Under the name Moor Mother, Camae Ayewa looks through the lens of 'Black Quantum Futurism', an offshoot of Afrofuturism that focuses in particular on the phenomenon of time travel. More specifically, an ongoing quest for new utopian realities, breaking free from cognitive associations with slavery, genocide and oppression.
Written by: Jasper Willems
At the start of Ayewa's journey of discovery, she performed under the name Moor Mother Goddess. This fact looks like an insignificant detail in her extensive way of working, a sanctuary in which poetry, music, activism and philosophy conduct a constantly evolving dialogue, but perhaps Moor Mother Goddess was not a starting point and rather a possible final destination. Who knows, Ayewa saw an early glimpse of her future self at the time, one in which she has gathered so many insights and experiences that she is actually elevated to some kind of higher power, many times older and wiser than her earthly years indicate.
“I immediately wanted to expand myself,” Ayewa explains in the office space of the Stroom art center in The Hague. “I kept hearing sounds around me that I should just focus on the injustice in America. But I consciously said, "I am of the world." So I don't follow the linear path of history and I don't focus solely on my own living environment. I prefer to be with as many people as possible from all over the world. Unlike many people from my background, I myself have never had to suffer from that gap, that alienation. For example, when I discovered reggae, and the Jamaican history associated with it, it felt more like an extension of myself than a completely different human experience.”
Born Camae Dennis*, Ayewa grew up in Aberdeen, Maryland, in a poor neighborhood where crime was part of everyday life. Pizza deliverers, taxi drivers and suppliers were afraid to go there for fear of being robbed. Because of these harsh circumstances, the neighborhood was left to its own devices: everyone contributed to the community. Retirees and children took over from the taxi drivers and couriers, supermarkets and drugstores became DIY initiatives. Somehow it is wonderful that local residents take care of each other in such a deprived environment. But the downside is that a climate is created in which isolation and distrust of the outside world can grow. In this way a vicious circle is maintained.
"So much division has been sown among us. That's what keeps us from traveling the world, formulating ideas that will help us regain all those lost connections."
“Aberdeen was such a small town really, while early on I realized I was connected to something much bigger,” reflects Ayewa, weighing her words calmly. “Fortunately, I had the opportunity and privileges to visit all kinds of different places I've been.” Ayewa emphasizes the last part without figurative quotes, dead serious. “I hadn't yet made the connections to guide my physical self, as Camae, there. I'm constantly thinking about everyone… That's why I'm always thrilled when I meet people in new places, people who look like me. Then I think: finally! So much division has been sown among us, ways to separate us through education, infrastructure and economics. That's what keeps us from traveling the world, formulating ideas with which we can retrieve all those lost connections. The only thing you dream about, where you come from, is the African continent.”
*Moor Mother has adopted an African surname. She explained that decision extensively in 2017 during an interview with Gonzo Circus.
Busy off screen
Moor Mother's hyper-productivity in creation seems to be - believe it or not - only accelerating. Two weeks ago the long-awaited debut of ZONAL was released (Wrecked), the joint drone/noise project of Le Guess Who? curator The Bug and Justin Broadrick (of Godflesh, among others), on which Moor Mother was given full autonomy as the chief poet on side A. On Le Guess Who? she performs with the ensemble. This week she will also present her latest album Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes, in Kapitaal, capped off by a special live performance with composer Jaime Branch and Lightning Bolt drummer Brian Chippendale. Ayewa casually says that a new long player by her free jazz formation Irreversible Entanglements will be released in March.
By contrast, unlike most musicians in a similar position, Moor Mother is not here to talk about new albums. The week before this interview, she could still be admired in the Korzo theater in The Hague for a special live project with the London Contemporary Orchestra, in which she again dissects the British slave industry. The so-called abolition in 1833 by the British Parliament was nothing more than evasion, for bizarrely enough, the slave owners were compensated, not the men, women and children who were exploited generation after generation. Typically a footnote in history where the horrific truths were not acknowledged, but were simply pushed out of the picture.
A week later – after a quick intermediate route through London and Berlin, among other things, for ZONAL obligations – Ayewa is back in The Hague for another intensive exchange project. “Yesterday I worked with two like-minded people who I also consider friends, Imani Robinson and Ranz Lansiquot of Languid Hands. They made a beautiful movie together, titled Towards a Black Testimony. It encompasses so many things, but what I took from it myself was the idea of the physical body as an object and the moving image as a form of poetry. When I recite a poem or a speech, it adds something substantial to that moving image, it creates a new context, or a reaction. There were images in the film of large crowds, including the March on Washington in 1963. But instead of showing those iconic famous images of, for example, Martin Luther King, the camera's focus on the people who were right in the middle of it. .”
Moor Mother feels deeply called to attend these kinds of gatherings. As a result, she does not exactly follow practical routes on tour; it's fascinating how intensely she races around the world from here to there. The artistic necessity outweighs any logistical hitches. A week after our conversation, she flies to New York for a quick performance with Roscoe Mitchell at the legendary Carnegie Hall. Mitchell is one of the founders of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, an avant-garde improv collective that brought jazz back on its radical, innovative track. It makes sense that Moor Mother – who performed the Art Ensemble Of Chicago at Le Guess Who? was allowed to drop – has been incorporated as a permanent member of the group since 2017. A week later she flies back to, you guessed it, Le Guess Who?.
In short, Moor Mother is the rare kind of artist who doesn't think so much in terms of an old-fashioned oeuvre of records or EPs, but who wants to apply her work in a meaningful way on a daily basis. If that means traveling from Brazil to Hungary and then Japan in a week, she will do so without a doubt. She also notices it herself: her work is increasingly becoming a vehicle for providing existing stories and impressions with valuable new context and expressiveness. “I used to think that people were asking me to come up with something conceptual for projects, which meant I had to start writing completely new material. But they always said to me back then, 'I'm approaching you precisely because you're already uttering these things.'”
Ayewa puffs furiously, with a slight pride. “It's funny because when I saw the Languid Hands movie, they said to me, 'By the way, did you realize we quoted you?' 'No,' I replied in surprise. It was a quote from one of my first collections of poems: There is no home after slavery. It's nice to have written something that can be so interchangeable.”
Survive, recover, preserve
The sheer range of means that Moor Mother has at her disposal to tell a story looks innovative. But her method is secretly quite traditional to a broad network of figures who provide the African diaspora with visions of the future. Sci-fi writer Octavia Butler used the concept of time travel extensively in her book Kindred; the main character Dana travels with a time machine to the plantations of 1815, where she comes face to face with her ancestors.
We also see similar concepts within mainstream pop. In the video clip of 'Next Lifetime', Erykah Badu travels through pre-colonial Africa, pastoral America and eventually even the distant future. Janelle Monáe wraps Many Moons’, an anti-fascism protest song, in a macabre sci-fi story in which they correlate slavery with a robot fashion show. Anyway, the disciplines and performances may differ greatly, in fact it all ties into Moor Mother's mission to further disprove myths from the past.
For every Sun Ra, Nina Simone orJungle Brotherswho builds bridges within the Afrocentric dialogue, there are still thousands of underexposed stories. Ayewa made soundscapes* years ago for a recent exhibition by artist Simone Leigh in the Guggenheim Museum, even before she herself became known as Moor Mother. The composition was about MOVE, an African-American movement active in Ayewa's home city of Philadelphia. On May 13, 1985, tensions between MOVE and the police reached a tragic low. The city council detonated a military C-4 bomb in the middle of a residential area of West Philadelphia. Eleven people died, including five children. More than 60 houses destroyed, more than 250 civilians homeless.
"What I often do is research where exactly I play and what connections there are with my own work. There was a statue of King Leopold II in Ostend, so what do you think the performance is about?"
One of Moor Mother's soundscapes focuses in particular on Debbie Sims Africa, a MOVE member who was imprisoned in Cambridge Springs Prison for 40 years. “While she was incarcerated, she was still pregnant with her son, who was also born there,” Ayewa says. “Of course the prison system is rotten and in the end she was not allowed to keep the child with her. Nevertheless, she tried to hold on as long as possible. As soon as the child cried, the other prisoners began to sing loudly, or to drum on the walls or bars, trying to drown out the sound of the baby. They kind of made a kind of soundscape for the mother and the child.” Once free, Sims Africa was eventually reunited with her son. Yet the story's ending remains bittersweet to say the least: two members of MOVE have died in prison, and two others have been deprived of their liberty to this day.
Because of the multitude of similar stories, Moor Mother sometimes has to struggle to give them all a place: if not on a project basis, then on her own albums. In an unfinished song she once wrote for breakthrough album Fetish Bones, she mentions Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cells have been reproduced for decades – and still today – for vaccinations against diseases such as polio and cancer. “She never knew,” Ayewa says, visibly upset. “Her family eventually found out. A movie has been made about it starring Oprah Winfrey (as Lacks' daughter, ed.), about how the cells in her body were used in the name of so-called advancements in medical science."
*With the funds for this project, Ayewa founded Community Futures Lab with attorney and friend Rasheedah Phillips. It also marked the new start for Moor Mother to tour and record as a solo artist.
Between ritual and registration
It's strange to call Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes, out Friday, Moor Mother's second record, especially given the improbable array of interesting projects and collaborations she is or has been involved in (her more danceable project with DJ Haram, 700 Bliss, for example, I haven't even mentioned). On the one hand she thrives in improvisation and the ritual with Irreversible Entanglements and Art Ensemble Of Chicago; another essential aspect of her work is again anchored in sound art and archived sound.
“It's always a fight,” Ayewa nods. She remembers two shows with Irreversible Entanglements where she forgot her collection of poems on stage. This happened once during the Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris, and again on the beach in Ostend. “What I often do is research where exactly I play and what connections there are with my own work. There was a statue of King Leopold II in Ostend, so what do you think the performance is about? Because of the war crimes committed in Congo, of course. We often talk about that performance… Those were two wonderful hours."
In retrospect, Ayewa is a little disappointed that this moment has not been captured on record. That while she regularly has to let go of compositions because she is not on the right wavelength during the recording process. “Sometimes it feels like the whole world is my sound guy when I'm trying to make a record,” she says snidely. At least on Analog Fluids or Sonic Black Holes she gives that fight a sharper shape than ever. “That's what the analog fluids stand for: all those different voices that want to break through. The black hole sucks everything in. Nowadays we get all the information we are looking for, but at the same time there is so much dissatisfaction. How can we extract all the essentials from that noise?”
Ayewa indicates that making a record is often a lonely process: for Fetish Bones she also had a poetry collection and theater piece in the planning for Fetish Bones, but due to the crowds it was only a partial transfer. On her new album she draws less from her own archives and frameworks from the past (she told Drowned In Sound: “I realize a lot of the people I listen to are dead.”), and more from guest contributions from living artists such as Saul Williams, Giant Swan, King Britt and Emel Mathouthi.
During the first half, the record is deliberately uncomfortable: 'Engineered Uncertainty' samples an early recording of the work song 'Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen', drowned in machine drones and militant drum computers. On 'LA92' she refers to 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, who was shot dead in a liquor store in 1991. The ominous 'The Myth Hold Weight' even spins the American national anthem completely on its own axis.
And just when you think the record is giving in to all that compressed trauma, it simply ends with one of Moor Mother's most beautiful compositions, 'The Passing Of Time'. No penetrating clash between chilly digital sounds and warm field recordings, but the illusion of a group of people playing African folk music in the same room, free and peaceful. At the stroke of thirteen Ayewa sighs: "My mama, my grandmama, my great-great-great grandmama picked so much cotton they saved the world… All by themselves."
The remarkable thing here is that Ayewa started the Moor Mother project partly for economic reasons, with the assumption that it would simply be too expensive to tour with a full band (something she initially wanted to do with her first band The Mighty Paradocs). In the meantime, she herself is allowed to travel between current kindred spirits and artistic ancestors, who now – sometimes from the other side of the world – call for her wisdom and input.
“You never really know in advance who will be in your corner, who will appear because of all the noise. I let myself go a little further each time.” Suddenly, a slightly suspicious frown appears on Ayewa's face. “Once with the Art Ensemble I made a big mistake. Not so much that I was doing something wrong… but at one point I changed in the audience for a moment. I let myself slip into the music. That's a big mistake for me, because I'm not part of the audience at all. I need to keep pushing my limits."
Moor Mother is featured twice this weekend at Le Guess Who?. On Thursday night (01.20 - 02.20) she will be performing with ZONAL in the Ronda hall of TivoliVredenburg. On Friday, an exclusive listening session of her new album will take place in Kapitaal (from 3 p.m.). Moor Mother also plays a solo set there. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.