiding from their abusers. You’re speaking to someone that had to go into hiding. It’s things that so many of us have experienced as kids of abuse. These cycles just keep coming up. It’s every woman’s story in a sense.
Have you always been interested in processing history through music and art?
Always. When hip-hop went dance, there was no story there, and that’s why I got into punk and Bob Marley, because I needed to hear the history—otherwise, where was I going to hear it from? Music is the way that I’m informed. It helps me know what is happening.
What do you want your own music to inform people about?
I’m trying to get to the level of being as simple as possible, telling a unified story. Everything is a reflection, or a ripple, a wave, the quantum mirror. It’s circular. We’re all more interconnected than we think. I’m trying to get to that every-person story. But we’re slow to honestly reveal what we’re going through. That’s one of the hardest things. We think we’re so isolated or alone in our issues. I try to tell the truth, the stories that haunt me.
It’s interesting to hear you say the story’s not linear. In your music, too, the way it’s structured is also very nonlinear.
It’s just because of my means and how I’m not that smart at this stuff. I’m just teaching myself. I listen to music that I can’t make. I can’t do Alice Coltrane. I have a heart, but I still can’t do it.
Alice Coltrane’s whole situation is inspiring to me. I just think about the time that she was making music, and artists who were making music a little before, like Billie Holiday. They stifled and continue to stifle women’s voices. Today we have Kesha, a pop star in a rough situation with a contract, and that’s very difficult—but do you know they killed Billie Holiday? Imagine the government being against you for singing a song. Imagine people trying to drug you and all these shady situations. In that time, you were used and left behind. It was such a struggle to be a woman making music. The fact that she was able to persevere touches me so much. Because so many did not. And there’s so many that are still unknown.
I saw you post on Facebook: “If we don’t forgive our mothers, we cannot forgive ourselves.” What did you mean by that?
There’s a war against women right now. There’s a war against mothers, and single mothers. I see it every day. We’re just throwing each other away. We’re breaking down roles of gender, but one simple disagreement and we will cast off our own mother. We are connected to our pasts, but we are taught to hate yesterday and hustle for the next. It’s like we’re writing off our mothers. The conversation needs to expand. What are we disconnecting ourselves from when we say these things?
So many people are hurt, hating their mothers, no respect for the elders in their community, for the elders in their art scene. Like when I was talking about Patti LaBelle—she is a rock star. She paved the way. But then she’s gonna be invited on “The View” to cook potato salad. That’s ridiculous. And I would like to eat her potato salad, too.
Is your name Moor Mother linked to this—honoring people who came before?
Definitely. I’m influenced by space and time and growing up, but that’s what it’s really all about: honoring the mother. If you just look at some of these statistics happening with women, it’s outrageous. Everything’s taboo. Menstrual cycle’s taboo, breast cancer’s taboo. Losing your hair and having to deal with that. It’s affecting so many of us. Why are we hiding?
One line that completely gripped me from the album is, “I’m bell hooks trained as a sniper/Sandra Bland returning from the dead with a hatchet.”
I wrote that, and then all of a sudden I get an email about opening up for bell hooks. So I’m like, “Oh shit. I hope she doesn’t hear this song—or maybe I should tell her about it.”
After that line, I say that “lyrically only I can match it.” It’s a very hip-hoppy thing to say, but I’m not playing when it comes to the lyrics. I’m so interested in spreading positivity, but that’s how I felt. I’m angered by feeling like I’m the only one saying this shit. I’m pissed because people who are supposed to be doing what I’m doing—their lyrics are mad soft. It’s mad basic to me. I feel like it’s getting there, it just takes time to get back to a more political place. But with this election, it seems like people are honestly worked up about it—and not just worked up as a trending topic.
I think music is going to get more literal, and then I hope that it can start getting practical, where we could actually take these songs into a workshop or into the community and be like, “This is a song that we can use to teach about history or what’s happening, not just a hook.” It’s so easy to say a bunch of bullshit and then just have the hook be “Black Lives Matter” and that’s it. That’s cheap. I want to encourage people to dig deeper lyrically. I want to encourage myself to write better. I love finding anyone better than me.
You have a new space in North Philadelphia called Community Futures Lab—what has that taught you as a musician? Has it informed what you want to do with your music?
Yeah. The whole idea is making it practical. I want to make things or create spaces where you don’t have to be on the internet and you don’t need some sort of degree. The space is there, you can just come in. We live in this community and this is where we work—the part of town I live in is one of the highest crime, lowest-income areas, and they just moved 1,300 people out of their homes. It’s this barren area at the moment.
Community Futures Lab is showing me that there’s not a lot of spaces for discussion between people of color. We do a lot of stuff—zine making, dream workshops, we have a library. We’re also recording stories of the community. We’re asking questions that deal with temporality, the memory, creating future memories for the neighborhood that we’re living in. It’s going through such rapid development. There was a house that Malcolm X spent some time in that just got knocked down. Across the street was a boxing gym where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier would work out, but there’s no plaque. It’s really slow in North Philly as far as marking these historic moments.
That’s really what we’ve always been about: collecting memories, doing workshops to show kids and adults, “Why do you think this way about the future? Why are you not included? What can you do about it? What’s the importance of writing yourself in the future, under your own definition, not what people have prescribed for you?” So many people, when we ask the first question—“how do you see the future?”—it totally mimics popular movies. The Hunger Games is a main one. In that movie, certain people are in these districts, certain people are farmers, and all the black people die first. These movies prescribe what so many of us think about the future, especially people of color. Being so disconnected from so many of our histories, as far as what’s beyond our great grandmother. It’s very dire times for us keeping track and documenting what we’re going through and what we’ve been through. That’s what the lab is there for.
What does the title Fetish Bones mean to you?
Fetish Bones is how I think about the way we sell ourselves. Like, using each other. Being a musician, I see a lot of this. I see the way we fetishize over our skin color, over how we dress, over class. All of these ways that we toss people aside if they’re what we deem not useful. I just feel like we look at each other like meat. All across the board. We look at our own selves, our own culture, just like meat that is there to devour and not there to be preserved. Everyone wants to burn everything, and eat everything. Eat each other, the whole thing.
That goes back to the woman—just because you are the creator, you’re not everyone’s savior. At the end of the day, you’ve been used and ran through. No. I’m not even a mother of children. After I did my recent festival, I was like, “I want to go home and feel inspired. I don’t want to go home used, crying about not being appreciated.” Traditionally, mom is supposed to be in the kitchen with little whoever on their titty and daddy on their lap. It’s time for women, for everyone, to start walking in that space—we’re not going to be used. Redefining all of this. Having more compassion. Redefining what that means, when everything can be a meme of everything. That’s what Fetish Bones is. Feeling like a hunk of bones.