“I Really Wanna Fuck Up Classical Music”: An Interview with Moor Mother

Julian Brimmers has a fascinating track with Philly-based musician Moor Mother. The two touch on badminton, throwing up before shows, and squatting culture.
By    July 21, 2017

Moor Mother

Most likely there were some flaws and slip-ups throughout her set that night. It’s hard to tell. Camae Ayewa AKA Moor Mother has stepped away from her machines for a moment, into the left corner of the room, her body crouching over a mic gripped with both fists: “Drunk with a loaded AK / Everything ain’t OK,” she growls. Every now and then, a piercing, distorted sound that may or may not be too intense escapes her set-up of synths and laptop. Intended or not, it couldn’t fit more perfectly. Her whole performance is a pulsating sequence of warning signs and battle cries anyways, which is what the Philadelphia-based producer, hardcore poet, and social activist became best known for.

Following her stint with DIY Philly punks The Mighty Paradocs, Ayewa started working solo as Moor Mother Goddess (and dropped the divine appendix shortly after). Fetish Bones, her acclaimed 2016 LP, took her mix of noisy textures and feverish, politically charged poetics to a new plateau. Listed as a record of the year by Bandcamp and The Wire, Fetish Bones mixed the raw affect of noise rap groups like Death Grips and clipping. with a mythological approach to black history resembling the works of Matana Roberts and Sun Ra. The results are hard to stomach and mind-altering in the best possible way. Recently she has worked with Nkisi, DJ Haram, Purple Tape Pedigree’s Geng, and fellow Philly producer Mental Jewelry—but her solo work still provides the basis for her live performance.

Tonight [Ed. note–at the time of writing ] she is booked to play inside a concrete bridge, placed in front of a stack of speakers in a barely lit space. Two lasers on top of the sound system scanning through the room in a small radius. There’s no clapping in the short transition between songs—not that people aren’t enjoying themselves, but it feels inappropriate to interrupt.

The brutalist setting offers a stark contrast to the lush night outside. Shortly after the set has ended, everyone flocks into a narrow gangway in front of the entrance. Ayewa cools down among the crowd, drinking root beer and searching for papers. She came in late on a train from Paris, with no time to rest before the show. Her flight goes out the next morning. We sit down at the riverside for a smoke, a drink, and a chat about about her changing approach to performing, her collaborations, band projects, and solo endeavors.

But the conversation really broadens when it reaches her community work in Philly. Like many of her peers, Ayewa still flies the afrofuturism flag proudly. But instead of escapist fantasies, she and her Black Quantum Futurist collective use futurism as a vehicle to map out and manifest a better life for their disenfranchised neighbors. A thought model that puts people into work and safety right here and now. Somehow, we also end up talking badminton. —Julian Brimmers


A few months back, I saw you play this huge stage performance at Berghain in Berlin. More recently, you performed inside a bridge, the set felt more intimate and experimental…what’s more common for you these days?


Moor Mother: I’d say the stage performance because thats what I get booked more for. I’m trying to get rid off my computer during my live set. I’m slowly moving to this more experimental, synth-heavy thing, kinda what I do on stage mixed with the experimental set. I like to fuck with songs, not sticking to the script. I have to be so on with these big concerts, y’know. Or I have to use the strobe light and hide for a minute, which I don’t like to do.


How much room for improvisation is there in those experimental sets, where you have to do everything?


Moor Mother: The whole thing tonight was improv. When I came here I was like “whoa, this is inside of a bridge…. what I did yesterday is not gonna work”. I was talking to some folks outside about the G20 and Trump being in Germany. That turned my setlist into whatever it ended up being. It really was 80% improv.


Do you use any mnemonic techniques to memorize all these lyrics?


Moor Mother: It’s more about how clear can my mind be. Last night I tried to do a poem and I couldn’t remember it. I just did a little piece. Tonight I did the whole poem from memory. I felt like “make it fucking work.” I did this thing for Fact magazine—“Fact Freestyles”, a lot of grime MCs do it…


That’s a cappella, right?


Moor Mother: Yea, it’s in the street. I asked them if I can do that, they said sure. And I totally blanked {laughs}. I could only remember the first two things I ever wrote. So I did this old rap and regretted it. What I learned from that is, I wrote down a list of all the stuff that I have. If someone goes “say something”, I can just look on this list and remember, oh, I did write all of this stuff.


You played in punk bands but also did a lot of open mics in Philadelphia. Are there any Philly rappers that inspire you?


Moor Mother: Well the Fresh Prince, Will Smith [laughs]. And Meek Mill is obviously a crazy drama person. But, y’know, I live in North Philly. It’s a hectic, ‘the walls closing in’ kinda vibe. So a lot of the rappers feel like they’re alone in the world. It’s this Tupac, “Me against the world” thing. It’s pretty interesting.


How do your performances and writing process relate to one another?


Moor Mother: It all starts off as poems. I write 5 poems before I feel like something is gonna be awesome as a track. My own stuff comes together weirdly, not structured at all. When you collaborate, you hear a beat and that tells you how to write. On stage I can be smiling, having a conversation and as soon as the song comes on, I’m like “This is FUCKED UP”! Almost like I’m separate from it. The song is reminding me what I’m talking about, why I am doing this.


Does that ever fail you—like, do you sometimes have to put on a performance without feeling it?


Moor Mother: No, never. It comes down to the songs I choose to perform. I was in Sweden and did the most depressed set, super intense and heavy. I was like “damn, I should’ve mixed it up… I’m so sorry” [laughs]. I just went too heavy and deep. I wanna have a little something for everyone.


Do you feel pigeonholed since Fetish Bones was so well received? That might be the heaviest thing you’ve released, your collabo records sometimes have different vibes.


Moor Mother: Oh yeah! But I actually wanna get back to doing more myself. Right now I’m making people dance, sometimes, which is cool. It’s hard for me not to produce as well. Next year, if I do collaborations, I must play an instrument on it. This idea of something being great, but I didn’t make it, drives me crazy. I need my own sounds because I have my own sonic identity. It’s about control.


How do you approach producing tracks then?


Moor Mother: I collect every idea. I don’t throw away anything. Even if it sucks I’m gonna work until I make it good. It’s like making a sound bank of shit. But some of it is good. At some point you might be able to fix it.


Who’s a musician that impresses you?


Moor Mother: I like this bass player Meshell Ndegeocello. On stage, the band hides in the back, you go see them and ask “where are they” [laughs]. I like having different instruments, and I’m a bass player myself. I played in punk bands so it’s cool to listen to a bass player who’s not playing straight R&B. She played with Prince, with John Cougar Mellencamp and all this shit.


Do you miss the band set-up?


Moor Mother: Yeah. Lyrically I’m much better in front of a band. There’s something about the live instruments and me being free with the mic. Being stuck behind a table makes me mad – I like playing the synths but I also wanna mosh. I do a lot of thinking when I’m by myself. With the band you can interact, tell them to stop and go… It’s really powerful.

I’m gonna work with live instruments for my next solo record. I wanna fuck up some orchestra stuff [laughs], I really wanna fuck up classical music.


Is that already in the works?


Moor Mother: Yeah, that’s gonna happen. We’re recording in November. It’s gonna be tight.


What else is up next, you’ve got an EP with DJ Haram coming up?


Moor Mother: It will be out in the summer, and that’s just totally different. Everyone’s gonna be like “What are you DOING now” [laughs].


Do you enjoy that?


Moor Mother: Yes, I mean, there’s nothing I can do! We said we would make a tape – it’s not my fault it took two years to come out. It’s definitely more rude and more party.


What’s the status of the Community Futures Lab center you run in Philadelphia?


Moor Mother: It’s closed down now, but we have a smaller space. Our grant is over, we have no more money. A company from New York gave us money to run workshops, help with housing issues… Housing all over the world is fucked up but it’s REALLY bad in Philly. They just take out whole neighborhoods. We do workshops to inform people about slum landlords that will threaten you, don’t take care of sewer leaks in basements and such. It’s pretty fucked up.


Are there enough spaces for rehearsal rooms and galleries in the city?


Moor Mother: No.. there are some cool galleries like Vox Populi. But people just get pushed out of DIY spaces. It’s getting harder. But people can squat and just take over spaces. Choose to not listen to what people say. On my tour in April, the best places I played were squats. People had taken over and put hard work into it. The sound system was always good, people were really working together… it is possible. You can be successful. I played places in Portugal thinking, this is not a squat! But sure it was. This is amazing…


You’re going to Amsterdam next, their most famous music venue is a squatted church.


Moor Mother: I want to see that so bad. A lotta people I know have played there.


So as a self-proclaimed futurist—what’s a future worth fighting for right now?


Moor Mother: That’s probably an individual question. What does it mean to be human? We have to step back and ask that question. So many of us are lost in this perpetual loop of misinformation, this vortex of chaos. So many of us are going by the rhythms of everyday, of their brain muscle memory. We need to define humanity for ourselves. Does it mean I just go to work and get married? There’s gotta be some real questions. Re-defining shit, from technology to what spirituality is supposed to be. An individual re-defining.


Probably the main task is making sure everyone’s granted the time and headspace to ask these questions?


Moor Mother: The option to even dream, yes. What does power mean, how imprisoned are we? That’s what afrofuturism is about. It’s saying that you have a chance to redefine your future. Science fiction predicts what the next weapons are gonna be. If we can influence the future and do a positive visualization of what we wanna see: write it down. Visualize it. Walk in it. Redefine your power—what can you do with no weapons and no money.

That information shouldn’t be in academia. Everyone should be told or given a chance to fucking create this. It’s happened to me. I wrote this list down of things that I wanted and 90% of it came true… so let’s all do it together. Most of our dialogue to ourselves starts with “maybe I could do it, but who do I gotta kill to get over there…” instead of just visualizing me going over there and do it through imagination and creativity. I found out that we’re more powerful than we think we are.


These acts of visualization create the questions to get you to a certain place. When you realize you could squat a place, you look up the possible consequences and what it would take…


Moor Mother: That’s why we’re saying sci-fi is reality. You think this is some mystical, magical thing? No! People are sitting at home, thinking up some shit that becomes reality. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s the atom bomb.


Are you working on any new books right now?


Moor Mother: I’m kind of locked in because my collective, Black Quantum Futurism—which I run with Rasheedah Phillips—is putting out a new book called Community Futurism. It’s theory and personal stories from the center that we had. Just that whole experience. So I’m writing that, just reflecting what it means to have your home removed and demolished. How do we get back to self-run neighborhoods, based on things we’re already doing but we’re not noticing. They call it ghetto.


What was growing up in Maryland like?


Moor Mother: It was kind of a bad neighborhood. You couldn’t call a taxi cab to come pick you up. You couldn’t order a pizza, because they wouldn’t come either. I don’t know how it happened but we had people in the neighborhood that were the taxis. One man named Mr. Moody. When you missed the bus to school your mom said “go talk to Mr. Moody”. And we can’t get pizza, so people opened stores in their closets. Stuff like that. That’s not futuristic, that’s smart. It’s logical. Genius, even. We’re trying to return to this way, where you trust each other to make it more easy.


Self-made transportation centers…


Moor Mother: It gives everyone autonomy and agency. Mr. Moody was an elderly man who wasn’t working anymore. So he maintained some sense of importance and respect in the neighborhood. We look at a taxi like, “pff, fucking taxi”, and lose all respect for the elderly like “you’re taking too long, get the fuck outta here”. But with him it was a real sense of respect. And even young people… we sold pop corn out of the back of the bedroom window as kids. We just thought: we want popcorn, so everyone does.


Do you see any of this in Philadelphia right now?


Moor Mother: The center was a bit like that. Everyone knew we were there and it was chill. No need to pay. We have some food, come along. So yea, it was like that in a sense. But so many people get kicked out and it’s all so rapidly changing. Where I grew up, I was there for 17 years. That’s a long time of the same people growing up together.


Are you still rolling with them?


Moor Mother: Oh yea! We’re like a cult! I did something, and someone from the neighborhood shared it on Facebook and everyone felt like supporting their own: Washington Park! [laughs]. Like a gang almost.


With all these DIY endeavors, did you ever run into any problems with the cops or government officials?


Moor Mother: Oh no, they just came to the neighborhood for different things. Drugs and other things that sucked about living there. Addiction was crazy, everywhere. People like distractions, need distractions sometimes. We have a lot of them now.


In your set you said something like, “The world has already ended three times while you’re staring at your phone.”


Moor Mother: That’s inspired by Sun Ra. The cell phone, this availability all the time… if that had been around when I was a kid, I don’t even know if I would be alive. I might have gotten into some crazy things just through the extra access. I was a pretty bad kid.


When did that change?


Moor Mother: You just mature, you really do. The whole idea of coolness, all that bullshit… Your ego as a kid, you have to crush it. I played sports, so that was another whole culture of acting tough. Especially in basketball…


Depending on the sports I guess, not sure how that is in, I don’t know, badminton…


Moor Mother: Yo, I got into a fight over badminton! I love that shit. I’m really intense when it comes to badminton {laughs}. I love ping-pong too. That’s my three things: basketball, ping-pong and badminton. Soccer a little bit. But I smoke and I can’t do more than a couple of kicks [laughs]. And basketball and music were always related, so it was like – what do I listen to before the game?


To get pumped up?


Moor Mother: More to calm down, really. I would get so pumped up, for shows as well. I have to calm down or i’ll throw up before a show or a recording session.


But you get so hyped on stage.


Moor Mother: When the music starts I am not nervous. I know I’m about to give off so much energy, so I need to ease myself.


So give me a track to calm down before an important show and/or badminton clash.


Moor Mother: Dennis Brown’s “It’s Magic”. Just a slow roots reggae jam that makes you relax. Or a classic, non-political Bob Marley track. That will calm you down.