When I call artist Camae Ayewa, she’s five stories up, sitting on her rooftop in North Philadelphia with her cat. They’re up there a lot: “It’s a safe place for our cat, since we live next to a park with a lot of crazy animals,” Ayewa says. “I just put a chair out and we just relax.”
It’s a slightly more domestic scene than you might expect from Ayewa, better known as Moor Mother, an avant-garde poet, musician, and performer all wrapped in one. “I wanted to have something that included mother because it symbolizes so many different people in the world,” Ayewa says of her stage name. “And I chose Moor because it’s an earlier classification of so-called blackness that stretched all around the world… I wanted to make black more expansive.”
Her work has been described as hard-core poetry rap, driven with a hungry beat. She draws on a range of musical and oral traditions, from Bob Marley to Patti LaBelle, Maya Angelou to Malcolm X, mixing spoken word with sometimes-uncomfortable noise. “Sound isn’t just a form of entertainment, it’s not just to please,” Ayewa says. “It has the power to call for change.” Hence Ayewa’s charged poetry—“We forget that we even demanded justice/ And sit at the dinner tables of our own genocide”—and her 2016 durational performance 14 Hours, in which Ayewa performed nonstop for the titular amount of time to protest domestic and sexual violence.
The foundation for these stories comes from being raised in affordable housing at Washington Park in Aberdeen, Maryland. Ayewa grew up rapping and listening to hip-hop—“We laughed at the boy bands”—and eventually found her home in the ska and punk scenes. “I had a hunger for political lyrics that were anti-racism,” she says, “and I wanted to hear it in a positive voice, where there was still hope, still agency.” In college, Ayewa began performing with different punk bands, trying her hand at the drums, guitar, bass, and more. She saved up for an iPad and began recording with just that.
This constant learning is what led to Moor Mother—and Ayewa’s countless collaborations. Ayewa is one-half of Philadelphia’s Black Quantum Futurism collective, she’s the co-founder of Rockers! Philly, and her most recent EP, Spa 700, combines her lyrical prowess with fellow Philadelphian DJ Haram. One month, she’s staging a three-week exhibition at New York’s experimental art space The Kitchen. The next, she’s touring with free-jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements through Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
And she’s still constantly inspired by the tradition of making sounds and noise out of nothing. “What I’m making, I would say, is African-American traditional music, in the form of poetry, gospel, free jazz, and hip-hop,” she says. “We’ve seen so many artists come from backgrounds where, statistically, they’re not supposed to make it. But they do.”
That’s the essence of the future she’s envisioning; a future where people are not limited by their class, their race, their surroundings, or their access. “It’s people having more agency, using everyday tools like writing and sound to take a chance to realize that they can envision what they want,” she says. She has big plans for the next year—another solo record, a play, an orchestral composition, and a poetry book release. And as she reclines in the sun and looks out over the birds and trees and rooftops of Northern Philadelphia, it seems like that future is coming closer, one performance at a time.