“Basic” may be the most chilling pejorative of our time. And it is never more severe than when Philadelphia’s Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, churns it out on one austere, Nicki Minaj-sampling single from last year: “Look ma, we made it/Only lost a hundred thousand coming over on them slave ships/That’s just one ship,” she booms. “Muhfuckas, I’m jaded/I’m in one big room, and everybody basic.” Ayewa articulates so lucidly and irreducibly that it’s like she is writing with a ballpoint pen; if you have chosen to remain silent in the face of injustice, which is to say in the face of our world, this artist is staring you in the eye.
On a weekday night on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ayewa caps off a performance at a stranger’s apartment—10 foldings chairs, Christmas lights, a bevy of plants—with “Basic.” Her set, which is part of a series highlighting politically-oriented artists, is a mix of soundscapes and poetry. Phrases I jot down during the show include: “no more androids for president, no more zombie artists”; “cops are grim reapers, violence costs nothing”; “the public housing of minds”; and “at what age do we teach our daughters to play dead?” Reality is rendered as hard as it ought to be. “Everything I do is a true story,” she says to the crowded living room. “I just tell the truth.”
After a decade spent in the Philly underground—as show-booker, community organizer, punk musician, rapper, poet, and multidisciplinary visual artist—Ayewa’s work has coalesced into a total vision. It is concrete-heavy, abrasive, and generative. Ayewa reimagines protest songs as radical electronic noise montages, but her lyrics about systemic racism and historical trauma are searing Afrofuturist statements. Take, for example, this incendiary line from Fetish Bones, her recent solo debut: “I’m bell hooks trained as a sniper,” Ayewa snarls, transmuting the intersectional feminist theorist into a warrior. She then declares herself “Sandra Bland returning from the dead with a hatchet,” referencing the 28-year-old black woman who was found dead in jail after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation last year. Befitting the tremendous fire of Ayewa’s words, a 122-page book of poetry was released alongside Fetish Bones.
“I let these stories pass through me—I’m the narrator,” Ayewa tells me over Skype a couple of weeks after her house-show set. In conversation, she is a calming and genial presence; she measures her thoughts, and when she mentions Alice Coltrane, it’s not hard to imagine her in graceful meditation like the cosmic jazz swamini herself. This is in utter contrast to the unwavering anger of Ayewa’s staggering performances. “I start out so smiley, but as soon as the lyric comes, I’m pissed,” she says of her live shows. “When you’re telling the truth, and trying to be respectful to the things that are happening around you, it comes out like that.” [Read More]