Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother
On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we share a drink with poet, noise musician and Afro-futurist Camae Ayewa and discuss her latest project Circuit City. Known as a force of nature in the Philadelphia Arts scene, Camae has also made her mark world wide as the one-woman band, Moor Mother. Camae discusses how Circuit City explores what the concept of freedom really is, through the lens of the housing crisis and its effects on those who’ve spent their lifetime in their community. Circuit City runs from June 20-22 as part of our High Pressure Fire Service.
Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.
Feature Photo by Bob Sweeney
Conversation with Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother
Raina: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Raina, Marketing Manager here at FringeArts.
Tenara: And I’m Tenara, I am the Audience Engagement Coordinator here at FringeArts. We invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Raina: Now, we’re really excited right now, because we’re really just gearing up for High Pressure Fire Service, what we also also affectionately call “Hipfizz,” from the acronym HPFS, so we’re really excited to be talking to one of the most exciting artists that we have in this incredible lineup for High Pressure Fire Service.
Tenara: Yeah, today we’re talking to Camae Ayewa, is that how I say that?
Tenara: Excellent. Or, as some of you might know her, Moor Mother. Camae is a poet, a noise musician, a visual artist, and for the first time this Spring, a playwright. So Camae, welcome.
Camae: Hello everyone. Thanks for tuning in; thanks for having me.
Raina: Hey (laughs). So, our first question, cause it’s Happy Hour on the Fringe is, what are you drinking?
Camae: I’m drinking a spice chai.
Tenara: Oh, it’s so good. Like, vanilla spice, or…?
Camae: No, just the…just spices, ’cause they had vanilla, but I said, “No, I’ll go for the spice.”
Raina: I’m opting for water today, still.
Tenara: Yeah, I’m opting for water…sparkling.
Raina: Well, we’re really raging hard here. You know, you have Moor Mother as your stage name and we wanted to kind of see where did that name come from and how did you, you know, get there.
Camae: The name comes from what I figured what was most important to me and that was with music, and that was honoring mothers. So, I said “Ok,it’s going to be mother something,” and then I picked “Moor” because I wanted to expand the idea of blackness, and not just have people feel like my music is just for America, or something, you know, it’s for the world.
Tenara: Is Moor Mother, just your like…your performance title? Is it also a persona; is it…like a stage presence; like, is just like, the title of your band?
Camae: I would say it’s the title of the project, but of course, I’m utterly in the life of Moor Mother, so I definitely would love to continue to be more dramatic and more theatrical with my work, and creating the world of Moor Mother. But, uh, right now it’s the name of a project and I’m just taking where my imagination goes, you know, with the limitations that I have, you know?
Tenara: Mm hm.
Raina: Yeah. And with looking at where you’ve gone so far; looking at visual art, music and like now, this world of creating a play, have you found a medium that you kind of lean more into as like, your favorite?
Camae: Well, I would say that…I think Punk Rock is my favorite, and I’m not doing that in a traditional sense, you know, I do that with I have the attitude of it. But, um, I was just saying recently that, you know, I would like to have a rock band, you know. I really would love to do that. So, I’m still figuring out all the pieces to me. There’s a lot of things that I’m not doing yet that I would love to do.
Tenara: What is the attitude of, like, Punk Rock, that you feel like you feel to like you channel in your work?
Camae: Just the no fear to be free and the no fear about perfection or masters or rules, you know; just to say like “Hey, I’m just gonna do it and trust that and not trust the accomplishments that I need or the prerequisite of whatever, you know.
Tenara and Raina: Mm hm.
Raina: So when you enter into a new form, are you also going into that mindset of also breaking the rules and kind of changing that form into whatever you want to to be?
Camae: Well, yeah, and I mean, I speak about Punk like it’s a choice. I mean, it’s kind of a choice to say what kind of punk you like or whatever you chose to listen to, but…it’s more about the…the idea of punk, you know, the idea of “Hey you wanna be a famous Rock band, well get in the basement, find two other people…”
Tenara: Mm hm.
Camae: “…find some sort of instrument, make a bunch of noise until you figure out how to make a song.” You know, just kinda like that attitude of like, “You don’t need anything,” or feeling like you are enough, you know. Kind of like that is what…that’s how I came into the game, you know. If I came into music coming from Berkely and I did all of this a youth, playing violin or something, then maybe I’ll have a different perspective. But I didn’t…I didn’t come from that, I just come like dreams and imagination. So, it’s like…
Camae: …everything has that approach to it because I’m must trusting my heart and just saying that I have an interest in this…what skills do I have that I can try to pull this off.
Raina: We had the chance to kind of read a little bit about you and…so you kind of grew up going to like, joining like, your gospel choir at church, but you didn’t play instruments growing up?
Camae: No, I did not. You know, I wish I played instruments as a kid but, you know I didn’t know where you buy instruments, it was like, do you play in the school band, what is that? I’m a dreamer type of kid so, my head was more in the clouds then actually being practical. And I…I love basketball, so that was the first dream that I had to like, be a professional basketball player.
Raina: Wow. That’s such an interesting, like, path can go from like basketball to music. Do you kind of still think like…I could have made it?
Camae: Definitely! But you know, school is like a business and everything so you gotta be able to get through the school part, you know, and I was never a good student.
Tenara: Do you still play basketball?
Camae: Well…, I…yeah, when I can, I mean, I coached, for over ten years at Friends Select school, here in Philadelphia.
Camae: So, when my album dropped, that was my last year of coaching, and I just said, this music thing is doing better than this coaching thing.
Tenara: So when you were in those…like you were singing in the gospel choirs even if you weren’t playing any instruments?
Camae: Oh yeah, as a kid, yeah.
Tenara: So, you grew up singing. There is like, was there…did you come from a particularly musical house, like was there music, like, you know, everywhere in your life?
Camae: Yeah. Yeah…like my dad was a singer in the choir, my grandmother, my aunt, you know the choir was jumping. So, it’s kind of like you wanna be a part of it. But I…, I quit the choir as a kid to practice Taekwondo.
Camae: I also was like, in love with this idea of like, monks, and ninjas and…so that was end of my singing in the church, or pretty much going to church.
Raina: Well, I’ve…I just decided I’m gonna take up kickboxing.
Camae: Cool! That is so cool!
Raina: So I’m…(laughter) I’ve yet to take my first class but I just signed up for this Saturday, so, it’s gonna happen.
Camae: You gotta sign up two more people.
Raina: I signed up my boyfriend; I drag him everywhere.
Camae: Ok. So you got one more, you gotta bring one more person. (inaudible) little bit, you know.
Camae: And then bring someone because…especially women because we need all these fighting skills.
Camae: Why not?
Tenara: I took kickboxing for like, a couple of months and it was really like…they form an entire community, and it’s like mostly women, that like, they want you come to matches, they want you to like, like hang out. It’s like, really supportive and it’s all about…don’t do a move that you’re not proud of, you know, it’s like, always like, finding your strength and being like, holding the integrity of the strength, which is a lesson we can take to every part of our life.
Raina: So, I’d love to shift gears a little bit to talk more about Circuit City. So for us, High Pressure Fire Service as a festival is all about Philly, all about artists who are making Philly their home, and creating work that’s centered in about and kind of reflecting Philly in a lot of different ways, and so, I kind of wanted to ask you then, about how Philly’s influenced your work, and thinking about different elements like the Philadelphia housing crisis and how that’s become rolled into your thought process as you develop this.
Camae: I came to Philly in 1999, so Philly, like I’m sure many other communities…they go through a lot of waves, yeah, like, where I used to live now is like, luxury condos, you know, downtown where my college dorm was. So like, wow it’s been through so many different changes, so I would just say the, you know, the relationships, every day relationships with people and neighborhoods and students that come in and out of the city; just a movement of the city and the people, the everyday people that I’ve been able to meet. It’s just really, um…amazing. Philadelphia…we don’t…we’re not really known for like, celebrating its citizens.
Tenara and Raina: Hmm.
Camae: You know, besides the old kind of Revolutionary War kind of thing, you know.
Raina: Ben Franklin is everywhere.
Camae: It’s everywhere. And I’m not, you know, saying that…well I…whatever but like, John Coltrane should be everywhere.
Raina: Mm hm.
Camae: Billie Holiday should be everywhere. These are people that…not only we can appreciate their music, but there’s so many levels, that we can learn from them.
Raina: Mm hm.
Camae: W.E.B. DuBois, you know, Patti LaBelle, all of these…so many studios…. We…Philadelphia really, um, pales in comparison to other places where they celebrate it you know. Like, I went to Vienna; had no idea Mozart was from there. But, I mean, it’s in your face so much. I mean, that’s just one person, you know, or just a person that went to a…Andy Warhol went to this coffee shop.”
Camae: And it’s like, we’re celebrating this moment, and not in a milking way of being like…here pay a ticket to come see this kind of thing. So, I feel like, and not just people who are well-established or rich, like the people that I, uh, named, celebrity-wise. Everyday citizens. North Philly has amazing community members that, you know, won’t get any type of shine, with…outside their own community that have been doing a lot of work, whether it’s street cleanup, whether it’s organizing citizens to vote or…and there are a lot elders doing this work that have been, so those type of people make Philly to me; these lone heros.
Raina: Mm hm.
Camae: You know, these people are dedicated to their community, no matter what the changes that come in, ’cause like I said before, Philly goes through so much changes since I just been here…
Raina: Mm hm.
Camae: So…in mainly housing.
Tenara: You know you touched on it a little bit, but, you know, all the things you love about Philly, but I’m curious…like…why…you moved here in 1999 and then you sort of stayed and continued to make work here. What is it about Philly that you here and keeps you making stuff here?
Camae: I mean…that’s a good question, you know, because I definitely prefer warm weather.
Camae: You know what I mean?
Tenara and Raina: Yeah.
Camae: Like…I definitely prefer it. I want to always keep working; not have the option of being like, ahhh, it’s too cold to go outside.
Raina: Mm hm.
Camae: You know like…I would prefer to move. I…you know, the relationships that I formed…
Raina: Mm hm.
Camae: You know. I was here to form the band, you know. My best friend that was in the band moved to California. That was like a chance. Then I was in a relationship and then had this coaching job that, you know, like a mentioned before, basketball was, like my first love.
Camae: So, to be able to coach for so long is like…I can can get this kind of thing that I’m not getting in music.
Tenara: Mm hm.
Camae: But, you know, but, yeah…just…relationships. I was doing an event for about 14 years called. “Rockers, ” and it was a monthy event here in Philadelphia, so that was another thing. But, we just recently ended about three years ago.
Camae: All of these things keep me tied to Philadelphia but, I’ve seen so many…some great places all over the world but I would love to build connections; build bridges.
Raina: Mm hm.
Camae: I feel like a lot of people that I was here with, you know, when I first came to Philadelphia, have been able to do that. Or move to different places and create this bridge. Hopefully, yeah, I would love to continue repping Philly I guess.
Camae: That kind of thing.
Tenara: Yeah…I’m curious because lots and lots of artists that make Philadelphia their home. And like, I think a huge part of it obviously is the relationships and the collaborations that you make. But, I’m curious if there’s something like…quintessentially Philly, that is friendly to artists?
Camae: It’s really hard, because in Philly there’s not a lot of places that I know, that you can turn to that support artists.
Tenara: Mm hm.
Camae: And there’s still a lot of artists that I know in Philly that’s been working forever that don’t know certain grants that are available to them. You know, just yesterday, I told my friend, who was at the first Rockers performing with her band about the Leeway Foundation, and I’ve won it twice. So it’s like, we’re close friends, you don’t even know that I’ve won this, you don’t even know there’s this award….
Camae: You know, it’s just like, you feel as an artist kind of like in the dark. Philly is like, a working artists’ city where you go to do some work in your house or in a studio and build things and get things done kind of. And then you’ll go to of course, New York or something to showcase it, you know?
Tenara and Raina: Mm hm.
Camae: But Philly…and we’re getting new venues and I think more connections are being made at the City Hall level where we can start to have these conversations about, um…highlighting this and making Philly a place where other musicians can come to do a show instead of coming to go in the studio with one of our drummers, you know?
Tenara and Raina: Mm hm.
Camae: So it’s kind of like…you know, we’re like Newark or something, you like, they’re like the industrial artist city, you know. We write, we…you know?
Camae: Um…but yeah, no, Philly’s hard. Philly’s hard.
Raina: Do you find that there is…this information gap between different people like where, you may have found out about the Leeway Foundation, like…why wouldn’t someone find out about that. Is there like a…marketing issue on the part of, like, these grants and foundations or, do you think it’s more just people being in different area of the city?
Camae: I think sometimes you feel like you don’t know the people that are winning these awards and you think, “Oh, they must be from Harvard, they taught for 10 years…all the kind of things, you know, and not understanding that being a musician for 10 or 5 years is a lot of work in your community, you know. And you don’t actually…you didn’t actually have to graduate from here, you know…just going back to that punk mentality thing that I was saying before…and I feel like…people don’t know…
Raina: They psyche themselves out…
Raina: …even if they do hear about it.
Camae: Yeah, because you kind of…I mean, I won the grant…I don’t know, it was a long time ago, very long time ago when I won the first Art and Change Grant. And no one…it was a crazy thing, they were like “Whaaat?” You know, we were so poor, we couldn’t even build the project, we were like, “Aww, we got this money! What?” You know what I mean? It was just like a surprise. No one we ever knew had anything; I had did it from Rockers, you know? And so I didn’t apply for a very long time after that, because it was kind of like a fluke, or like…
Camae: …what was happening, you know? And so…to get the next one, then I’m like “Oh!” The next one was the Transformation Grant, years later, you know. Then I got to meet the Director of the thing and I got to meet this person, and I’m rubbing elbows, or…
Camae: You know what I mean?
Camae: …with this other Humanitarian kind of charity group world, you know?
Camae: So…that was like blessing and then I also started doing workshops for Girls Rock Philly.
Tenara: Hmm. Cool.
Camae: And then I was like, “Oh…well…now this workshop worked out, now I’m with the workshop people.”
Camae: “Ok, let me keep me keep developing this skill.” Now I do workshops all over the world, you know? But it’s like, I didn’t know about that world.
Tenara: The thing that I like, really respect about Philadelphia artists is that even if they do get themselves into a cycle where they like, psyche themselves out, and they think, Oh, like yeah obviously Camae has won a Leeway grant, you know, Camae has done so much and blah, blah, blah, not really considering the fact they could get it if they really, like, worked at the application, but I also really love that there’s a spirit in Philly of like, even if I don’t get this grant, I’m just gonna do the thing anyway. I mean, that happened, you know, our Fringe Festival in September we have like, hundreds and hundreds of independent artists that just do it; they just put on their show and they find any way that they can for whoever wants to come, and that…that feels like really Philly to me. Like, and very punk also, like “Whatever. I don’t need to be authenticated by these other people in order to just do what I want to do.”
Camae: Mm hm.
Raina: But I do also feel like that is part of where Fringarts is able to help these artist by connecting them to these foundations and like, by sharing what information we have, because obviously we are a nonprofit, we’re applying for grants too through a lot of the same foundations, but like, we want to be able to help artists find their way because we love a success story, like, we love to see a show in the Fringe Festival and then it’s like, getting a lot of recognition, a lot of press, and then it’s going further, like that’s great for us as well as the artist. There is definitely a lot of, you know, making it clear to people that they are like, you said that they’re worth it, they can do; it’s not out of reach for them.
Tenara: Totally. So, this is a bit of a pivot, like a topic switch, but I’m curious, like so much of your work can be described by other people as Afro-futurist, do you describe your work that way?
Camae: I don’t really describe my work as anything, but, yeah, like, I’m a part of that Afro-futurism community.
Tenara: Mm hm.
Camae: I mean figured that some people say that, right?
Tenara: Yeah, totally.
Tenara: So for any listeners who might not know, could you define what Afro-futurism is?
Tenara: Afro-futursim was a term coined by a critic named(?) Mark Dery, and…it basically was just like a question or, you know an idea which had already been, you know, stated about black people, seeing themselves in the future. And also, using this idea of Afro-futurism also as a lens to see how we’ve been cut out of the future, you know whether we’re talking about movies, where we’re talking about literature, government, media, all kinds of things like this. But of course, black people have always thought about the future. I’ve always looked to the stars, I’ve always, you know, imagined this documented history of that, but, because of how the world is set up, because of economics, classism, racism…it’s not…everyone doesn’t have an equal playing field. We’re all not dealing with the same time, the same privilege.
Tenara: One of the other questions that we have of like, what is the sort of classic definition of Afro-futurism, and then also, what does it mean to you?
Camae: I mean, I guess that would be…I don’t know what the classic definition of it, you know.
Tenara: Or the more like, popular definition of it, like you saying it was originally coined by Mark Dery…
Camae: Yeah, I think it’s just about black people taking agency in their future. It means to me, I mean…that’s based…it means to me in way of like, imagination, and to visualize what you want for yourself and your future. And I feel like…it has worked for me, not just for me, other countless people. One famous…Octavia Butler, a famous writer wrote down dreams and aspirations and goals for herself that she was able to accomplish just by writing it down and believing that you, you know what I mean, that this can be for you; that you can daydream a better place for yourself, you know. Sometimes people don’t even take the time, to do that kind of thing.
Raina: I wanna tie this back in a little bit to Circuit City, because we talked about your show and that it isn’t set in one place in time.
Raina: But, I’m kind of curious because you’ve talked about how the characters are working towards something; they’re building something over the course of the play. Can you tell a little bit more like, what that means…however much you want to spoil for the audience ahead of time, but, you know, like, what is this idea that they’re working towards?
Camae: I guess, I mean it can be so many ways, you know that you can say “oh it’s too that; it’s too that,” you know, that’s why I like the audience to kind of, make up their own minds. But, just thinking about it for myself, I think it goes to this idea of freedom. You know, in your own accord, you know, and I feel like this is something that’s been, you know, it’s a historical word, grained in war and enslavement flipped in a way of Civil Rights of being a light at the end of the tunnel kind of thing; this idea of freedom. I feel like it’s towards that, but that’s such a clouded…thing, this idea of freedom, you know, and I’ve been playing around with this long walk to freedom kind of idea of this, that’s so many people have spoken about before but, it’s kind of like, what is this thing? We get there and we actually realize it’s not what it means. Who defines what it is…this idea to escape of freedom. So, kind of like that kind of idea.
Raina: Yeah. And even unless all the people who have talked about it, we’re still not there in so many ways and it’s still a long walk to get wherever it really is.
Camae: Right. You know, because I think about like, we just passed Martin Luther King’s birthday which is recently, was this what he envisioned that freedom was? You know, I don’t know, you know. That “I Have a Dream Speech” is really amazing and this kind of way of creating these multi layers of a dream, and also what freedom is. Because equality…and how do we get to that.
Raina: There’s also the idea, you, know, where you don’t quite know what you can achieve if you don’t see it. Like the…I forget the exact kind of hypothetical but like, where there’s a person and they’re like in a box and so they don’t know that if they get to the other side, like there’s all this around them because all they know…
Tenara: …is the box.
Raina: …is the box. And so as even as we talk about freedom like, that definition is constantly changing because we can only see what’s right in front of us a lot of times.
Camae: Mm hm.
Tenara: I think a lot about how like, the kind of equity that so many people, you know, in this country, in this community are trying to achieve. We don’t really even have the words to describe it yet because we’re only working with the words that like, accurately describe the box.
Camae: Yeah and trying for figure out how to be more inclusive, right? We’re still at the Basic Humanity 101 kind of thing.
Camae: And then, when do you reach this inclusiveness that we’re all onboard?
Raina: Yeah. Just to kind of go back a little bit to, you know, your experience growing up…we really would love to kind of wrap up to hear what your advice would be for young people of color who are interested in the arts; interested in finding a creative path and what advice you would give them to start pursuing that future.
Camae: I would say don’t be afraid to reach out to other musicians who are doing that you’re doing and ask if, you know, they’re willing to mentor. I feel like you at least have to ask 100 people before someone says yes. Don’t be afraid; it doesn’t have to be someone that you want to be, as far as identity. It could just be someone in the field and you can still get valuable information. So, sometimes it’s not about setting our goals high to keep reaching out to Rhianna or someone, and it’s more about, okay, well here’s a video director that’s in the industry, you know, or here’s an engineer. Everyone has important pieces to the puzzle for you to learn, and it’s good to just ask questions and not feel embarrassed about it because most of the artists do this. So don’t think that no one’s reaching out to each other to get advice or mentorship.
Raina: And we haven’t had too much time to talk about this, but I also wanted to touch on you work with the Community Futures Lab in North Philly and like, what that means for you and how that’s centered in your work.
Camae: My collective, Black Quantum Futurism received a grant of Blade of Arts, Blade of Grass Foundation in New York and we decided with the money we want to build a community space that would not only offer workshops and information to the community, but would chronicle what was happening in the community. They demolished two affordable housing towers right around the corner from the lab…Community Futures Lab, so we took pictures, we interviewed residents, we collected oral histories, and what we call oral futures…visions of what they would want in their community. We brought all kinds of specialists in that could share information on housing. My partner, Rashida Phillips, is a housing attorney, so was definitely able to pull resources in from her colleagues to come in. It was a beautiful project. It was for a year, and we just received the archives for all the oral history stories and oral future stories, and photographs and everything. So, we hope…we don’t hope…it will be a part of the community.
Tenara: Is it going to be like, displayed in like a gallery or accessible to the public in any way?
Camae: We’ve been working on an online website for that.
Tenara: Okay, cool.
Camae: And hopefully, some library will take it.
Raina: Thank you.
Camae: Yeah, thank you for having me. I hope everyone enjoyed the show. Thanks for having me on, hope to see you in June for Circuit City.
Tenara: Thanks, Camae!
Raina: Thank you!