In Conversation: Moor Mother on Reaching New Listeners with “Black Encyclopedia of the Air”

Camae Ayewa discusses working with artistic limitations, the relationship between poetry and music, and the direction she took with her latest solo LP.

Moor Mother, born Camae Ayewa, is a traveler; she transcends linear constructions of time in the same way she crosses geographical borders. The artist works across a range of mediums, from poetry to visuals to music to education—and with each new undertaking the list only expands, as current and past projects inspire and bleed into each other.   

Experimentation is a cornerstone of Moor Mother’s artistic ethos, and with it is an intention to make her work accessible for any audience. Her forthcoming album, Black Encyclopedia of the Air, ruminates on themes of time and ancestry, as Ayewa seeks to ask: How do things become redefined? How can legacies and traditions carry into the future? 

The 13-track project features a diverse list of collaborators—from Philadelphia-rapper Lojii to Armand Hammer’s Elucid, to Moor Mother’s own artistic collective Black Quantum Futurism—bringing a smooth blend to Ayewa’s vocals, which range from singing to voice distortion to the recitation of poetry. We spoke to Moor Mother about the relationship between poetry and music, working with artistic limitations, and floating between different simultaneous projects, with Encyclopedia proving a companion piece to another forthcoming album entitled Jazz Codes.

When did you start recording Black Encyclopedia of the Air? When did you begin to think about it conceptually?

I recorded it in March 2020. I was actually working on two albums at once. This album kind of came as just vibing off the music and finding beats that I loved, but didn’t work for Jazz Codes. And then you have a couple tracks, and you’re like, “Oh, my God, this thing is turning into its own—I don’t want to say “monster,” but—blessing.” It kind of wasn’t planned at all. It just so happened that sometimes when you’re just having fun with something, it tends to get finished first. That’s basically what I was doing—just floating between these two records. This one just happened to get completed.

“When I play with different genres, I’m always trying to make it accessible to different people. I’m always trying to find angles of accessibility to reach more people with the message.”

I read an interview where you mentioned wanting to make this album accessible. What made you want to be intentional about that?

When I play with different genres, I’m always trying to make it accessible to different people. I have a jazz band, so people who don’t like noise or industrial or electronic music can check that out, and I have a punk band for people who don’t like jazz, and I do hip-hop. I’m always trying to find angles of accessibility to reach more people with the message. But for this one, I really wanted to think about Black women—mothers, children. I’m thinking about people on the fringes of race and gender. At the same time, I’m not really stepping too far out of what I love. It’s not like I’m playing a role or something. I’m just trying new things. At the same time, it’s not really new. It’s just about people who are deep into knowing what I’m doing. The biggest difference for me was there was no synthesizer, and really no noise. I’ve also always wanted to sing more. These two records really kind of showcase that. I feel like I’m constantly just trying to become better with my voice and my direction. This album might not be as political as my other stuff, but I keep it weird. 

On the track “Made a Circle,” you bring Nappy Nina, Maasai, Antonia Gabriela, and Orion Sun on. How did that come about?

Well, I always liked Nappy Nina. We were supposed to hang out in Europe last year, and just how the vibe [of the track] was going, I said, “Oh, I hear their voice really nice on this.” I just reached out and Nina sent the verse back, and it was perfect. But then I was like, “Hmm, there’s this young rapper, Maasai, let me see if I can also get Maasai on this.” And Nina didn’t even know about it. It’s not like we discussed it. This is me doing my own curation. And so Maasai was like, “I’m down.” And then boom, you know, it’s like this classic song that I wish I would have shot a video for. It’s pretty rare to get these three types of artists on a track. I was like, “Oh, my singing is still a little weird, I need this kind of gloss over it.” Then I brought in Orion Sun. I don’t think everyone even knew who all was on the track. I just hope they trust me, that I would do a good job.

How does Philadelphia as a city influence your art?

I’ve been in Philadelphia for a very long time, so I guess that question kind of changes all over. I’ve said a lot of good things about Philadelphia in interviews, but it was quarantine when I recorded this. I was inside. It wasn’t like I was out in the streets to gain any type of inspiration. I had just come back from tour in February 2020, and the last place I was was Venice, Italy. I was coming back from that energy and played a great show with the art ensemble in Paris. I was getting ready to go on tour in March with my jazz band. I was feeling really good energy, I’ve always wanted to go to Venice. This is why I call myself Moor Mother—I’ve always been a world musician. I’m not based in no border. Yeah, I lived in Philadelphia, but I’m bicoastal now, you could say. I live in California, and Philly’s punk scene definitely inspired my first record, Fetish Bones. But now I’m coming from a little different perspective as far as Philadelphia’s influence on the last record.  

A song that I really liked lyrically was “Clock Flight.” Can you talk about the repetitive pattern of the lyrics?

I was just thinking about the weight that we carry, the bags we carry, and all the work that’s been done for us to even be here—all the trials and tribulations that our ancestors went through to provide these kinds of moments. I have this poem where I speak about my grandmother who passed away from cancer. I say she was making air with her hands so we could all breathe. This is kind of how I feel about our ancestors. They’re making this world, making these feelings through all the strife.

“I have this poem where I speak about my grandmother who passed away from cancer. I say she was making air with her hands so we could all breathe. This is kind of how I feel about our ancestors. They’re making this world, making these feelings through all the strife.”

Why did you title the album Black Encyclopedia of the Air?

When people talk about picking up the torch or carrying on the legacy, we have to think, “What does that actually mean? What does that look like?” There’s this idea that nothing’s new under the sun. You can see in sciences they’re able to advance certain things—like take this vaccine and make it into another thing that can save people from another time. I’m more into expansion, not so much reinvention, but I do like this idea of redefining what something means to oneself. Loosely, I do like innovation and all of that, but I was just thinking about carrying on legacies and traditions. 

I’m someone who deals with a lot of limitations as an artist. I have to do whatever I can to provide these simple things like music videos and photoshoots. All that stuff is not very easy for me, so it’s a struggle to try to build this infrastructure around work. No way have I taken it lightly. I sent this record to my manager when it was done like, “Hey, I think we got something here, it’s 30 minutes or so, but I think it can really touch people that I haven’t been reaching.” It’s put together in this way of thinking of it as me as a curator and also a conductor. This is what this album is really speaking about—how I’m able to listen to the world and pull in these different pieces to make something work. And you’ll continue to see this on the next record. Then I’m going back to blues and noise. But I really love curation, and I love composing.

 

What do you see as the relationship between poetry and making music?

Oh, it’s everything. I’m realizing now that it’s poetry that’s everything to me. I wrote this poetry book called Jazz Codes, and the response would be this album called Jazz Codes. Writing a book of poetry inspires so much more music. I wrote the book for one thing, but also Black Encyclopedia of the Air also lives in Jazz Codes. It’s just like, wow, a poetry book can really inspire many records. My first book, Fetish Bones, inspired at least five records. Now I’m being more direct to the poetry. I’m giving a bigger offering to the poetry right now. I just feel like it’s more important than the music, to be honest.

What do you hope people take away from Black Encyclopedia of the Air?

I hope people take away some sort of healing. When I made this record, I was riding off this high. But once summer ended, it got really hard, and depression set in. Walking around Fairmount Park and listening to this album because it was finished was so healing for me. It really helped me to be able to record all the other music I did that year—I did, like, eight albums in 2020. I can’t even imagine what I would have done if I didn’t have this album to listen to and to ground me, to keep me continually working. I guess I hope it creates that feeling for someone else, because I desperately needed that kind of healing energy to keep moving forward. FL

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