It’s early. Not too early, but before 10 a.m. on a hot Thursday in late July. I’m on a public bus navigating South Philadelphia’s notoriously tiny streets, pushing upward. The driver hurries through the capital city’s downtown (referred to by its residents as Center City), jetting past the famed Rocky steps leading to the Museum of Art. Somehow, we’re making good time.
In five minutes, the compound is out of view, the skyline is obscured by trees, and the speeding coach enters Brewerytown in North Philadelphia, one of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods. It borders some of the most expensive parts of the city, but sits just far enough to maintain its own identity, left intact by the communities that built it, by the city planning that segregates people. As Philly has become more gentrified, this area has been shrinking—and Camae Ayewa, an artist who records music under the moniker Moor Mother, has seen the shift. Residency is political and the laws that determine and shift city boundaries are dangerous. These are large ideas to unpack, and Ayewa is not afraid of exploring them.
When I arrive at her home, a tall, thin, red townhouse with a well-worn porch at the edge of the neighborhood, I’m greeted by faded pink graduation signs. A family friend has just graduated, and Ayewa tells me with a laugh, “We leave things up forever.”
Ayewa is barefoot. She wears her long dreads half-up, half-down. Her top is bright yellow, a friendly color that probably wouldn’t ever be associated with industrial music—but that’s where Aweya draws artistic inspiration. We walk into the front room of the rowhouse-style building and she asks if she can smoke a cigarette indoors. Her voice is deep and tired. It’s 10:30 a.m. now, and there’s something inviting about the request, a certain level of comfortability. We sit on two separate couches facing one another and she curls up, wrapping her legs underneath her. She apologizes for the early interview time, lights her cigarette, and smiles.
The person who invited me into her home feels far removed from Moor Mother the musician, a genre-defying project that expands social consciousness with improv. She’ll rap, she’ll sing, she’ll scream—she’ll bring aggressive, harsh noises (“power electronics” is a genre tag often associated with Moor Mother, but she refers to it as “hardcore”) into any given song. Her work is also imbued with a poetic lyricism that is dedicated to giving space to the everyday experiences of marginalized groups. Her songs are explicit in their objectives, in their truth-telling—yet simultaneously challenging to talk about.
“I’m not forcing myself to write,” she explains succinctly. “When I start performing I get madder as the songs I pick go on. I’ve been working on making my senses sensitive enough that I tap into this energy where I can really step into people’s shoes and write songs that are honest.” She pauses. “I don’t like to call them songs—it’s kind of like a spell. I’m writing these spells and I’m singing them like I’m possessed and I don’t know what’s happening.” The perfect simile: Her magic has a darkness to it, not too far from the iconography of the occult. This is the punkest shit.
Moor Mother began in early 2013 as a creative outlet for Aweya: For over a decade, she’s been booking shows, working in the visual art world, creating community spaces, and hosting workshops in Philadelphia. It wasn’t her first foray into music, either. Ayewa previously played and toured in two punk bands—the Mighty Paradocs and Girls Dressed as Girls. Before Moor Mother, before punk, she was rapping, and during her childhood in the small town of Aberdeen, Maryland, her parents brought her to hip-hop shows and shared with her a love of gospel and soul. “The music was consciously-minded, meaning it spoke about the lives of everyday people,” she recalls, considering her upbringing. “I’m really thankful that I grew up in a rich cultural setting that’s directly related to me being a so-called African-American, which is an interesting relationship here in America. We’re so cut off from so much of our history.”
A nonlinear understanding of history and art drives Moor Mother. It’s reflected even in her musical outpouring—her Bandcamp gives hints, but it’s hard to tell when and where her official recordings and experiments begin. After releasing her critically heralded debut LP Fetish Bones on New Jersey punk label Don Giovanni in 2016, she released another full-length and most recently, a collaborative EP with fellow Philadelphian producer Mental Jewelry. “I’m a bulk worker. I like to make multiples,” she says. “If I’m going to make a song, I’m going to make five songs. I already know the sounds that I want. I just have to find them. If I can understand the history of the sound that I want, then I can understand where I need to go to sample it.”
And Moor Mother understands sound. In one moment, Ayewa pulls from audio recordings of Sandra Bland’s arrest; in another, she samples protest music from a not-so distant reality. The next second, she screams, mirroring the fear and chaos of a police state. The next track may be a conversation about water: who needs it, who controls it. There’s no shortage of injustices being brought to light in these sonic mosaics—brash soundscapes collide, layering on top of each other to build a narrative that circles and engulfs itself. Blink, and you’ll miss something. Listen, and you’ll miss it anyway. Our ears are drawn to Moor Mother’s commanding voice, her cadence and poetry.
“The skill I’ve been developing the most is being able to write lyrics that are right to the point, that are not fantasy,” she says. “There’s enough fantasy with all work.” It’s a separation of sound and storytelling. Moor Mother’s musical plasticity has a certain imagination—it sounds nothing like what most people have ever heard before, drawing their attention to what’s most familiar—her voice, and what she’s saying. In her words there is only truth, fantasy takes a backseat.
The dialogues Ayewa chooses to engage in are usually referred to in protest terms, deeming her an activist. And by any definition, she most certainly is, but her process feels more organic: She’s not forcing herself to chose between playing the role of the artist or activist. She’s recognized her strength in the hybridity of both. Moor Mother avoids reactionary results; compassion for community and people—love—is at the heart of Ayewa’s music. Her message, regardless of the medium, has an almost apocalyptic sense of urgency to it.
“This is the main thing, and I usually say it live,” she starts, “The end of the world has already happened and it’s okay. You don’t have to stand and look at me all sad but you can.” She sits up a little taller. “When I say it’s okay, it’s not to pacify them. We can aggressively shape the role of what this future is going to be like for us as a society or for us as an individual. You are not defeated.” She smiles. “We already hit the Doomsday. It didn’t look like what they said, but we did it. What the fuck are you going to do now?”
The language of protest, historically, has been close to a language of anger. When Moor Mother screams about government-sanctioned racism and the economic inequality it proliferates, she is angry. But, she says, “I don’t see anger [as negative.] There’s a positive side to everything. I’m sitting here and yes, I’m pissed off. It breaks my heart to see what people are going through everyday, all of this shit, but I move out of love.” She goes on: “It’s like [being] a doctor. You’re dealing with life and death, isn’t this a little too much? You hope to trust yourself, that you can handle working with these very delicate materials. What can anger do?”
Moor Mother’s music is putting your fists up and abstaining from violence. Her live shows are always physical; Ayewa is unafraid of grabbing faces in the crowd. They might emerge from the set rattled by the injustices presented to them. But they come out on the other side angry, the side that can see the future and imagine something new. Those images don’t sit with the woman in front of me, crossed-legged and warm—the woman who invited me into her home. But both Aweya onstage and Aweya at home come from the same intensity.
When our conversation reaches an end, I head toward Ayewa’s front door. She stops me before I reach the screen to recommend a few restaurants in my new Philadelphia neighborhood—she loves and understands the network of her adopted town.
It must be an experience most people have when talking to Ayewa: moments of consideration for large, complicated, and unfortunate realities followed by moments of friendly intimacy, of familiarity. What could be jarring is instead educational, and it’s impossible not to cling onto her words, to find new truths in her teachings days after she’s conducted them. That light in ambient darkness doesn’t feel too dissimilar to Philadelphia’s geography—a place of great history, discrepancy, genius, and danger. No wonder Moor Mother calls it home.