Moor Mother: Poetic Justice
“Typically, a Scorpio is someone that’s ruler of the underground – of the hidden things.”
Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, is talking astrology. Certainly, the Philadelphia artist and activist’s interpretation of her own sign seems fitting. “It’s funny because the scorpion spends a lot of time underground, but they have so many eyes. So they’re seeing, but it’s a multitude of things that they’re seeing. It’s being able to look a little deeper, in a sense, in a particular way.”
Ayewa’s work as Moor Mother is very much of the underground, and her potent form of poetry seeks to reconstruct previously invisible narratives. On her breakthrough record, last year’s Fetish Bones album, Ayewa crafted abrasive sonic landscapes, with aggressively visceral lyricism that journeyed through black history. ‘I’ve been bleeding since 1866/ dragged my bloody self to 1919/ And bled through the summer being slaughtered by whites,’ she spits on opening track, Creation Myth.
Both as Moor Mother and with Black Quantum Futurism – the collective she is part of with partner Rasheedah Phillips – Ayewa seeks to reclaim black history, to reevaluate the past. The way that she describes her music is telling. An array of hip-hop, punk, free jazz and dissonant electronics, she has previously referred to her music with the loaded phrasing of ‘slaveship punk’.
“It’s about reinvestigating our past: not just going to what someone has said,” she explains. “To really walk in the space of where we came from, whether that’s physically or metaphysically. I’m talking about the sounds and sights upon a slaveship, trying to take us back and walk through the situation – it’s the self-investigation that needs to happen.”
Another central theme for Moor Mother is the subjugation of women worldwide. “We think of some type of alcoholic macho man beating on a woman,” Ayewa says. “But that’s just one little fraction of what’s happening all over the world. Every nine seconds all over the world, women suffer abuse! It’s very hard because it’s like a system that is sped up to allow this to happen. Different regions are making little steps to provide more protection, or easier ways out, but it’s a slow thing. It’s weird that it’s only just happening.”
Indeed, on her most recent record The Motionless Present, Ayewa talks about how issues like domestic violence continue to destroy local communities. It’s a harrowing listen. The Week is all whirring industrial discomfort, as she speaks with a haunting confidence.
For Ayewa, this willingness to confront intense subject matters is linked with not only her star sign, but also her upbringing. She grew up in the town of Aberdeen, Maryland and she tells me that at a young age she adapted to atmospheres many people would find overwhelming even in adulthood. “I used to stay with my uncle sometimes in New York. He owned a funeral parlour, so when I was a young kid I would spend summers there with my sister, hanging out, locking each other in the room with a dead body. I have a big family, so I go to a lot of funerals – since a young age my family never left me somewhere while people went to them, it was always like ‘this is important, this is what’s happening’. I feel like that’s very Scorpio – getting comfortable and familiarised with the so-called ‘hidden feelings of things’.”
It feels an apt way of describing not only Ayewa’s oeuvre, but also her way of performing. No two Moor Mother shows are the same – different synths, different songs, different poems – because Ayewa likes to feel out the vibrations of a space before performing there, pursuing and building upon those ‘hidden feelings’. “That’s my poetic practice, going into different spaces and trying to communicate with the energy there and write about it,” she explains. “Not go in there with an idea of what the poem’s gonna be, but have the space tell me what the poem is. I do that every night when I write my set. When I get to the venue, I have the venue and the people tell me what is needed there.”
Though each venue and audience might be different in terms of its energy and how she approaches it, Ayewa is weary of the arbitrary divisions that exist between us, and continue to be exacerbated. “A lot of people feel so isolated and alone, but I guess what I’ve been trying to do sonically is show that we’re not separate: more and more people are performing and talking about the black experience in America, but this is a world experience. We talk about fighting borders so much, but then we put up these borders for each other. We don’t have enough connections to put it all together, but the black experience in the States is the same as that of across Europe.”
An extension of this ideology, The Black Quantum Futurism collective have looked into theory and practice about quantum physics, African philosophy and religious thought. “People are tired of using archaic models of how to present and exchange information,” Ayewa saysof the project. In this sense, the artist’s work looks to re-envision the future by restructuring our ways of viewing the world, and making such ideas more accessible.
"We talk about fighting borders so much, but then we put up borders for each other. The black experience in the States is the same as that of across Europe"
“People are interested in other ways to value people of colour in the future,” Ayewa says of this work with Black Quantum Futurism. If anyone looks poised to set that agenda, it’s Moor Mother. Her project might be under the radar, but maybe that’s where her biting, salient work will be able to thrive most. Fearlessly capturing and exploring the uncomfortable on Fetish Bones, she could well stake claim to her Scorpio roots. As far as necessary political commentary goes, Camae Ayewa is very much a visionary of the hidden things.
Photography: Steph Wilson
The Motionless Present is out now via The Vinyl Factory
Moor Mother appears at OFF Festival, Katowice, 4-6 August