Moor Mother on How Her New Album Is a Gateway to Radical Thought

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No one would accuse experimental noise poet Moor Mother of “going soft”—except maybe Moor Mother herself. Ever since her 2016 debut Fetish Bones, the artist born Camae Ayewa has delivered fierce litanies on multigenerational trauma, specifically the scars left from centuries of racial strife and female suffering. Her voice has sounded at once like a serrated blade and the thing it has just cut; her discordant production has ensured that no listener escapes unscathed.

But on her forthcoming album Black Encyclopedia of the Air, Ayewa presents a less confrontational side. “At first I was calling it my ‘sell-out album’ as a joke,” she tells me on a recent call from her sweltering Philly studio. “But in reality, I wanted to make it more accessible, and to get to ears that don’t really know me or have been afraid of me.”

True to her mission, the production is smooth and slinky, often nodding to ’90s R&B. Rather than sounding off alone, Ayewa enlisted a string of underground rappers, including Pink Siifu and London’s Brother May, to round out her sprawling poems. Even her voice has shifted into a low, velvety register. “I felt the noisy kids would be mad,” she says of her lighter touch. When I assure her that the record is still quite weird, she laughs. “So I didn’t make a Disney album then?”

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Black Encyclopedia of the Air functions as a musical Trojan horse, disguising painful narratives as a polished gift. Jazzy opener “Temporal Control of Light Echoes” is loose, even soothing, yet it culminates with a menacing image: “This place is a gathering of bones,” Ayewa chants. On “Race Function Limited,” over the pulse of piano keys, she almost whispers her harshest words: “Mama made me/Tall baby/Out the guts of slavery/Grits and gravy/Shackled babies.”

Outside of its sound, the record symbolizes an entirely new era for Moor Mother. Once reliant on self-releasing and DIY distribution, Ayewa recently signed with eclectic indie mainstay ANTI-, current label home to revered legends like Mavis Staples and Tom Waits. Ayewa sought out the label in part to reach more listeners, but also because of its deep investment in heritage artists. “They uplift elders, which is really what I’m about,” Ayewa tells me. “I worked with a lot of elders when I came onto the scene. That’s who embraced me.”

Here, Ayewa discusses contemporary protest songs, making music for mothers, and reshaping historical trauma into works of liberation.

 

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