Instruments of Liberation: Moor Mother's Camae Ayewa on using poetry, jazz, and theater to tackle housing inequality and big commerce on Circuit City - WXPN
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On Thursday, June 20th of 2019, Philly-based poet and musician Camae Ayewa — aka Moor Mother — premiered Circuit City, her debut theatrical work produced for Fringe Arts. Inspired by Ntozake Shange’s experimental plays in the 70s, as well as the work and research around race, gender, and housing, pioneered by Ayewa’s Black Quantum Futurism partner Rasheedah Phillips, Circuit City connects the realities of housing with generational trauma and memory.

Backed by her band Irreversible Entanglements, the album Circuit City – announced today and releasing this Friday, September 25th on Don Giovanni Records — is a fierce collision of Jazz, improvisation, and poetry. Thematically it deals with eminent domain, redlining, and how big commerce impacts human creativity and wellbeing.

In anticipation of the release of the live recording of Circuit City, The Key spoke with Ayewa about the process of creating the play, the creative and economic implications of the pandemic, and beyond.

The Key: To start off, like, what’s been going on? How have you been for the last few months going through this whole pandemic shit?

Camae Ayewa: Well, it’s been a bit tough because I was pretty much on tour every month, you know? And so all of that was lost. Spring is kind of a big, big touring time. And the summer is a big jazz festival time. So we were gearing up for, especially in March, the tour with Irreversible [Entanglements]. We were gearing up to play the London Jazz Festival, something that we had been really excited to play, you know? And that didn’t happen, so that was tough. As far as me solo, I was gonna do my first opera.

So that fell through. So tough… But the cool thing is that a lot of the festivals are trying to reschedule for next year, and festivals that I had a good relationship with over the years have contacted me to do prerecorded performances and stuff like that. So it’s been nice to still have that kind of conversation going. Of places that I’ve played, relationships with the curators and things like that, that’s nice. This has been the longest time I’ve been home in the past five years. So it’s like all of that stuff that I was stressing over, not having time to finish, I’m able to finish it. That’s the thing, because I’m just every day trying to come up with something, you know?

TK: Yeah. It seems like everybody who I talk to…this whole series of events has kind of, put a damper on certain things they were working on. Like you said, people are trying to tour and trying to play shows. It seems like everybody’s rethinking how they do shit, which is interesting to see a bunch of people at the same time, just kind of like in mass, trying to reevaluate work and how we make stuff happen.

CA: Yeah, no, definitely. I had been touring so much, most of my income was coming from tour. So when I’m not touring, then, you know, Bandcamp hits you with this Bandcamp Day and different initiatives to help artists. I was like, oh, now I’m a little more sharper on the streaming and singles and selling music online and thinking about that whole thing of like, “Oh, well, who’s interested in this? If I make a quick EP or something, is there an audience for this, me just releasing it, or do I have to go through my label?” Like, it’s kinda like getting to know my fans in a different way, or supporters or my music in a different way, which has been nice. But also hard.

TK: Hard like trying to figure out what to do or how to execute? Like, why has it been hard?

CA: Just trying to figure out what to do, you know? Cause I don’t have all the answers, so a lot of things is trial and error and reaching out to other musicians, you know. I’ve definitely hit up King Britt a bunch of times, like, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this. What do you think?” Just all these kinds of questions because there’s different conversations on the table that wasn’t happening, you know? So it’s just whenever I can try to seek out advice or anything, really any information on the newer things that I’m exploring, you know?

TK: Yeah. And it’s interesting that you said you ask King. King will tell you too, he’ll break it down if you need a point of advice or something like that. I think it’s not really talked about as much as it should be, like the importance of having elder cats that you can ask questions, you know what I mean? 

CA: They’ve been through it at some point, you know? Like that’s, what’s really cool. I mean, I even reached out to Ishmael from Shabazz Palaces also, and he was really open, you know? So it was kind of like, you never know who…you know what I mean? You never know. I just went forward and they’re like, yeah, okay.

It’s things that weigh on your heart and then you’re like, damn, I gotta seek some advice or help.

Circuit City | photo by Johanna Austin | austinart.org | courtesy of FringeArts

TK: So I’m listening to the joint that the label sent over, Circuit City. I’ve been playing it since earlier this week, and this was the thing that you did for the Fringe?

CA: Yeah.

TK: Okay, Well, first of all, I’m curious, where did the idea to even do a piece like this come from?

CA: When I was releasing my first book of poems called Fetish Bones, I wanted to include a play in the book of poems. I always love all the poetry books that have [also] had, like a play, you know what I mean? Like Sonia Sanchez, of course, it’s one of my favorites. So I was like, “Oh, I want to write a play and put it in the book.” But then when I realized that it was so hard. I had everything finished and I’m still working on this play. So it didn’t make the book, but I still had this play. This kind of like almost-finished play. And Fringe had found out about it and asked me about it. And I said, yeah, I have this piece I’ve been working on it forever. I would love to do it. And they said, okay, let’s go.

So that’s pretty much how it happened. It was back in 2016 that the ideas came together and we had been working on this project we had with Black Quantum Futurism, Community Futures Lab, and we were doing a lot of advocacy around housing. So it was kind of a reflection of what was going on in my life at that time. Looking at these billionaire companies, and just their acquisition of things. Whether it’s songs, whether it’s housing, whether it’s software companies, you know? I was kind of interested in this kind of machine buying up all the little startups or, you know, little private businesses and things like that. 

TK: I think that it’s a strange balance to find yourself as, as a creative person. I think about your relationship with corporations, but also like commerce in general, you know what I mean? Like everybody’s doing work and doing like dope creative work and people are getting deals and shit, but it’s what you also think to yourself. “Like, yo, am I aiding this?” This is me in my own perspective. Am I aiding in the corporate takeover of everything? You know what I mean? By even associating with some of these companies, I wonder if you ever feel as a musician who does creative work for money and like you, you get paid to do what you do… Do you ever feel a conflict between the work that you do and this whole world of commerce and business and all of that?

CA: Yeah. I mean, I feel nervous, I guess a lot because it feels like this bet on the future, you know? Especially with royalties and things like that, it’s like, “Oh, you gotta protect this, protect that.” And you know, in the long run, you’ll have some money then I’m like, okay, well I’ve never received any money. I’ve never seen my Spotify check. What is that, you know? So it’s kind of like this kind of decision versus the short run or the long run. And, you know, I guess getting rid of this kind of expiration model that’s in music, you know, and, I mean, I talk a lot about this with Black Quantum Futurism, but in music, I feel it — especially in a pandemic so much more — this kind of thing that we have to do everything you can before your time runs out.

Circuit City | photo by Johanna Austin | austinart.org | courtesy of FringeArts

TK: I wanted to switch gears a little bit. Could you talk to me about the recording of Circuit City and maybe if we could dig into some of the themes that you’re exploring. I took some notes on the words that you’re saying, but I wanted to talk to you a little bit about how this recording was actually made and then the concepts and ideas that you’re exploring on it.

CA: Okay. Well we did, I think it was five shows in a weekend. It was hard for me cause I’m also like starring in it, directing it, producing it, being a food runner, all that, you know? I did so many jobs that I didn’t even know… It’s just more like, get it done, take care of people, get it done. So yeah, it was supposed to be recorded every night, but this actually was the only recorded one. And that is the recording that is out. So I was really frustrated because, you know, we do this five times, is this going to be the one? There was definitely better versions of different songs because we also were improvising, you know? So it’s kind of like the energy on certain days. And I knew from the start of it, cause I’m like I’m doing a musical, you know, this was gonna be an album. So as soon as it started, I was already thinking that. 

TK: Could you talk a little bit about some of the ideas that you’re exploring on this piece?

CA: Well, one thing, it was kind of difficult because I wanted to have the whole play [on the album]. But it was really long and I didn’t even think to try to do a double CD, or a double record, which I really feel like I should have because you can get more of the context, you know? I included the pieces that were more thinking about this kind of machine, kind of like what I was talking about earlier — this machine that eats up other little things, whether it’s, you know, your dream first business or your songs…you know, this kind of machine. And I was just thinking about the housing market, and how it is very lucrative, and especially the plight of poor people. It’s very lucrative. So I was just thinking of these kinds of major industries buying up public housing and affordable housing.

And I was also looking at so-called smart business models, you know? So like if I’m a Microsoft or Apple, and I buy these housing projects…why not have these residents start working for me, you know? These people in these housing projects or affordable housing are “usually being violent” or, you know, “[have] no interest in being a part of society” or whatever, this kind of BS…but seeing them as the geniuses, they are able to actually put together this highly specialized, you know, microchips for Apple, whatever satellites for Comcast and doing this specialized work. And that was kind of a reflection to me within music. Even coming from some of my inspirations like Albert Ayler, for instance, or even Sun Ra who were taking sounds, expanding it way far, way beyond what we even thought it would be, you know?

So that’s kind of like, to me, genius work. “Oh, well we’re, we’re casually making all of this…” Not casually, cause it takes hard work, but we’re constantly making all of this genius work, but it’s seen as primitive or, you know, this kind of thing of not knowing how genius the work we’re doing is. So it was kind of like these residents are living in Circuit City, building all this stuff, you know, but then they realize this is highly specialized. So they said, “okay, I’m going to build something to get us out of here.”

I don’t call it a time machine or whatever. It’s just like a machine, it’s just like a specialized tool that we’re using that we create for our liberation, They just used it as a means to get from one place to another unknown. So one major piece of the play is this turntable that I activate every time I would read the poems, and the turntable was made by someone that was incarcerated. So it was like, the genius is not just within the housing complex, I’m showing this genius also within the prison industrial complex, which also is treated like the housing; large companies have now bought small little villages with 10 different prisons. This massive private prison system. So that’s kind of where I was going with the poetry and all of that, you know?

TK: Hmm. So the idea of people creating like a technology for liberation, I’ve heard that, I don’t know if I’ve heard it from you specifically or from other folks. My memory is not that good, but I’ve, heard that idea connected to music…our [Black] music in general and jazz specifically, does that make sense? That connection between this idea of an aesthetic tool that people build for liberation. Do you see jazz specifically in that way?

CA: Oh yeah. I say all the time that jazz was a liberation technology. It can be a whole tool or a piece of a tool. You know, I feel like the best example is really, to me, the sonic career of Alice Coltrane, because she went to so many different schools of healing with sound, you know? So therefore turning her harp into a liberation technology, you know? You can study that, you know? Even to [dancer / anthropologist] Catheine Dunham, these techniques that are taken from our existence, and not just of course building from the past. Of course Catherine Dunham went to Haiti to study for like a year before she even said anything, you know?

So it’s like taking all of these things in, but when she named it, it had never been, you know? So it’s just beautiful of these creations of schools of thought, or instruments of liberation that have been very useful for us, but it’s hard to name it also. Sometimes we’re just cut off from each other, we won’t know the whole story of what kind of things could Alice Coltrane do. Sometimes there’s this fixation on a certain part of a narrative, or the easiest digestive way to speak about someone.

TK: Yeah, that makes sense to me. Cause I, I think a lot about how jazz specifically, but Black music in general, is kind of always working towards this total sense of freedom. And it’s like a deeper freedom than like what we would think of as like American freedom or like constitutional liberties or whatever. It seems like Black folks through music are always trying to work out a cultural and aesthetic freedom and economic freedom, like a political freedom and revolution. It seems like an all-encompassing fight that the music itself narrates. It’s not really discussed. We really see a lot of discussion about Black music that’s really compartmentalized. It’s like, “Oh, this is spiritual jazz, and this is free jazz.” When cats said “free jazz,” it wasn’t just we want to play outside of traditional chord changes. It was like, okay, we also want to build co-ops, you know what I mean? Like The East [a cooperative Jazz venue / arts space in Brooklyn in the 70s], you know what I’m saying? Like, it was like a total freedom sort of thing. But I think that that gets lost when we talk about this music about Black music.

CA: Yeah, and even just as simple as our conversations, like you said, when we talk about it. It’s kind of funny because before quarantine in the winter, when I was touring with the Art Ensemble [of Chicago], they would tell a lot of stories about talking to Sun Ra and how you ask one question, or you go to rehearsal and it’s just three hours of Sun Ra talking. [laughs] And they’re like, “be careful about that next question…because he would just talk before you even got a chance to play.” And I, I just remember that life starting with music, and how the cypher broke out, but right before that you were talking about how much you love that Tribe Called Quest album, you know what I mean? It was like a lot of this conversation before, and now it just seems like, okay, here’s the deadline, here’s the publishing, it’s done, you know? So I think that’s part of it, these kind of conversations about it, what we like, what’s important, what we’re looking for, and ways that we’ve learned to heal each other.

Moor Mother’s Circuit City will be released on Friday, September 25th, via Don Giovanni Records; stream a song at Bandcamp and pre-order the album at the Don Giovanni website.

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