• Sam Fleming

AN INTERVIEW WITH MOOR MOTHER

This is an edited transcript of an interview with the Philadelphia-based artist Moor Mother who we hosted on our podcast, Two Virgins. The full podcast episode can be found on Spotify here.

Photo by Bob Sweeny

Based in Philadelphia, Camae Ayewa (Moor Mother) is an incredible artist, activist, and workshop facilitator. She has performed at numerous festivals, colleges, galleries, and museums around the world. As Moor Mother, she released her debut album Fetish Bones on Don Giovanni records to critical acclaim. Fetish Bones was named 3rd best album of the year by The Wire Magazine, Number 1 by Jazz Right Now and has appeared on numerous end of the year list from Pitchfork, Noisy, Rolling Stone, and Spin Magazine. Camae is also a vocalist in three collaborative performance groups: Irreversible Entanglements, MoorJewelry and 700bliss.  


Moor Mother talks to Teresa and Sam about seeing the impact of her art, using music as a form of activism, and operating in the Philadelphia art space. Moor Mother's new album, Circuit City was released on September 25th.



Teresa: Listening to your output this year as a fan, it seems like there's been so many new projects in that all of them have such different genre constraints that they fit into. Between Moor Jewelry, Irreversible Entanglements, and your solo work, do you pick one portion of time to devote to an album or do you flow through all the projects that you're working on?


Moor Mother: It just depends, but I usually multitask. For instance, a couple of days ago I finished one of the tracks for my next project. But, I was working on seven tracks at a time. What I usually do when I finish a track, is ask myself, "did I fail or did I succeed?" If I succeed, the track's done. If I felt I did as much work as I can do, then I move on to the next track and then the next track, and then the next track. Just trying to knock it out.


Yesterday I was like, "Oh, only one track done... bad studio day." But I gotta be a little nicer to myself. If we're going to talk astrology, my moon's in Leo so I'm very hard on myself. I like to get things done.


Sam: Can you talk about what it means when you say succeed and fail in terms of making a track?


Moor Mother: What does it mean to succeed versus fail? Just if it's not completed. I use these terms, success, and failure, loosely for myself, not to put this on anyone else because of course, they're false words. We talk in Black Quantum Futures about word magic all the time. It's definitely some weird spell dealing with success and failure, but in my own studio world that I'm letting you inside of right now that's how I view it.


If I get something done, that's good. If I'm still working on it, it's just another ball and chain until I can figure it out. Also, I'm using "ball and chain" very loosely. It's all about putting good pressure on myself. Sometimes, you have to use these kinds of words, but not become dependent on them for your own emotional output.


Teresa: How has being in quarantine changed your approach to writing or your creative process? Have you found time to work on more tracks or have less inspiration?


Moor Mother: Oh, well all I can do is work on tracks. All I can do is make music. There's nothing else for me to do. I haven't been home this much in years. It's not that big of a deal, but I normally travel every month out of the country. So it's been hard knowing that right now, for instance, I would be in Marseille probably jumping off a cliff into some water. But that could happen another time. It's whatever. With touring you can tour some other time, that's just a small part of the work as a musician.


So it's okay to sit home and try to make songs or try to make sonic outputs to add some sort of healing to the world, I'm into that. But, I still have so much work to do. The work hasn't stopped, it's just that I'm not leaving the country right now.


Sam: I'd love to talk a little bit about "Who Sent You." I know, especially the title track from that album, really hit me and was a total trip. And I feel like it's the type of album that you really need to sit with and kind of absorb, and I've been taking some time to do that. What has it been like working with a band during quarantine? Has it changed how you guys interact or work together?


Moor Mother: We don't rehearse. We come together with everything that we have. We have an understanding, a shared interest, a shared love. So, when we get in the studio, to make that record, we just go into the studio and play.


And it's so funny about that title track because that title track was supposed to be on our first record. Not that particular recording of it. Cause that was the first poem I wrote for the band. So that's the reason why we even got together because we were playing for musicians against police brutality in New York at a great place called the Silent Barn that's no longer around that really gave me a start as a solo artist, a shot to play in New York all the time. That's why I would have my album release parties there and stuff out of, the respect and love for that venue and the people that organized it.


The piece is about a man named Mikai Gurley, who was shot down in his neighborhood. No one liked the piece. No one liked it. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that. Maybe they liked it, but it didn't come off as good as it could be. We have a voting system, so the other songs got more votes to be on the record. So we're in a studio and I told the guys, "Hey, we're doing this." Okay, we're doing this track.


We do it live in so many different ways cause as I said, we just play. So I knew it was going to go crazy because it was just so much time and still it wasn't promised that it would make it, but I'm very proud that I was able to share that record. And thinking now, it was our first footsteps.


Sam: That's incredible that you guys don't rehearse and that it all comes together so cleanly.


Moor Mother: I mean, that's kind of my style. I do rehearse if I have to, where it's like, "we need a rehearsal." I'm like, Oh, okay.


Just recently, this album that's coming out this month, I wrote my first play, a free jazz musical. People from the theater department were like, "You're not going to practice and practice and practice and practice." And I'm like, "What are you talking about? I got it."

Everyone's like, "Well usually, in a theater, with a play, you rehearse and you rehearse like this." And I was starting to feel a little nervous cause I was like, "Oh, well I'm not doing any of that. And I'm not going to do any of that."


We rehearsed maybe once a day or something like that. And then it came out amazing. Even the first show, they were like, "Oh, that was amazing." I was like, "yeah!" We have it inside of us. It's not something that we have to keep practicing to get it. No, we got it. It's just about lights and stuff like that.


Sam: So, could you tell us a bit about the new album? What can we expect from it and what do you love about it?


Moor Mother: I love that it's good. All the pressure I had to produce, I had to do everything for this play that usually theater people have a whole bunch of people to do.


I mean, I probably even cried. I have to ask my partner, but I'm sure I cried. It was hard. I've said I'd never want to do this again. It was tough. I had, 10 people to get homes for in Philly, transportation, and food... it's so much work. So to deal with all of that and have it still be good.


And also we did four shows, right? All shows were supposed to be recorded and only one show got recorded. And that's what the album is. It wasn't even the best night. It's just all of this crazy stuff that happened, but it came out so amazing. When I listened to it, I couldn't even sit down.


I was so overwhelmed with how powerful it was, it just literally rocked me. So I'm excited for people to be rocked by something I'm rocked with. It's about housing. It's about the future of housing and technology. So of course, always perfect timing because we have been forever in a housing crisis. It's just so freaking good. I don't even know what to say. I just recently shot a video for the lead single or the lead track and I just can't even deal.


I do everything within my own neighborhood, all my videos right where I live, and all my recording. That adds to the place and space of the energy so it doesn't waver. It's like this kind of thing. When you're a maker, you just make, and then what happens you you're not really responsible for. Besides, of course, on the sound vibration that you send out in the world, you're responsible for that. This thing is so organic and real, and I think you don't get these kinds of feelings anymore with music that's isn't folk or juke joint blues. That's when something's real. But how can we use these sounds to make it feel real? That this music is pumping through the hearts of everyone, not just a singular group. I feel like this record does that. You cannot deny the real factor of it.


I do bad with excitement, but I'm really excited about it. And I think that is a powerful thing that will have a good impact. I'm trying to do the best, in my way, of sending it out to different housing coalitions around here. So maybe they could also use it as a talking point or as anything for their continual fight against housing injustice. That's the most important thing about doing the play, to bring more awareness to housing injustice, but it just so happens that the music is really good.


Teresa: I've often seen that you've described using sound as a tool of resistance. From a personal experience perspective, when was the first time that you realized you could use sound to be a tool of impact and resistance?


Moor Mother: I've done experiments forever. I worked to understand how sound can make a baby feel or an animal feel. You understand that there is a power in sound, but I did my first durational performance for fourteen hours at the Vox Populi here in Philadelphia. It was a durational sound performance to combat violence, and sexual assault on a non-local sentiment. Meaning I learned all these statistics, every nine seconds, and every few minutes women, trans, and non-binary folks are being attacked. On the regular. So I said, what can I do as a sound person to combat this?


So, I put together in my head this whole idea of how I would push the sound to not only be an act of protection but also use that sound as a source of power -- a source of stepping into one's own, because sometimes you can be defeated before you even go outside due to all the things that happen to you on a daily.


So, it was that strength to say, "Okay, I'm going to go outside, and whatever I'm wearing and hopes that walking through the store will be safe." And once I did this performance -- it was hard. I don't know if you know, Vox, populi, but there are three or four flights of steps -- basically, I took my whole home studio because it was going to be 14 hours. I needed to play every single thing that can imagine. I had to carry it all up by myself because my partner was at work. I didn't have any help.


I got home at the end of the 14 hours, sometime late at night I went to write a message on the social networks to say thank you to the people that came out. People were bringing me bread and drugs. And I was like, "Hey, I don't do drugs. But it's nice to see it there, so if I freak out or something, I can calm down." I just was really appreciative of that, but I just couldn't even do the message. I cried so much and it was such a release. All the sadness I had taken, so much sadness, so much pain, and uncertainty while I was doing this performance just flooded out. I mean, I was like a faucet, like, wow, this is really coming out of me. And then, the next morning I wake up to these messages from people from all over. This one particular message said, "I walked to the store and no one commented on my body, and that's a rare thing, for women or trans folks to even go outside and have someone not even comment on their body, whether it's so-called negative or positive."


That was just amazing! And I receive a lot of these messages from people saying like, "Wow, I had this moment of peace. Or that day I was able to move like this." That was my proof that this really can eliminate the boundaries of where sound is supposed to go and how healing works. That was my first experiment and I've done many since then.


Sam: That's an incredible story. I know that you have a couple of workshops coming up with the Black Quantum Futurism, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you're hoping to achieve with those workshops.


Moor Mother: With Black Quantum Futures, we started a time camp here in Philadelphia. So this is number four. The first one we were allowed to be together in person. So we had an all-day camp for adults, or whoever wanted to sign up really, where we had different classes and games. I did a sonic meditation where I had everyone lay down and relax while I played live sound with my partner. Mental Jewelry was the first one he came.


It's all about time and it's about how time is oppressive, that's the main idea. It's about bringing people from all over that are doing these works around time and around healing to put on an all-day camp. We have lunch and all this cute kind of stuff.


This is number four, this one is going to be online. Also, it's for black womxn and nonbinary folks. I'm doing a writing workshop actually, which may change because how I do things is I'm a feeler first. I feel what's needed and then work from there. You know, I don't like to impose things onto people kind of thing when I'm doing a workshop.


The lineup is better than it's ever been. It's crazy. We have some of the great minds from Philadelphia, from actually all over the world, Brazil, these different connections that we were able to make on our travels and through the work that we put out. Time camps are just one of many projects from Black Quantum Futurism puts on, but I'm so excited about it.


I'm excited to continue. We've had people put on time camps under our advice in different places also. So, it's a wonderful time for people to learn beyond the so-called tropes that everyone else is thinking about. They call that unpacking color causes or whatever.

That's the thing with fourteen hours, I said to domestic violence is very important. I don't even think there's anything that I can make that doesn't have some type of going back to that as activism, that's important to me, but truth be told it is an unpopular cause. No one really cares about domestic violence unless a football player beats his wife, or attacks somebody. Even housing now is starting to be a little bit more popular because Trump said something and someone else has said something, but initially, no one cared about the living conditions of poor people. There are so many things to address sonically and musically. These have just been the things that I've chosen.


We talk about the oppression of time, which is starting to become way more popular. Everybody, even banks are talking about the future. In all my work I release poetry books, and there's one particular piece of mine that I think really says a lot... it's like, "we're not talking about the same future." When people hop on bandwagons and don't do the work of understanding physics, time, and oppression, then they just sound like a bank. Are you caring about this because it's popular or are you caring about this because you looked at statistics because you know someone that's in a domestic violence situation? How much does the string go from your community to other communities? Most people just stay within their own group, whether that's their racial group, financial group, college group, whatever.


Teresa: How has being an interdisciplinary artist and touching on all forms of art inform the way that you see the process of healing?


Moor Mother: I mainly come from sound. That's the first thing I'm thinking about is the sound. Then I happened to make this decision to be a poet. I always was doing poetry, but it wasn't until, my heroes in poetry I've passed away -- Maya Angelou or Amiri Baraka so on and so on -- that I decided that I would take it seriously.


So, I'm always thinking about liberation technology, but then with the visual work I do and the poetry, that's just stuff that I do. It's just about being more serious about it, not keeping everything to myself.


I come from an education background. That was my thing, working in education, teaching kids... that whole world. The first thing that you learn when you're in school or college or university for this thing, is that you have to make a complete learning environment for whoever you're teaching. So, making an album is like setting up my classroom. Not only do I have the music playing, but I'm a poet. I might as well put some things on the wall so the kids can make better connections.


I remember the questions from my first album and one song I mentioned what happened to Emmett Till, and people were asking me in interviews, "Who's Emmett Till?" so I realized I need to line it up more sometimes. I don't really like to share my lyrics with people, only time I share them is in letters from people saying, "Can I have the lyrics to this song?". And then I write it out for them. While the book and the art pieces compliment the record, it's not so literal.


I'm touching on things in the book that I didn't get to touch on in the record. They're their own worlds, but they also come together in a bigger body of work. It's not going to be a linear story that everyone wants. It's totally nonlinear, but it's all in the same ether world meaning that I'm talking about the 1700s and talking about the nineties. I'm jumping around and it's not just gonna ever flow like this, but it will all be in the same family.


Sam: You talk a lot about technology in all of your work, but especially with Dial Up and one of your newest projects, Clepsydra, where you talk about listening to the album without a screen in front of you. What do you think we can gain from putting down those screens?


Moor Mother: I love to figure out puzzles and problems in my head. Everyone's always saying to me, "Just go look on Google." I like to first put it in my brain. With Google, you know you're going to get an answer. I like to put it in my brain and think about it. I could get another idea! You don't know what's happening in here. It's so much freer and it's fun for me to figure out problems.


I'm one of those weird kids that I didn't have a computer growing up. I literally got my computer like three years ago. I didn't have a telephone until after college. I don't even know how I was talking to anybody, to be honest. There's a whole screen world that I have no idea about.


I said this with Dial Up, I was never thinking technology. We were thinking about connecting outside of wires: of how to meet each other in our dreams with using our own bodies. Are you kidding me? It's so cool. You give me anything and I'm going to go off in some weird place or a fascinating world.


People are having writer's block and I wanted to help them. I was on some like little fake Twitter conversation where someone was like, "Poets are having a hard time" and I'm like... "I'm not." They were like, "Ah, you're lying." And I'm like, "I'm literally not having a hard time,". But I want to think about people that are having a hard time because poetry is important to me. So, let's get rid of this writer's block. That's what I was thinking. The second experiment, whenever I do the next one, it won't be about writer's block.


Sam: You said you're only halfway done. What else should people have to look out for the rest of the year from you?


Moor Mother: Well, Circuit City is the album that's coming out this month. That's gonna just be amazing. One other thing, Billy Woods and I are working on something that will be a vinyl something. Anthologia 2 is coming out. I just did something for the bug. I got a remix from Analog Fluids coming that I'm so proud of. Probably something from Irreversible and I believe that's it, but I'm hitting you so hard coming soon.


I'm just going to put out a lot of music, I hope it's all going to be different. None of it's going to be the same, but one thing that will be the same is that the Moor Jewelry project. We're going to do another punk record that's going to be better because we just made it up. That first one, we just made that up in the studio. Nothing was written. This time it is going to be written. If people thought the last one was political, the next one is going to be the most political punk record ever.

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