Moor Mother: Origin stories

Top: Issey Miyake
Scarf: Hermès

Words by:
Photography and set design: Marcus Maddox
Styling: Moor Mother
Lighting: Lucy Soutter
Lighting assistant: Matt Michaud
Prop stylist: Marin Galia
Hair and makeup: Jeanna Canatsey

Moor Mother’s music doesn’t ever not sound like Moor Mother. Yet any attempt to identify what that sound is is condemned to being bogged down by unpredictable tangents, sub-tangents and footnotes. This unknowable quality is only enhanced by the breakneck pace of the collaborative projects, solo albums, tours and bands that Ayewa has generated since her first release in 2016.

From a sidewalk somewhere in Philadelphia, while intermittently drowned out by the beeping of reversing trucks and the city-level pitch of passerby conversations, Ayewa muses on how her immediate surroundings tend to shape her artistic process. By birth she is a native of the state of Maryland, where she was raised in “a rural area that was all Black and isolated”. Through her work over the last decade as a musician, producer, performer, poet and visual artist she has become inextricably linked with Philadelphia, her adopted home. Her presence there adds to the myth of a city that has so successfully overlapped iterations of Black musical traditions, poetry, spoken word and musicianship that it nurtured a pedigree of Black female artists like Bahamadia, Jill Scott and Tierra Whack.

Top & trousers: Issey Miyake
Scarf: Hermès

“We romanticise the inner city,” says Ayewa, “because we romanticise the music. It’s great, but it’s hard here. Philadelphia is the biggest, poorest city in America, so it’s got that real DIY, hard-worker type of energy. There is a lot of suffering here.” In inexhaustible Moor Mother fashion, though, even the least desirable of circumstances can be transformed into an opportunity for more self-inquiry. Upon returning to Philadelphia in early 2020 after a set of energising solo shows in Venice, Italy, Ayewa was about to head out on tour with her free-jazz ensemble Irreversible Entanglements when the shelter-in-place ordinance was issued in March. “I’d been travelling all over the world for the past five years,” she recalls of this period. “I didn’t know what was going on in my home space. It was good for me to check in with myself. I also made eight records during the quarantine.”

One of these records is Black Encyclopedia of the Air, the first release in a triptych of albums. Black Encyclopedia and its follow-up album Jazz Codes will find Ayewa de- and re-constructing R&B sensibilities, while the third album of the set will skew more electronic.

This is an unexpected development for an artist who is seemingly so inclined towards the avant-garde. The Moor Mother project was, after all, forged in Philadelphia’s noise, alt-poetry and queer activist scenes, and Ayewa’s vocal persona seems to thrive on a lack of vanity (see: the monotonic bark she deploys as part of the post-punk/ hardcore duo Moor Jewelry, or the breathy exhortations as one half of 700 Bliss with DJ Haram, who strip back the glitz on their drop-it-low, ballroom-inflected dancefloor tracks). Yet, more often than not in R&B, the refined and polished vocal is the jewel in the genre’s crown. To reconcile these extremes, Black Encyclopedia required an element of shapeshifting: words are crooned, tranquilly rapped, spoken in a way that nestles deep in the ear, with Ayewa’s signature multi-layered vocals reduced to just one or two deep. It’s certainly a definitive departure from the unnerving industrial vertigo of her 2016 debut album Fetish Bones.

Jacket & trousers: Issey Miyake

“We are, as a people, communal. We’ve got to understand that by holding up the most vulnerable, we are helping everyone else”

The beats of Black Encyclopedia were produced by Swedish artist Olof Melander. The pair have collaborated previously, but the head-nodding ease of Melander’s production forms the spine of this album; the sound is warm, spacious and low-slung, with its rounded edges buffed to smooth perfection. “I guess my main goal is to be more accessible,” offers Ayewa, by way of explanation, “but not forever. It’s just the message in this particular form – it’s not about being a whole different character to pull it off. I wanted to reach more ears.”

While the approach to Black Encyclopedia is pragmatic, it also obscures the album’s grander purpose – to act as a creative catalyst. When Melander sent her dozens of tracks to work with in March 2020, Ayewa’s focus was squarely on what would become the second album in this series: Jazz Codes. For an artist who is uniquely prolific – “I tend to work so fast that people are like, ‘We made this already?’” – Jazz Codes had become an unusual thorn in her side. Ayewa doesn’t indicate whether that album is complete or not, but she does reveal her frustration with it, describing a two-year period of stop-and-starts, doubt and revisions.

Within this arc, Black Encyclopedia is a crucial mapping document; an accompanying cipher to illustrate how Ayewa eventually made steps to crack Jazz Codes. Black Encyclopedia was also a much easier concept for Ayewa to execute; as per her usual pace, it was completed within the month of March 2020. It’s a snapshot, as well, of an artist occupying liminality on two fronts: quarantining in those uncertain early weeks of the pandemic, and capturing the moment an artist was up against a project they seemingly didn’t have the clarity to resolve.

Top & trousers: Issey Miyake
Scarf: Hermès
Shoes: Gucci

“I made 13 songs for fun,” Ayewa says of the songs that constitute Black Encyclopedia. “It wasn’t intentional. It was just me using this energy that would soon run out. I would eventually become depressed, but I wasn’t sad yet.” In the months to follow, Black Encyclopedia served an additional crucial purpose: a healing balm for its creator, through the consecutive, cumulative griefs that marked the remainder of that year. “It saved me,” she says of the album. “I would go take walks and listen to it. It kept me balanced.”

Despite the sleeker delivery vehicle, Ayewa’s narrative flow on Black Encyclopedia is still very much her own. She flips from the searingly personal to the impressionistic; macro, micro and stream-of-subconscious are laced together with fire-spitting warnings and admonitions. Literal and metaphorical connections to Earth, history, memory and myth are made inexorable from Black histories, Black femme realities, with the Black mother forever a muse and guide. No more so than in the album’s opening track Temporal Control of Light Echos, which features the line: “How I had to fight through crowds of humiliation/ And how I had to cover up my own face/ And carry my mother, your mother, her mother/ the mother in my womb.” 

“I’m here for the mothers,” admits Ayewa. “That’s why I called myself Moor Mother. I don’t just mean the person who birthed a child. We’ve been raised by our aunts, uncles, grandmothers. We are, as a people, communal. But the stark reality of living here in Philadelphia is also: who is the most evicted person? Who is the most unhoused person? It’s the Black mother. We’ve got to understand that by holding up the most vulnerable, we are helping everyone else.”

T-shirt: Lanvin
Trousers: Issey Miyake

It’s apparent in the work that Black mothering – all possible variations thereof – is Moor Mother’s constant concern. While describing her approach to collaborating with other vocalists in particular, Ayewa offers a glimpse into how deep this maternal type of nurturing is embedded in her holistic values. “This is also from my basketball coaching days,” she reveals (she coached for over a decade at a school in Philadelphia.) “I don’t want to put you in a situation where you’re not going to succeed. Sometimes you have a short player and everyone’s scoring, but you want that kid that works just as hard to get a shot. You’ve got to create this plan around her where no one’s gonna block the ball. I like to create that [for vocalists]. You couldn’t be replaced with anyone else.”

“We romanticise the inner city because we romanticise the music. It’s great, but it’s hard here”

Interestingly, the two figures who dominated Ayewa’s field of vision through this period are two men, of equally prodigious vision but divergent fates: Quincy Jones and Lonnie Holley. Ayewa mentions Jones’ name several times while referencing Jazz Codes.

In a similar way that Jones’ career evolved from virtuosic musician to industry impresario, it seems that Moor Mother may not always sound like Moor Mother forever. Now, Ayewa is beginning to guide her voice out of her own music, taking on the role of conductor, arranger, composer. It’s not been an easy transition to make.

Shirt: Versace
Trousers: Issey Miyake

“I needed to get a whole new mixer that I’d never used before. I needed a particular singer right here, another singer there, the violin to come here, the horn there. R&B is a whole different world. There are sensitivities that you have to learn, and the way you talk to people is totally different. I worked so hard to find the singer, I cried over finding them.”

When Ayewa speaks of her admiration for R&B it’s too easy to assume that she would naturally gravitate to its sharper edges. The decisive idiosyncrasy of Erykah Badu, say, or the revolutionary edge of the iconic Betty Davis. However Ayewa cites a surprising era of R&B as inspiration for this series of albums: the “quiet storm” sound of the early 80s, in which singers like Luther Vandross and Anita Baker became megastars with sentimental and easy-listening love ballads. “I’ve always written R&B songs and I’ve always loved it,” beams Aweya. “I’m not ready to be on my Luther Vandross just yet. I am definitely ready to go more inward so I can be better when I come back out, to collaborate more. I want to work on being a stronger band leader.” The production process ultimately birthed some fruitful collaborations for Black Encyclopedia. “I’m thankful for the vocalists on Encyclopedia, like Orion Sun. They’re so talented. For them to get on the track and just bless it – I couldn’t be more thankful.”

Their collaboration Make a Circle, which also features rappers Nappy Nina, Maassai and Antonia Gabriela, is sun-dappled and sweet, while lyrically exploring lineage, maternal safety and matrilineal relationships.

Jacket & trousers: Issey Miyake

Another of the album’s highlights, Vera Hall, is a slow funk number, peppered with laid-back sparring with Baltimore rapper Bfly. “We should make a whole album together, to be honest,” enthuses Ayewa. “We’re so similar in our aggressiveness about life. Not all of our politics line up but we do share the same type of revolutionary mindset. When you’re able to connect in this way as two Black women, it’s just incredible. This is the song on the album I’m most proud of.”

The song is a tribute to Lonnie Holley, the Black multimedia artist whose industriousness is evident throughout 40 years of stone carvings, found-object sculptures and home-recorded improvisational music. Born into a bloodline of tragedy and misfortune in Birmingham, Alabama, Holley is endlessly resourceful, scavenging discarded materials to create a vast, endlessly evolving living gallery, which was threatened with condemnation before the city of Birmingham agreed to relocate him in the 1990s. The song’s lyrics are a retelling of an anecdote that Holley shared with Ayewa one morning when they met for breakfast. “It’s talking about me going downtown with my art,” explains Ayewa. “When Lonnie was an artist, his grandma or aunt said, ‘Go take your art downtown, let them see about it.’ He went downtown, showed his art. One guy called the Smithsonian, like, ‘Oh my god, this guy’s art! Come, bring everyone you know!’

Unsurprisingly, though, Holley’s true story of wretched hardship, renewal and reformation is best metabolised through the transformative life force of Black womanhood. “I see a lot of myself in Lonnie’s work,” says Ayewa, “but Vera Hall is a pro-woman song. It was a Black woman that told him to go downtown, to bring some of his art pieces in the wagon. She’s now the woman to birth this creation, to spark this movement.”

Top & trousers: Issey Miyake
Scarf: Hermès

Black Encyclopedia of the Air is out 17 September via ANTI-
Moor Mother appears at EFG London Jazz Festival in November

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