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North Philly activist, poet, and musician Moor Mother on her free jazz musical, Afrofuturism, and Patti LaBelle

Bearing witness to trauma is an ongoing project for Camae Ayewa, whose new album, "Circuit City," addresses the low-income housing crisis.

Camae Ayewa, a North Philly poet and musician who performs as Moor Mother, outside her home in the city's Brewerytown neighborhood. She has a new album called "Circuit City."
Camae Ayewa, a North Philly poet and musician who performs as Moor Mother, outside her home in the city's Brewerytown neighborhood. She has a new album called "Circuit City."Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The opening song on Philadelphia poet, musician, and activist Moor Mother’s new album Circuit City is called “Working Machine.”

The track begins with a swirl of drums and saxophone, simmering toward a boil before the voice of Camae Ayewa, who performs as Moor Mother, makes herself heard.

“It’s so much trauma,” she declares, repeating herself for emphasis. “It’s so much trauma. ... I don’t know where to start.”

Bearing witness to trauma is an ongoing project for Ayewa, whose confrontational music mixes jazz, punk, rap, and industrial noise and has won her international acclaim. If she weren’t grounded by the pandemic, Ayewa would be in Germany this week, playing a Beethoven festival.

“Those words speak about the trauma of living in affordable housing, or a housing project,” says Ayewa, speaking from her home in the Brewerytown section of North Philadelphia.

The four songs on the album, with an average length of 10 minutes, are drawn from a play also called Circuit City. Ayewa wrote and starred in it as part of the Philly Fringe Festival in June 2019.

In the play, the residents of Circuit City are trapped in prison-like living conditions in a housing project controlled by corporations.

“It’s a free-jazz musical,” Ayewa says of the play, which she also calls “a choreopoem.” It was scored by Ayewa and her Chicago-based band Irreversible Entanglements, with whom the prolific artist released another album in March, Who Sent You?

“The residents are trying to leave Circuit City. I’m building a machine as an escape plan that acts as a time machine portal to take the residents to a safer place.”

That storyline is a dramatic manifestation of the Afrofuturist concepts at the core of Black Quantum Futurism, the interdisciplinary art practice Ayewa founded with her partner, Rasheeda Phillips, a Philadelphia housing attorney.

Black Quantum Futurism, as Phillips wrote in a 2015 manifesto, is “a new approach to living and experiencing reality by the manipulation of space-time.” It places the duo in the tradition of visionary Afrofuturist creators like Philadelphia bandleader Sun Ra.

“Fear builds up and it’s hard to see yourself survive in the future, especially right now with COVID,” Ayewa says. “Afrofuturism offers you a space to be yourself.”

Ayewa grew up in public housing in the Maryland cities of Havre de Grace and Aberdeen before studying photography at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.

“I live in Philadelphia, which has the fourth-highest eviction rate in the country,” she says. “And also, Philadelphia is one of the biggest poor cities. So we’re seeing firsthand what the housing crisis has done to many people.”

She cites the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as well as the one outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s offices on Ridge Avenue that has received less media attention.

Circuit City concerns more than Philadelphia’s low-income housing crisis, which was highlighted in a Pew Charitable Trust study published this month.

“Historical context bleeds into it,” Ayewa says. “The idea of working for a machine that’s so big, you can’t see it. Without any equity, or any say, or any place to hold.”

Growing up, Ayewa knew she wanted to be a performer. She was enchanted by the Salt-N-Pepa and Patti LaBelle concerts her parents took her to.

She and her two sisters imitated Salt-N-Pepa. “I was the youngest, so I didn’t get to pick who I wanted to be. So I would be the DJ, screwing up my mom’s turntable.”

The best concert she’s ever seen by a group, she says, was fiercely political rappers Public Enemy. But “as an individual person, it’s Patti LaBelle.”

“I remember seeing all kinds of people," Ayewa says. "There were queer people, there were young people, there were people dancing. It was such a mixed crowd. And she was so wild on stage. She sings really hard songs, and she was lying on the floor, rolling around, treating it like she was Kurt Cobain, just being free. And she was receiving all these flowers. I was like, ‘Wow, I want to do that.’ ”

In rap and punk groups in high school, Ayewa preferred “political music. I always like it to say something.” In the 1990s, the artist, who won’t reveal how old she is — “I don’t believe in age” she says — got into hard-rocking bands like System of a Down and Sleater-Kinney.

Bob Marley was “a turning point,” she says. “I was always into liberation movements. I loved Malcolm X as a kid.” But Marley “made it simple, and I kind of loved that. I try to make it as plain and simple as possible. Don’t add any fantasy or anything else. Just try to make it as close to the truth as possible.”

When she moved to Philly, “I was just going to put music away, and do this art stuff. But I couldn’t get away from it. It kept following me.”

She played with punk bands Girls Dressed as Girls and the Mighty Paradocs. Under the influence of favorite poets like Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange and Amiri Baraka, she developed her Moor Mother persona. The name “honors mothers and honors blackness before racial classifications,” she says.

The lessons Ayewa learned from Marley have characterized her work, starting with her 2016 solo album Fetish Bones.

Dramatically intoned, pithy verses draw on mythic imagery as old as the blues. “Killer cop on my trail, our mothers sittin' in jail,” she rhymes with urgency on “Sleep.” “Black cat crossed my path, I think every day’s gonna be my last.”

She plays bass, percussion, and vintage and modern electronic instruments, including the theremin. “Oh my goodness, I have everything I need,” she says, speaking of her home studio. She’s learning to play saxophone.

Ayewa is on the board of educational nonprofit Girls Rock Philly. Until she got too busy touring, she coached basketball at Friends' Central in Center City. In 2016, she performed a “durational” theater piece called 14 Hours: For Domestic & Sexual Violence, at the Vox Populi gallery.

Last year, Ayewa was awarded a Music/Sound grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania to write a poem inspired by the life of singer and civil rights activist Marian Anderson.

She’s bountifully productive. Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes, a full-length album with production by King Britt and Mental Jewelry, came out last November. Clepsydra, an experimental album of “sounds for writers and creators experiencing blockages,” was released in May.

“I’ve got about eight songs that I need to finish, and they all have little mess-ups on them. It’s annoying.”

The project she’s most stoked about is called The Confederate States of America. “It’s going to come out in 2023,” delayed by COVID-19. “I want to go to all the states in the Confederacy and collaborate with artists. I’m really excited for it.”

The pandemic has kept her from touring, and created uncertainty and doubt. “I still don’t really know what’s going on,” she says. “I feel like I’m in the dark.”

But it’s been good for creating.

She has finished one book of poetry, “and I want to do another, about jazz.” There’s also a book of photo collages in the works. “I’m into texture. Walking around the city is perfect for that.”

Her connection to the community fuels her art.

“It’s my life,” she says. “I live here in Brewerytown. All my work, all my videos, all my stuff for Circuit City — this is where it all comes from. There’s no separation between art and activism. It’s more of a life situation.”