In popular culture and sci-fi, time travel devices are often a MacGuffin to either fix past mistakes or explore alternate actualities. In the comprehensible vernacular of North Philly-artist Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, time travel became a tool to depict harsh realities and ugly truths, the black boxes in history that need shaking.
At Rotterdam’s Afrofuturism Now festival in WORM two years ago, for instance, Ayewa did an improv noise performance around a Dutch transcript of the famous, but now horribly outdated, anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. With pinpointed use of abstract, interlacing soundscapes, she debunked the novel’s standardized notions in a more conversational, playful way. Her second appearance at the festival was part of Subserve And Unprotect, a haunting collaborative live piece about police brutality led by King Britt – another Afrofuturist and early champion of Moor Mother. King Britt calls her “the Chuck D of the movement.”
From 2012 on, Moor Mother became a crazy prolific creative outlet for Ayewa, employing the vocabulary of hip hop – with its unmatched ability to put archaic sounds into present-day contexts – and the dilettantish impetus and activism of punk rock. Ayewa, who also coaches varsity basketball, connected with DiS via Skype after an early practice.
DiS: How does your music correlate with Black Quantum Futurism (http://www.neighborhoodtime.exchange/artists/black-quantum-futurism-collective/)?
Moor Mother: Everything I do comes through that Black Quantum Futurist lens. But with Fetish Bones, I tried to tap into all the parts I grew up with, stuff that’s been locked in my memory. Sounds that span generations. When I do interviews, people tend to ask: “What current artists are you listening to?” That's when I realize a lot of the people I listen to are dead. So researching that, I love listening to jazz and blues, but I’m more interested in reading their biographies, things these artists went through. That’s like the meat on the sounds I want to hear.
In my collage work, there are so many pieces: you could see what happened before Columbus, after Columbus, you could see some objects that were used as tools, such as the master clock. Ways of training people through symbols of time, bells and whistles and things like that. If I wanted to do a soundscape on time, I would have to get the bells and whistles first. What are the people's own vocalizations of time? How do they try to slow it up? All these different things come up. I can't sample any type of blues without sampling the music they made in prison, the grunts and moans. It kind of tells a whole story to me and even if I try to, and if I don't know the whole story, the research leads me to more things.
You developed Community Futures Lab last summer with co-Black Quantum Futurist, partner, and housing attorney Rasheedah Phillips, a physical space several blocks away from your home in North Philly. What sparked that endeavor?
If I was just concerned with becoming an artist, it would be easier for to block out everything else and make whatever I want. My community bleeds into my art. Rasheedah and I both do community work and hold workshops. As a housing attorney, Rasheedah is involved with a lot of the policy and the clients who live and work in our community in North Philly. That's stuff we both are constantly invested in. So we thought: what would it look like to try and get a space? So we wrote up a grant to get that space. The continuation of the things we're looking at as far as time, futurism, and how that affects communities and personal trauma. And to put that in relation to sci-fi and futurism.
It’s still a process. People in the community are either taken aback or suspicious… because so much has been done to them. They have dealt with so much on a daily basis. Last year, within a four block radius, 1,300 properties were demolished and people were removed. So we are in a community where people day-to-day are going to these public services, dealing with evictions, or having to travel far to get their kids to school. We're up against a lot. So many communities had artists and universities coming in and being very disrespectful by taking away property and putting in programs that the community didn’t even want. And having artists leave the neighborhood. That's just two things besides the Housing Authority and the police coming in.
There’s extremely rapid development happening in North Philly. Right now, we're just carving out space along with everyone else. Just going door to door, tonight I'm going to a church meeting. It’s just one of many ways to say: “Hey we're not working with the Housing authority, we are artists who live in the community.” We want everyone to be a part of the rapid changes happening. In most cases, people are planning on the future of the city and those actually living here have no input, especially people with low incomes. So we're collecting oral stories, artifacts, doing the best we can under the circumstances and also trying to be respectful. I think it's inspiring for people to just come into the space and just see for themselves.
Was that the general meaning behind "fetishism", how things get romanticized the longer they stay ingrained within a certain context?
Yeah, that’s what pisses me off. A lot of our work in the community revolves around housing and domestic violence. Domestic violence is something that's happening all over the world, every nine to ten seconds, someone in their own home is getting abused. Once I started to do more research and find the statistics and everything, I got so pissed that this wasn't one of the hashtag-causes out there. I'm like, what is going on!? This is outrageous! It’s not a popular issue. That just really pissed me off, so that's the stuff I sing about. That's deemed non-headline worthy. Or only headline worthy when a celebrity gets caught doing it. Chris Brown was caught doing it, we can hate it, and we can have someone to hate. If it's happening every nine seconds all over the world, it's kind of hard to point a finger at someone, to package it into something to hate today.
Isn’t that where a physical space like Community Futures Lab comes in? You can’t hide behind a digital smokescreen. You have to confront people directly.
One thing I miss – I guess I got this from playing basketball – is this competitive nature that isn’t simply dogging each other. More like, demanding from others to be better for themselves. I've booked shows in Philly for ten years under the Rockers!-platform. I had to stop it because I was starting to hate artists as I'm dealing with them behind the scenes. I’ve been doing Rockers for so long and, make no mistake, I had a lot of great artists perform here. But you also meet some real jerks, who have this persona online as supposedly activists… and I find out that they’re jerks in person. So I'm like: how do I play this? That's been very frustrating to me. Do I participate in the culture of dragging each other down? There's no real space to have these conversations.
Community Futures Lab has only been around since June, but it revolves around the same things: who am I as an activist? Who am I as an artist offline? Who am I when I'm not building my brand? Am I even someone NOT building my brand? You know, questions like that. It would've been so easy for me to write songs about Donald Trump, about sex, or queerdom. That would've been the cheapest route. I would've been celebrated by people who would deliberately snub me. It gets frustrating to see people playing a part without having any stake in it. I'm pissed off all the time, but I'm working on ways NOT to be. I’m constantly deleting tweets.
Fetish Bones is a very intrusive, confronting record, delineating many ugly truths left unsaid. Were you concerned that some of these abrasive, disturbing sounds undermined any positive message you’re trying to communicate?
That's a really good question, because I wonder that all the time. Everyone is saying thatFetish Bones is so violent, but I didn't think it was; that wasn’t the intention at all. I knew that it was going to be a little sad, also because my father had passed away in the middle of making it, but I never thought about violence. I was wondering, now that you're pointing it out, about the sounds that I use. It's not lyrically violent, it just sounds aggressive. But I was hoping that people would draw strength from it. What I found missing is the perspective of someone who grew up poor, in a community like the one I grew up in. To me, Fetish Bones is a record of strength. It's like taking one for the team in a sense. I don't know, I just felt I couldn't find another rapper who grew up like myself, who was also into punk rock and does community work. I couldn't find THAT voice. I don't know who I could even think about as an artist, besides someone like Nas. Cause his father was a jazz musician. I never met a musician till high school, as far as playing and owning an instrument.
Your improv performances are once-in-a-lifetime experiences, depending on the place and the people who attend them. I mean, that’s reaching out, right?
Yes, I try to change up every set and performance I do. Nothing stays the same and I am forever growing and expanding what I do so I have to express that during my set. Plus, I have so many different parts to my set I am still working to tie it all together live.
Month by month, I'm gaining so much. I feel like a teenage boy in a sense; now my voice is deep, a month ago it wasn't. Now I'm a size 16. I feel, as a self-taught musician, I'm just learning stuff all the time. So when it's time for my next show, I have all these new feelings. I have all this new stuff I want to get across. On my last tour, the majority of my shows were all different. Every show is different; I walk around the space, I try to talk to kids, see what people are interested in.
Do you think the collective apathy naturally calls for more aggression in art forms?
Well, I do often ask myself: where does that discomfort in my music come from? Because myself, I'm okay. I wouldn't do this if I wasn't okay with it. If performing was dragging me down, I wouldn't do it. As an artist, I'm able to go in and out of these tense situations... and afterwards, I can let go. It's not something everyone can do. I feel that's the role of the artist; to take on these hard feelings and situations and digest them for the people. It’s like people feeling sorry for the doctor because he has to deal with death all the time, but he signed up for that... he's okay. It’s all about being practical. It's not just me being intense on a stage, it's like me being in front of a classroom, breaking the symptoms down. On 'Basic', a track from a project I'm doing with DJ Haram, I talk about slavery. I performing that song at a youth camp, and the kids were actually asking me questions about slavery afterwards. Because at what point during a week-long trip at youth camp were they thinking about slavery at all?
So, what are your plans for the near future?
I’m working on a free jazz project, I’m still waiting on the label who might put it out. And also a 90s chill-vibe/hip hop EP with a friend about (former basketball player) Rasheed Wallace. When I went to art school to study photography, a lot of the artists there became really good friends, and we really just wanted to celebrate our time in Philly together. Of course, I'm a big basketball fan and so is my friend. And we're really trying to find someone who could explain our time there, but also someone we both respected. Rasheed Wallace is from Philly, he went to Simon Gratz High. He wrote very a vocal letter about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. He played for the Pistons. I wrote a song based off of that, but he’s also the all-time leader in technical fouls, so I’m having a conversation about him, about the aggressiveness behind that. It’s bleeding truth from his story, but it’s also about my own reality.
The interesting thing about Rasheed Wallace is he was such an intelligent, complete player on both ends. He had no weaknesses. He had the ability to be a franchise player who sells his own brand, but despite his emotions being so intense on the floor, he was always a team first guy. All those techs he accumulated weren’t because he was some dysfunctional poisonous personality, but because he cared too much about winning with his teammates. In that famous Malice in the Palace brawl, he was one of the cooler heads.
It's so perfect that you say that, because that's almost word for word one of the rap lines! I said: “The only player to be ejected for just staring at the ref / Really caring”. So that's what you get tossed for? It's like the phrase he used to say, “Ball Don't Lie”. It's like saying "You were wrong!”, but I'm actually going to put the message out for the world to know. It's not just about you shooting on the free throw line under pressure, it's about everyone! The ball does NOT lie. And the truth will be revealed. You don't say those things to antagonize anyone, like: “You got away with that call, 'cause you're a dirty player.” It's about putting everybody on notice.
Fetish Bones is out now on Don Giovanni Records. Moor Mother will play a handful of European and UK dates next March and April, including The Hague's Rewire Festival and Prestatyn's Safe As Milk Festival.
Photo credit: D1L0