The songwriter, composer, vocalist, poet, and educator Camae Ayewa spent years organizing and performing in Philadelphia’s underground music community before moving to Los Angeles to teach composition at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. She released her debut album as Moor Mother, Fetish Bones, in 2016, and has since put out an abundance of acclaimed music, both as a solo artist and in collaboration with other musicians who share her drive to dig up the untold. She has performed and recorded with the free jazz groups Irreversible Entanglements and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and made records with billy woods, Mental Jewelry, and YATTA.
Season 2 of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects, in partnership with RowHome Productions.
Host and Executive Producer: Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer: Dallas Taylor
Associate Producers: Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman
Guest Associate Producer: Eugene Lew
Managing Producer: Alex Lewis
Executive Editor: John Myers
Music supervisor: David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative
- Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams.
- Moor Mother “Woody Shaw” featuring Melanie Charles
Bob Marley (1945-1981)
Malcolm X (1925-1965)
Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)
Nina Simone (1933-2003)
Buddy (remix) (song by De La Soul, Tommy Boy, 1988)
Scenario (song by A Tribe Called Quest, Jive, 1992)
Poor Georgie (song by MC Lyte, Atlantic Records, 1991)
The Love Movement (album by A Tribe Called Quest, Jive, 1998)
Alice Coltrane (1937-2007)
Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales) (written by Rasheedah Philips, 2014)
Quantum Time Capsule and DIY Time Travel (created by Rasheedah Phillips and Camae Ayewa, 2018)
Daughters of the Dust (directed by Julie Dash, 1991)
Queen Mother Moore (1898-1997)
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Black Quantum Futurism: CPT Reversal at RedCat (2021-2022)
Nothing To Declare (album by 700 Bliss, 2022)
Jazz Codes (album by Moor Mother, 2022)
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity and expression the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens.
You’re listening to Many Lumens where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change and popular culture. I’m your host Maori Karmael Holmes. For this episode, I’m speaking with Camae Ayewa also known as Moor Mother. Hailing from Aberdeen, Maryland, she’s a songwriter, composer, vocalist and artist who spent years organizing and performing in Philadelphia’s underground music and cultural community before moving to Los Angeles. She released her debut album, Fetish Bones as Moor Mother in 2016, and has since put out a number of albums solo and as part of the group, Irreversible Entanglements, and most recently her second album Jazz Codes. Camae is an exceptionally eclectic figure. And in our conversation, we talk about her formative intellectual and musical influences that include gospel, Bob Marley and Patti LaBelle to name a few. We touch upon her journey as an artist from her early days, performing at the Black Lily, forming the mighty paradox to her success as a solo project and her continued collaborations, including her involvement in Black Quantum Futurism with her partner, Rasheedah Phillips. Camae is truly an inspiration constantly pushing boundaries. And now for my conversation with Camae Ayewa.
[00:01:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’ve been described as a poet, rapper, musician, noise artist, sound artist, dub poet, punk rocker, community organizer, composer, gym teacher, curator, producer, coach, activist, Afrofuturist and more. How would you describe yourself?
[00:02:07] Camae Ayewa:
Well, I’m a creative and I specialize in uncovering the unknown. I’m really interested in history and futurism. I love learning. So, I would say I have an appetite for learning things. I like to approach my creativity to every aspect of my life.
[00:02:34)] Maori Karmael Holmes: You were born and raised in Aberdeen, Maryland, a small town north of Baltimore. And I was reading that your family has been there for at least three generations. And I wanted to ask you what growing up there was like, and how did it shape your understanding of the world?
[00:02:49] Camae Ayewa: Growing up in Aberdeen, it was everything to me, the utopia. I grew up in a place called Washington Park and it was like 99%, all black people. And we created our own economic systems where we could depend on each other, where folks could be creative, not having to go outside their apartment to own property. People had stores. I was actually just talking yesterday about this woman who would make the best candy apples that I’ve ever had. And I can’t go back to get them again. That kind of thing is just really amazing. It showed me to be a self starter. That I didn’t really have to wait for anyone to have an idea and put it forth.
[00:03:34] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh, so what made you leave this utopia, what prompted you? Was it just college or did you have ideas about your future?
[00:03:45] Camae Ayewa: It was just college and I’d been senior year and everyone was going somewhere. I was like, okay, I need to go somewhere too. That kind of thing. And so I just decided to study art.
[00:03:59] Maori Karmael Holmes: And how did you know that was something possible for you? So many people in our culture are discouraged from studying art. So what made you pursue it?
[00:04:08] Camae Ayewa: Well, I wanted to be a basketball player, professional basketball player, and I had bad grades one year and I begged them. I said, “oh my goodness, if you don’t let me play, I don’t know what my life is going to be.” They still didn’t let me play. And they put me in art class. I loved it. We had to do a project about a musician, and I chose Bob Marley and I didn’t know much about Bob Marley, but I loved him. I thought he was so cool. I saw a guy with a guitar, and I always liked punk rock music when I was a kid. So I was like, wow, this is really cool. Someone with an electric guitar, but also singing folk songs, stuff that you could hear in a community. I thought that was really cool. So I just became obsessed with Bob Marley, and then poetry and things like this.
[00:05:06] Maori Karmael Holmes: It’s interesting because I was reading about your family’s playing in the house of gospel music, and your own singing in the choir. And I think about, of course Bob’s training in gospel as well. And the emergence of reggae out of a gospel tradition. And just curious for you, what did you learn from gospel that has stayed with you?
[00:05:29] Camae Ayewa: The joy of singing. My sister and I after choir rehearsal, we were just singing in the house and it was so much fun because we had three part harmony. It was soprano, Alto, and bass and it was so cool to have these three part harmonies where you can sing different parts, and we just sing all the time. And I think that was my favorite thing, but I quit the choir to study TaeKwonDo because I also love martial arts and this idea of, I guess it’s kind of like the spiritual aspect of meditation, and monks going up into the mountains and vows of silence. I just was into that as a kid. Also inspired by like Malcolm X’s trip to Mecca. I thought that was so cool. So I was just into that kind of thing.
[00:06:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s amazing, I feel like, I wish I had known you in high school. So how many siblings did you have, or do you have?
[00:06:33] Camae Ayewa: Yeah, I have two older sisters and a brother.
[00:06:37] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay. And so are you the youngest or is your brother younger than you?
[00:06:41] Camae Ayewa: Yeah. No, I’m the youngest.
[00:06:43] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay. I’m always curious about birth order and how it sets people up. And so I will make a generalization that may or may not be true, but you definitely strike me as a free spirit. And I feel like sometimes being the youngest means maybe your parents were paying a little less attention so you were free to explore maybe more.
[00:07:05] Camae Ayewa: Oh, definitely. I was definitely the weird one. The one that’s not like anyone else. I was a late bloomer because I was real soft. So I was always crying. My older siblings were so cool and popular in school, so it helped me out because I was so soft that I was already cool because of their reputations. My older sister was a big time basketball player, so she was like my idol. She was the first one in my family to go to college. And she went to North Carolina, A&T a historical black college. So we would go visit and watch her games. And I just loved it. I remember going into the locker room and seeing all these super tall women and they were strong and I just was amazed by that.
[00:08:02] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Well, speaking of when you said you played basketball, I mean, I know you to be a kind of slight person, so is your sister a similar sized person, and how did you all fare as basketball players?
[00:08:15] Camae Ayewa: Oh, everyone was really good. My father was good, everyone was good. So yeah, I’m the smallest, but I’m pretty wild when I play. I’m kind of like a Dennis Rodman.
[00:08:28] Maori Karmael Holmes: Got it. Yeah.
[00:08:32] Camae Ayewa: But I was never, I don’t think I would say I was better than my siblings because I was a little bad I guess you could say, especially once I couldn’t play basketball that year, that was really a turning point for me. So I struggled through school and was I was rapping with a little hip hop group and just, I would like punk rock. So I was just different. I mean, pretty much different than the whole neighborhood, to be honest. But because of this reputation that my siblings had, they accepted me. Some kids would say, “Oh, you’re just in a phase, Camae, it’s okay.” Things like that. Like, okay. I don’t know.
[00:09:19] Maori Karmael Holmes: Your first and last name, and you don’t have to tell me, but I’m just curious. Is it your birth name Camae Ayewa, or is Ayewa adopted later? And I’m only asking because I was trying to figure out its origins.
[00:09:34] Camae Ayewa: Yeah. It’s adopted later. It’s actually from Ghana tradition of being named after the day of the week that you were born, and I was born on a Thursday. So I took that name because this idea, especially what we do and thinking about futurism and Black bond futurism, this idea of how we are connected, way further than just the family that we meet and see. That we stretch so far back and we’re connected. So inspired by a Amari Baraka of course, one of my favorite poets, I took that on.
[00:10:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: And where did your parents get Camae from? I always think about the soap that my grandmother used to have around.
[00:10:22] Camae Ayewa: Yeah. No, I was always happy about that soap when I was a kid. My father made it up and it’s a piece of my grandmother’s name. Her name is Elamae. And so since I was the last baby and my mom always says I wasn’t planned, so they really named me after everybody.
[00:10:44] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay.
[00:10:44] Camae Ayewa: So I got two grandmothers in my name, I got my godmother, my aunt. I was kind of like that little baby.
[00:10:53] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. So you initially studied photography in college and I was wondering if you were still interested in making images?
[00:11:03] Camae Ayewa: Oh, I’m definitely interested. I was going to 2020, since I had all that time and my hands, make a photo book, but I got so wrapped up in making all this music, but not going outside as much as I thought I would. So yeah that’s definitely a plan for me to release an art book that’s just images. And I also do collage, so I want to do a mix of that.
[00:11:28] Maori Karmael Holmes: And when would you say you began experimenting with your voice in performance?
[00:11:34] Camae Ayewa: I would say around the Black Lily era time. I was trying to not even think about music when I came to college, I was really trying hard. And then a friend of mine caught me writing some graffiti in Philly and was like, “oh, you should come to this party.” This kind of thing. And I was really trying to stay away from it, but there was some women there that were rapping and they were good. And I was like, wait a minute now, I’m good too. And I would rap and I would meet all of my friends in Philly pretty much that night. And it wouldn’t be soon after that, where I would be starting rap groups and sneaking in the Black Lily to do my little rap.
[00:12:26] Maori Karmael Holmes: I read that you had a rap group with friends in high school called Sister Soldier. And then later you discovered reggae, and Scott, and punk. And I was curious, who were some of the musicians who were formative for you in those teenage years? I feel like that’s really what settles in your soul. So who are those musicians you discovered early on?
[00:12:48] Camae Ayewa: I split it into the dark part and the light part, if that makes sense, because we are listening to hip hop with DMX and Noreaga, and all that stuff was telling us alcohol, alcohol, that kind of stuff. I loved it, but it was definitely a negative influence for me at that time.
[00:13:12] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:13:13] Camae Ayewa: Even though I connected to the lyrics and stuff like that, I really liked Noreaga. But then on the other side, I mean, I still love this Bob Marley guy and I was searching for more music like that, because I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood where I could go to a friend and be like, “Hey, you heard the new Green Day, or Nirvana.” Or this kind of thing. So I really had to just watch all those documentaries I could find on TV, and learn about the ’50s, and the ’60s, and the ’70s and there’s still stuff that I didn’t know about like bad brains. I wouldn’t know about them till much later. And they were right in DC. That could have saved a lot of stuff for me. Also, Nina Simone then find out about Nina Simone. So after college that would’ve saved a lot for me, things like that. But I loved the Patti LaBelle power voices. My family is a Patti LaBelle stan family. So I had a lot of chances to see Patti Labelle also public enemy and anything Black, real Black African. And my parents would take me to, and whoever was performing there, especially in Baltimore was always good. Because Baltimore, we don’t play. You got to be real good. You don’t want to see nothing else, but greatness.
[00:14:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I think about for myself and I might be a little bit older than you, but music videos and college radio were my portal into hip hop and alternative music in the ’90s. And I was wondering if there were for you a singular music video or artist whose videos are imprinted on your brain. Because I think about for myself, it’s like De La Soul’s Buddy remix, being introduced to the Native Tongues. I took all my visual cues and so much from that moment. What was it for you?
[00:15:18] Camae Ayewa: I would definitely say that Buddy track, I definitely would say Scenario also anything MC Lyte, which it just going back and forth with that one dude or just like Poor Georgie.
[00:15:33] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh yeah.
[00:15:34] Camae Ayewa: Really women was really cool. YoYo, and Salt N Pepa was huge. Salt N Pepa, Kid ‘n Play. Anything that had also that those rhythms that I could relate to. That go-go. But I have an uncle who was a concert promoter in Syracuse, New York. He would take me to when we would go visit for the summer, my sister and I, take us to see all the hip hop concerts. So the Fat Boys. So this is something that I always was tuned into very young.
[00:16:10] Maori Karmael Holmes: So I feel like I can’t remember when we met exactly, but I think, and let me know if this is not true, because I feel like things just get conflated in the mind. But I think while Walidah Imarisha and I were organizing this series of Black Rock shows at the rotunda and I think we booked Mighty Paradocs. Is that true? Do you…
[00:16:32] Camae Ayewa: That’s true. That’s 100% true.
[00:16:35] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, I wanted to ask you how did Mighty Paradocs begin?
[00:16:39] Camae Ayewa: Really like I was saying earlier that house party, one of the women that were rapping was the other vocalist that would be in the Mighty Paradocs. So we said, “Hey, let’s hang out in our dorm and just rap.” And we put on A Tribe Called Quest, The Love Movement. I think that’s what it’s called, The Love movement. We rapped this freestyle of that whole album and we were like, I think we got something here and just, we were the duo. But I had always had these dreams of punk rock, and I would show her all these music that I like, and show my friends in Philly.
[00:17:22] Camae Ayewa: And then it was just like, okay, if we can find a band, somehow we’re going to do it. And that was always on my mind, but it was hard. It was so many MCs, not a lot of musicians that I knew. And I remember I saw this kid with a huge Afro and a bass guitar on CCP Community College of Philadelphia’s campus. And I just went right up to this kid and I said, “Hey I’ve been trying to start a band what’s up?” And they were like, “I literally just came to the community college for someone to stop me and say that.” And I was like, wow, this is perfect.
[00:18:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: And that’s incredible too, because earlier you were talking about Black Lily and I think about what it must have been like for you to be in this punk band. When so much of Philly was focused on Neo soul, what was it like performing around town when everyone was kind of not only focused on that, but coming to the city, people coming from all over to go to Black Lily and to set up, soak up that scene. What was that like for you? I know there were a few other punk outfits that I can think of, but what was your experience?
[00:18:37] Camae Ayewa: Well, no, that was it 3 7009. That was the time when we had that moment to break out. But like I said about Patti LaBelle, like Jaguar [Wright] is pretty punk rock.
[00:18:52] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s true.
[00:18:54] Camae Ayewa: Are you kidding me? And that the acts got real smoother over time, but those first couple acts, they were so punk, so much attitude and empowerment. There was the women of Black Lily. That was it. Then you had Flo Brown where you can see yourself. And then of course the Jazzyfatnastees. You wanted, like, I didn’t really want to impress anyone else except the Jazzyfatnastees. So I mean, this is a time where I couldn’t even pull my hand out of my pocket. That’s how nervous I was, but I knew I had to do it. And I had this song called All About the Pussy. “Nowadays it’s all about the pussy, pussy, pussy. People doing this for the pussy.” And I remember I shook up Black Lily. And Mercedes [Martinez] came on the mic and was like, “Whoa. Nowadays it’s all about the pussy.” And I was like, Whoa, I didn’t even know it was radical, because MCs, we just sit around just rapping. So I was like, whoa, I felt like I did something radical tonight. It was just more motivation to, okay, start your own thing.
[00:20:16] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Well speaking of, you founded and curated Rockers Philly for about a decade. Can you tell us what Rockers was for people who don’t know and what made you start it?
[00:20:30] Camae Ayewa: I mean, just like we’re talking, coming from Black Lily, doing something that’s a bit more political. A lot of the lyrics were about love and finding love, and searching and for your empowerment of self. But it wasn’t too much political at Black Lily. And so I wanted something where folks could just be at George Bush, or be pissed at the systems, or be pissed about the move bombing, because there was so much of this activism that we were all getting into. So I just wanted a space where we all could just do that. And that’s what it was for all the weirdos oddballs. But it would serve as a platform to where they’re all no longer those weirdos. They’re sophisticated in the ideas that they want to bring forth. And I think that was the most important thing for them, but also for me.
[00:21:25] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. You need those spaces to hone your craft and to connect with audiences, and for audiences to find themselves. It’s super, super important. Yeah. You began Moor Mother as a solo project around 2012. And I wanted you to talk a little bit about what the initial impulse was in debuting that project?
[00:21:50] Camae Ayewa: Oh it was just like I was in this band and it was five people, and I wanted to just keep on creating because when you’re in a band, you meet for band practice and then you get some ideas out, and then you say bye, see you next week, or maybe we can see each other again this week. So it’s like I had all this creativity just inside me, all this stuff I wanted to do. So I just ended up making hundreds of beats trying to get good. It kind of just snowballed from there. I was also testing out Moor Mothers. So I did these beats alone so I could constantly work on something, but then live, I would test it out like play guitar, have a drummer, sometimes have a band, just keep testing out how I wanted this Moor Mother to be live versus home studio kind of thing.
[00:22:49] Maori Karmael Holmes: And a couple of years later, you and DJ Haram launched the experimental club project 700 Bliss. And then only year later you co-founded the free jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements. So it’s interesting reading about you, what was coming to mind for me were, it was like you’re a contemporary version of these old school, jazz musicians from the ’70s, who are in a bunch of outfits, pursuing liberation on all the things, I think about Milford Graves, who was like-
[00:23:24] Camae Ayewa: Yeah. Love Milford Graves.
[00:23:26] Maori Karmael Holmes: … has his own martial arts practice. Is dedicated to spirituality, holistic living, and then of course is playing in different bands and then also tinkering and I just feel like you’re the contemporary version of those folks. And I just wanted to ask you, how did you get to be this free?
[00:23:43] Camae Ayewa: Oh, I think I’m still moving to get free. I never had any kind of vocal training. So it is just about myself, pushing myself to go further and further to where I want to go. Because like I’ve said, my favorite singers are like Patti LaBelle. I can’t get to Patti LaBelle, so I wouldn’t get as close as I can to what that means for me to be able to continue to be more and more free with the voice. So it’s definitely hard, but like you mentioned Milford Graves saying someone like that, is so inspirational to me to say that it’s okay to be on the journey and that’s just beautiful.
[00:24:35] Maori Karmael Holmes: When I was asking about the musicians as a teenager, but I imagine there’s other musicians that you’ve discovered, and you talk a bit about Alice Coltrane. I was wondering too, if Meshell Ndegeocello has any influence on you?
[00:24:50] Camae Ayewa: Oh my goodness. You don’t even know. Okay. I almost cried over thinking does Meshell like me or not. Some mutual friend was like, “Oh I think Meshell should hear your music.” And I was like, what? Well, and I guess it was a time where, which was a really busy time and I didn’t really get it anything back. I think Meshell said, “I’ll check it out.” But I didn’t hear anything. So I didn’t say anything, because this is someone that’s so huge to me, but I would think about it all the time. “Oh man, I’m too aggressive, or I’m too this, I’m too that.” So just recently, I don’t know if it was like two weeks ago, I just couldn’t take it. I’m just like, I love Meshell so much. And I was playing in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and I saw a poster that Michelle was coming to play the same venue the next week. I just went on their Instagram and I just wrote, “You’re so cool.” And they were like, they wrote back and said, “I’m going to write a baseline for you.”
[00:26:12] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh, wow.
[00:26:13 Camae Ayewa: I just lost my mind. I don’t even. So I’m a big fan of [inaudible 00:26:22].
[00:26:21] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. We’ve been going through just a brief overview of your career. And I want to talk about Black Quantum Futurism, but I also want to back up a bit and ask, how did you meet Rasheedah Phillips?
[00:26:35] Camae Ayewa: This was a time when people had blogs. A mutual friend of ours was like, “Hey, you two blogs are really similar you all should talk to each other.” So yeah. So once we saw each other’s blog, we were like, oh my goodness. This is great. It was curated for both of us, so we would meet up and they would start coming to Rockers, and they had started this event called the AfroFuturist Affair. And I had all these wild futurist artists. And so I would help curate that one of the first ones. And then from there, it just the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing real easy because we had this shared interest, and Rasheedah knew more on the science part and I was knew a bit more in the spiritual part. So that really opens up a lot of good conversations.
[00:27:41] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Well, I’m curious, did you collaborate as colleagues and artists first, or did you begin your relationship as sweethearts?
[00:27:51] Camae Ayewa: As colleagues. Well, I don’t know. A little blurry. Yeah, it’s blurry, but I think it’s colleagues first.
[00:28:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. And what has it been like navigating your lives as artistic partners in Black Quantum Futurism? And then also I imagine, forgive me if I’m over speaking, but as domestic partners as well?
[00:28:18] Camae Ayewa: Rasheedah is just so smart, and I love that. Like I said, I’m big into learning, so it’s real nice how easily we fit, but then we have different tactics of how we get things done. Me, being a primarily creative and Rasheedah having experienced being a lawyer, and a really good one at that. You know what I Mean?
[00:28:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:28:47] Camae Ayewa: We learned stuff from each other. I learned how to not take any crap. And I think Rasheedah learned how to just go with the flow a little bit more. The fact that I’m an idea kind of person and Rasheedah is such a great writer. So we can just go, it’s like popcorn, that kind of thing. Once we get an idea, we’re just like, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and it’s done. But it’s always learning about balancing all the opportunities and just with the traveling, and just learning how to set better boundaries for yourself. And I mean, I love that. I love whenever I can be like, you know what, I am not going to Eastern or whatever town, you know what I mean? I don’t need to be there. I’m going to do still two weeks of tour and I’m coming back home. These just kind of things of creating sustainability, because that’s the big part about our work in Black Quantum Futurism. We don’t like to just feel rented or flash here and never return. I like to develop foundations with people and be a part of something, not just in and out. And we both really share that and that’s really a really cool thing that steers us.
[00:30:10] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well. What led to the establishment of BQF?
[00:30:15] Camae Ayewa: Like our continuous projects Rasheedah had wrote this book called Recurrence Plot, another time travel tales. And I did the soundtrack to that, and it was just so good. We just said, okay, what else? And then having this community of a lot of folks making shows and putting on events, it was just kind of no ceiling.
[00:30:43] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I’ve read in the past, you’ve said that the Black Quantum Futurism collective in quote, “Focuses on recovery collection and preservation of communal memories, histories and stories. The past and future are not cut off from the present. Both dimensions have influence over our lives, who we are and who we become at any particular point in space time.” End quote and that it is also quote, “A new language of healing, memory and justice that can be transmitted and used as a technology.” And I was wondering, is this still an accurate description of the work or is it always shifting and transforming?
[00:31:21] Camae Ayewa: No, that’s the roots. That is the roots of what we do. It’s all about the place where we are. We don’t like to put things upon people if you can understand that. We like to be like, okay, the city, the town, all these places, the earth has so much history. We like to pull from that and look at how we are in these positions. And also the power of speculation, the power to redefine these kind of set objects that they’ve put in front of us. We have this project talking about time capsules, and about, we call it a Quantum Time Capsule that you can send information in the future, you can send it back in the past and it’s everyday objects. It’s the Afro Pick, is these different ways of repurposing clocks. It’s these kind of stones. We found that enslaved people underneath their home, their shack, their cabin, their enslaved quarters that they were living in. They had this kind of underneath hidden place where they had these kind of objects that looked like ordinary objects to colonialists, but to us it was a technology. It was how to pass down a story. It’s like in a simple thing that so many Black women can relate to is like the idea of the hot comb. We all see that hot comb and it doesn’t just say straighten hair, it’s a history with that. It’s like your aunt, it’s sitting between those legs, you know what I mean?
[00:33:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: It’s Easter Sunday.
[00:33:15] Camae Ayewa: Your hair is set, you’re all this… Yeah. All this stuff comes up. And so we look at that. We look at these ideas of time too and see how they’ve been oppressive in how they steer our lives.
[00:33:30] Midroll: BlackStar Projects celebrates and uplifts Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists. We produced the annual BlackStar Film Festival, Many Lumens, Seen in other projects, creating the spaces and resources artists need to thrive, learn more and support our work at blackstarfest.org.
[00:33:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re listening to Many Lumens. And now back to my conversation with Camae Ayewa.
I want to backtrack just a little bit. I’m really fascinated by names and the process of naming, because just like you’ve just mentioned, redefining and redefinition, it is a power that I think Black people in this country in particular have held dear. You think about the names people gave themselves when bondage ended, and Freeman and people naming themselves George Washington and Lincoln, you know what I mean? Et cetera. And also the names. I mean, I never forget once I understood in Daughters of the Dust, the scene where Hager is going over the names of the daughters and it’s, I own her and my own and just thinking about, yeah, just that sheer power. And then of course you think about someone like Amari Baraka and his contemporaries who named themselves. Who redefined who they were. Abbey Lincoln, we could keep going. And so many people when I was coming of age were also naming themselves either their MC names, but also many times a new chosen name. And so I changed my name first at eight, because I just never liked my name. And then I officially changed it to Maori when I was 16. And I was just curious for you. You’ve got a lot of personas. There’s Moor Mother, Moor Mother Goddess, Camae Defstar, Camae Ayewa, Camae Dennis, Sam Stamina. How do you come to your names, and how do you release them?
[00:35:31] Camae Ayewa: It’s more about what I want to honor. I love this idea of the legacy. I just sat and said, well, what’s the most important thing to me? Whether it’s politically or my heart, what I care about. I just come from so many strong women in my community, and my family. I’m blessed to be able to spend time with my great-grandmother, not just my grandmother. So I just want to honor mothers. To just see what mothers do all over the world is something that I really wanted to honor and share those stories.
[00:36:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: So I made an assumption, but then didn’t find it in the research. And so I wanted to ask, does Moor Mother have anything to do with Queen Mother Moore?
[00:36:23] Camae Ayewa: No. Okay. I wouldn’t find out about her until later, which was also one of these weird things. And I just remember feeling proud.
[00:36:34] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah, you did good, right?
[00:36:36] Camae Ayewa: Yeah.
[00:36:40] Maori Karmael Holmes: Can you talk about when you discovered the concept of Afrofuturism?
[00:36:45] Camae Ayewa: I would say that would be through Rasheedah. And I was always doing this Afrofuturism. I just didn’t know it in the academic, journalist world. It would be Rasheedah. But as soon as I learned about Afrofuturism, we were already going to Black Quantum Futurism of saying like, okay, we get it that it was going from this white man that Rasheedah write a little article on what all these amazing artists were doing. But I grew up in that kind of world. So it was always kind of this futurism, this seeking, and that also comes from spirituals growing up in the church I did. It was always, we’re going to win.
[00:37:31] Maori Karmael Holmes: His eyes on the sparrow.
[00:37:35] Camae Ayewa: Yeah. It was never like not to diss other gospel music, but that type of music that I was around was just so uplifting.
[00:37:47] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I hear a lot of influences in your work. And I think I’ve been asking you previously about influences on your thinking. And so sonically, what would you say the influences are on your sonic foundation?
[00:38:04] Camae Ayewa: I mean definitely Amari Baraka, definitely Sonia Sanchez, Sonia Sanchez is everything to me. Yeah. I don’t even do what to say. Jazz, blues, nothing. And then the haikus, oh my goodness just endless. And the plays and just the organizing and just huge inspiration. Another one that I found out later would be Lonnie Holly, huge inspiration. Someone that can keep me tied to home, those are the artists I like.
[00:38:48] Maori Karmael Holmes: I love that you said ‘tied to home’ because my next question and no lie is as someone who travels constantly and has lived in several places, where and what do you consider home?
[00:39:00] Camae Ayewa: I mean, Washington Park, even though it was torn down and rebuilt, you know how they do that kind of thing. But that’s so rich. It’s so fresh paint in my mind. And like I said, if I’m on the plane, that’s when I tend to get a little Melan colleague of all the thoughts in my head, I put on the Lonnie Holley and boom I know where I’m going. Things that kind of tie me, it’s what I need. That’s what I’m searching for and all the music I want to listen to.
[00:39:34] Maori Karmael Holmes: So this, of course, you being a poet and an MC, it would make sense that your practice would prioritize language. And I was wondering how you employ your voice as an instrument?
[00:39:48] Camae Ayewa: Well, for a long time, I was obsessed with synthesizers and I thought that was what was the thing that I was bringing forth. And just so many alarms kept going off being like, it’s about what you say. It’s the poetry. I’d make one poetry book, that’s three albums, so it’s really the voice. And I just see it every time. So, like I said before, it’s about kind of pushing that, being more experimental, being a bit more free for myself and also setting it up. This kind of thing of making boundaries, as I was talking about earlier, just setting yourself up for success, and that’s kind of what I’m trying to do vocally to continue setting myself up, whether it’s the Sonic structure that’s behind me or the samples that guide me, everything is just to make me relax so I can go as deep with my voice as possible.
[00:40:55] Maori Karmael Holmes: So I understand that you play bass, drums and various electronic devices. Of these electronics seems to be the most expansive and plastic of these tools. And I was curious, what are some of the electronic tools and capabilities that you seek to continue using?
[00:41:13] Camae Ayewa: Yeah, well, I mean, I want to take some piano lessons. That’s my calming instrument. It really relaxes me. I play any synthesizers. I don’t like to read a manual. I just like to take it out the box and start pressing buttons and just hit record. Because like I said, once I learned that the voice was the most important thing for me, it didn’t really matter what’s, not like I don’t care about what the sound sounds like, but as long as I have these kind of ingredients and I want all my music to have the blues, gospel, and jazz, it’s particularly free jazz. As long as I get those elements in there and stay true to myself, it’s fine.
[00:42:01] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re in a lot of electronic music spaces I imagine. And I also imagine that there are not a lot of Black women in that space. And so how did you find yourself here?
[00:42:15] Camae Ayewa: I think it’s because of my love for history that I don’t have this kind of feeling of not belonging, that I know a lot of musicians have. When I first started, I’m like, wow, I want to know about all the places that Black women have been in the world. Because I know it’s been a lot. I don’t have this narrow or restricted point about where we’ve been and these examples keep popping up. Like when I first started, I was real popular in Poland and I could not understand why was I popular in Poland?
[00:42:53] Maori Karmael Holmes: They were like Black Madonna. No, I’m just kidding.
[00:42:55] Camae Ayewa: Yeah. You know what? I’m like doing a gig in Berlin and they’re like, “Yeah, the Polish newspapers here, they want to talk to you.” I’m like, I’m even in Poland, what’ going on. And then I would learn that WEB, the boys spent a lot of time over there studying the ghettos and I’m like, oh, well with my work with Rasheedah, we do a lot of housing advocacy and stuff like this. So I’m like okay, I see that connection. And I always feel it. So it’s just like, Ooh, I felt Nina Simone, did Nina Simone play here? Or, and they’re like, yeah. It’s always like these connections and I’m so blessed with all the work and sacrifice those before me, all the musicians and poets, they covered a lot of territory creating these kind of movements, this kind of hunger in people. And I feel like I’m picking that up from a lot of the ’60s and ’70s experimental jazz. Because people come and tell me these stories. They’re like, “I saw blah, blah, blah in 67 and you know what, you were bringing that fire.” So I like that.
[00:44:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: You talked a lot in other podcasts, and interviews, and documentaries, and things about the use of sound as a tool of resistance. And I was curious if you’ve trained in other modalities using sound, do you have any experience with sound bowls or breath work?
[00:44:29] Camae Ayewa: Oh yeah.
[00:44:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: Or you chanting?
[00:44:30] Camae Ayewa: A lot. I’ve been big into meditation for a long time. And also just different kind of humming. I like to mix a bit, because like I told you, this African Methodist church that I grew up in, they had this, the early songs where the women of the church would go around someone that was in their sick bed, I guess now we call it hospice?
[00:45:03] Camae Ayewa: Yeah. Hospice. And they would do this kind of humming singing. So I really like these humming tones that take us safely to another place. It was an old tale where they would say that we’re singing these songs. So when you’re going towards the white light or however you want to call this passing away, that the bad energies don’t come and get you, that the tones, or the demons, or whatever kind of archetype, you want to believe that they don’t come and snatch your soul, and your soul’s going to the correct place. So I like these tones, I’m really into Tai Chi and Qi Gong. These kind of pushing the air, the space around you using, getting rid of air within your body and also making sounds that are tuned to the environment that you’re at. I was living in North Philly. So there’s construction. There’s all kinds of sounds. So to be able to sit in meditation and pull these sounds into your own sound that’s in your body, something that I would do. So a lot of oms that kind of thing. I’ve always loved prayer, always loved the idea that prayer is not one thing. And to me sounds, waves sound is its own event. So there’s this kind of way that you can interact with your environment to do these kind of homes that you can bring these events together. So that’s just another thing of this idea of that we’re not cut off, these sounds echo through existence. They’re tied to our family legacies, our legacies of liberation. One thing I think about a lot is bells that I like to use. Bells have this really history that’s light and dark in this kind of maddening way of Christianity being tied to war could come into communities, regulating them with the bell. We’re thinking about plantation time. So these kind of things of ways that sound has always been there and how it’s traveled. And so, yeah, I’m totally into that spiritual aspect.
[00:48:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: Collectives seem to be a constant presence in your life. You’ve worked with Art Ensemble of Chicago, of course Black Quantum Futurism, and recently the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. What is it like performing with collectives versus bands, or is there a difference?
[00:48:18] Camae Ayewa: It’s not a difference. One thing that’s different from working with the free jazz band and then working with the Art Ensemble, you have this idea of being respectful and listening to everyone and having this place in history, or in the future. But they always push me more and more, the collaborations with these collectives. They always push me more. And like something Roscoe was like, “I didn’t bring you on here to be scared, I brought you on here to do what you going to do, what I saw you do.” So that’s just really cool to have people like, oh, you’re not just a poet. We’re not just here for you to say these couple words, we’re here to put the fire under those words. You just say more. And the idea of there’s no master, it’s just student to student learning.
[00:49:16] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’ve collaborated and performed with so many luminaries. There’s London Contemporary Orchestra, King Britt, Vijay Iyer, you just mentioned Roscoe Mitchell. And I imagine you get approached often. And I was just wondering, how do you decide with whom you’ll journey? What is it that you’re looking for when you’re approached to collaborate on something?
[00:49:39] Camae Ayewa: I’m pretty easy. Like you’re a Black woman come on, you know I’m going to do it. If you’re an elder, I love working with elders and I will always be gracious that they reach out to me. Because when you first start, I thought I was just going to be jumping in mosh pits. Because in Philly I had my own thing. So that’s what it looked like in Philly. So I thought that’s what it would be in the world, but it was a lot of elders coming to me and I’m like, oh, that kind of makes sense too, because Philly is a big kind of elders will always come in and jam with us. So it made sense a little later.
[00:50:24] Maori Karmael Holmes: A few of your past projects have engaged archival materials thinking about The Great Bailout, your Marian Anderson work, even some of your projects have Created Archives at Community Futures Lab. Do you have any archival research projects currently in the works?
[00:50:41] Camae Ayewa: Oh yes. Always, always. Rasheedah and I, we just recently was awarded the creative capital award and we’re going to travel to the Confederate states in America and create an album, and do a lot of research of a lot of the all Black towns that were destroyed. So really looking forward to that because like I said, I love history and the south is like a walking history book, every single place. And especially for a poet, because the trees are screaming at you, the plant. Everything is so electric. I kind of been just really working on getting this book out where it’s just me writing poetry about all the musicians, particularly jazz and blues musicians that have inspired me by just their story, not the music. There’s very few music poems that I have in there. Most of it is about their life, and how that made an impression on me. So yeah. So I want to get that out, and I hope to be able to bring more books forward. That’s something that I’m really interested in. Just book making and bringing some of these research ideas forward.
[00:52:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I want to ask you, switch to a fun question, but how did you settle on your look?
[00:52:19] Camae Ayewa: I have a look?
[00:52:20] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. You have a look. You have this-
[00:52:23] Camae Ayewa: That’s cool.
[00:52:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: … long locks. You’re always dressed really cool. Did you not think about it, it’s just you?
[00:52:32] Camae Ayewa: No. It’s something that I never really adorned myself and I think that’s a little bit of the Bob Marley influence. I just like this natural thing, but then slowly but surely had a tour, I was touring a lot and I was just doing all these amazing things and I had no way I wasn’t marking it. It was just all coming to be a blur. And so I had this big concert at the Berlin Jazz Festival where they took the line from my poem and made that the title of the festival. And I would perform with Roscoe Mitchell for the first time, then with the Art Ensemble, then my own band. So I was a triple header. It was a big deal. And the night before that, I was in Italy and I got attacked by some bugs in a bed. So this is right before this huge show and I’m feeling, I kept calling myself the hunchback at Notre Dame. I was like, they got me, something, just frustrated. I was just so down and I needed to pick myself up. So I went to the Gucci store and I just bought a Gucci bag. I never even had a purse or nothing. I just bought this bag and was like, I’m going to look cool. And I got a nice shirt and I think that was kind of this opening. So now, when I do a big tour, I would all always buy myself a nice thing. So slowly I’ve been getting an idea and I love basketball, I love Russell Westbrook. That’s one of my style minions or something, or I don’t know how people call that style ispo or something. I like him. Of course I like Kanye West. I don’t even know if I’m allowed to say that, but I like Kanye West. The style, when it comes to style. And I love tailored look, I like pearls and silk scarfs and nice fitted pants and stuff like this. So I guess yeah, I’ve turned into this kind of thing, but touring is really the main thing that shaped that. I wear hoodies less because of how I’m perceived than any kind of airports, really pretty much anywhere I’m wrongly perceived. Some people think that I’m a man, so I get this action of people coming to me as a man kind of thing, or confused, or this kind of thing pretty much every day. So that also would have something to say, because I’m going to move through the world how I want to, so I got to stay safe in the choices that I make for myself. So that also I noticed that changed. And I’m also a foodie, so like Michelin star, I like really good food. So I’m walking in these places where someone like me wouldn’t be, or shouldn’t even know about. They’re like, “Oh, this is private food news. How do you know?” And I’m like, “I’m up on the food news.” You know what I mean? I’m a foodie. I’m not just like, I know your name. You know what I mean? This kind of thing. And I love boutique hotels also. I love hotels that maybe less than 30 rooms or 40 rooms, this kind of thing. So when I’m in these places that I typically, I guess not supposed to be in, I noticed how it changed. I noticed when I got that Gucci bag, it was less drama. But one more thing I would say about this, I had a prerequisite when I was coaching at the private school in Philly at Friend Select, I was coaching soccer and I didn’t really grow up playing soccer, so I never had a soccer outfit with the Adidas and all of this. So finally I think it was like my third year coaching soccer, I went to Modell’s and I got the outfit. The Adidas shorts, the shirt, the shoes. And I remember walking out in that field and everybody said hi to me. Everybody was not like, who’s this Rasta coaching from Philly. You know what I mean? It was more like, “Hello, coach” like I was a part of a club just because I had the Adidas outfit. And this idea of dressing for the job you want or this idea, I never liked that kind of thing, but I saw the change.
[00:57:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. It’s incredible to witness it. I’ve worked retail and studied costume design and I’m with you, I hate it. I don’t want to adhere to it. But then when you experience it’s such a thing, the way that people respect you. And it’s, for film folks lipstick, you know what I mean? It like, it changes everything and particularly red lipstick, the way that people respond to you. I mean, it’s interesting hearing you talk about having the Gucci bag, because I would imagine with your hair, you look like a rock star, but that’s me putting that on that. And it’s like, you probably have to have these other things for other people to see you as a rock star. So that’s really interesting.
[00:58:35] Camae Ayewa: Oh yeah. I mean, and like I said, after you got to perform. So any kind of judgment they had after I perform, then I would usually see this, but when I go in with the outfit already. But just yesterday, the guy in Uganda said, if you have locks in Uganda, people would think that you’re well off because you can’t get a regular job with locks. So if you have them, it’s like, oh, that must be a rockstar. I’m like, whoa, it’s so interesting wherever you are, what it means.
[00:59:13] Maori Karmael Holmes: This next question is related to some of the things you’ve already revealed, but your work explores so many heavy topics. And I wanted to ask you, where do you find joy and how do you unplug?
[00:59:27] Camae Ayewa: Like I said, I like to treat every part of my life as creativity. So I love flowers. I am always in a flower space, whether it’s in my home, there’s tons of flowers, whether I’m walking in the street, I stop. I’m like that kid that stops and smells flowers through the whole walk. I love crystals and water, and birds. I’ve just been getting into birds. I’ve been feeding them. And I love little animals and just trying to take care of them, or just caring for them. I know it sounds like a hippie, but I carry around little things. If I see a little animal or something, I’ll try to give it to it. But I also do it with kids. I carry around dollar bills and if I see a cute kid, I’m like, can I give your kid? Not people that are my friends, but I’m just like, I got a dollar for you, or I got a toy. I like that aspect of when I go out and take a walk, of these little small moments of helping and eating. I eat a lot, I go to a city, I’ll eat at four restaurants at least in a day. So yeah, I love that kind of stuff. So I’m surrounded by the stuff that I love.
[01:01:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I am getting to the end. I don’t want to totally take all your time today. But I do want to ask you for whom do you make work?
[01:01:10] Camae Ayewa: I make work for the liberation of marginalized people. I create work to lift the voices of women. I create work to reveal what’s been stolen, or taken, or forgotten from our histories as Africans, as Indigenous people. And always, there’s always a travel it’s like time travels, always to get to a place where I can do more within my own self, not with external things.
[01:01:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. This year has been a busy one with Black Quantum Futurism. You’ve had an exhibition at RedCat, you’re a Documenta, you released Nothing To Declare with 700 Bliss. And after the airing of this episode, you’ll have released Jazz Codes as Moor Mother. And you also began teaching at USC. So I want to ask you how you do it, but I know that is a pot kettle question, but yeah. I mean, it’s like your nonstop. And I was wondering if you ever imagined that you’d be teaching at the university level?
[01:02:22] Camae Ayewa: No. After I finished with Friends Select, I didn’t think I would get a job again. I never even looked at a job because I was already doing so well with what I’m doing. So really it’s the love of writing poetry. I can’t write fast enough, or enough. As soon as I write something, boom is gone somewhere. So I would say that love with poetry keeps me and I feel like I can do so much more. It’s also like, just keep learning from the experiences and use that not just have it.
[01:03:05] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. And you were based in Philadelphia for a really long time, and you’ve now relocated to Los Angeles, and I’ve gone back and forth between the two cities myself, and there’s something magical and kind of funky about both. And I rather like dividing my time between the two, but I was curious, how is LA suiting you right now?
[01:03:26] Camae Ayewa: Oh, it’s really nice. It’s just expensive, but it’s really nice. I love to be able to walk around and see the sunset, and go to the beach. And I just love the sunlight, It’s what I really like. But I also love Philly––the energy, that kind of sticks with you. So I like having that energy in LA. I’m ready to go.
[01:03:55] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. You’ve done so much. You’re doing so much. Are there any other disciplines that you’re hoping to explore in this lifetime? Is there a film that you want to direct, or is there anything else you’re planning to explore, food?
[01:04:10] Camae Ayewa: Yeah. Besides food. Yeah. I mean all of these things that I love, I really love them. I hope to open up a restaurant one day, something small. I love film. I want to do so much more. I was checking out some of the things that Laurie Anderson or just taking a look at it, and I wish I had this chance to do some, one woman shows that are recorded and those kind of things. I want to make this kind of experimental film life of that is a direct response to what I’m doing musically, and have these longer intimate moments where people can see and rewind. Yeah. So I want to do that and I want to create more books, and do some more painting. I want to have more art exhibits. I really like that part of creativity, putting things on a wall and having people watch them, create installations. But yeah, I really want to just start producing a lot of work. I feel behind, whether you look at some of these people, all the films and things they were able to do in the ’70s. I don’t know what was going on in the ’70s, but it seems like it was a harder time. But they were able to just get all this media out. So that’s what I would like to do.
[01:05:42] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I think I feel you, I feel behind as well. Sometimes I also think about the amount of time I spend on social media and it’s like, if I took that away, I would have so much more room to produce, but then I’m also like, I should let go for myself of feeling badly about not producing enough. But I know what you mean. You have this swell of ideas and it’s like, how do I get them all out in the world? I totally relate.
[01:06:17] Camae Ayewa: Yeah. It’s a good behind. It’s not like I feel bad because I know it’s coming, but it’s just about, like I said, making those boundaries to create that space where you can just go in and do it.
[01:06:27] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, that’s all I have for you today. I mean, I feel so… I’ve learned a lot and I feel enriched by this conversation-
[01:06:34] Camae Ayewa: Oh cool.
[01:06:35] Maori Karmael Holmes: … and I just, I really, really, I know how busy you are and I’m so grateful to you for making time for this and particularly today. And so yeah. I just thank you so much.
[01:06:47] Camae Ayewa: Yeah. Thanks for asking me to be a part of it. And I’m excited to have some things around Jazz Codes because I really made that for a more universal vibe. So thank you for giving me this platform to introduce my work to people who may not know me in certain ways.
[01:07:08] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Oh well thank you so much again and have a beautiful day, and I look forward to seeing you in person at some point.
[01:07:18] Camae Ayewa: Yes, it will come. It will happen.
[01:07:20] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[01:07:21] Camae Ayewa: All right. Peace. Have a good day.
[01:07:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: Peace. You too.
[01:07:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: To find out more about Camae’s work, check out her website at moormother.net. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Spotify @moormother. This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions. The host and executive producer of Many Lumens is me. Maori Karmael Holmes. This episode was produced by Dallas Taylor, associate producers are Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman, guest associate producer is Eugene Lew, managing producer is Alex Lewis. Executive editor is John Myers. Our music supervisor is David “Lil’ Dave” Adams, BlackStar’s music and cinema fellow supported by the pop culture collaborative. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil’ Dave. This episode features music by Moor Mother.
If you’ve liked what you’ve heard so far this season, please leave us a review on Apple Podcast and let us know what you think of the show.
Sending you light and see you next time.