Interview: Moor Mother’s Camae Ayewa Unpacks Tranquil New LP, ‘Black Encyclopedia of the Air’

Black Encyclopedia of the Air is a departure from the heavy and loud releases from Moor Mother, moniker for poet and songwriter Camae Ayewa. It is not dissonant like Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes. It is not punk like True Opera, an album Moor Mother made with Mental Jewelry and released as Moor Jewelry.  

“This is not noisy at all,” says Ayewa. “It’s really interesting to do this kind of shift into something that I would consider soft.” 

Black Encyclopedia of the Air is a tranquil hip hop album.  

“This would be the closest, in my opinion, that I’ve ever been to making somewhat of a hip hop record,” Ayewa says. “It does have these kind of, I wouldn’t say punk, but I would say these dark moments, where truth and sound collide in this melancholy way.” 

Ayewa made the album in March 2020.  

“It was the first month of quarantine because I was in Italy, and then London in January and February,” says Ayewa. “I just had the energy coming off of tour in the beginning, uncertainty unravelling with my band’s tour, Irreversible Entanglements, being canceled. I just had this energy of just like, ‘Ok, well I guess I’ll go into my studio.’”  

Rather than create one album at a time, Ayewa prefers to make many records simultaneously.  

“I had been working on an album that’s not this album for a while,” says Ayewa. “In the midst of finishing this album, sometimes you have tracks that don’t work for the album, but they’re still good, you know? That kind of thing was happening, so I was pretty much working on two albums simultaneously, and then this album, Encyclopedia, just started to come together really fast, and it was just fun to have this kind of project that was just fun.”  

Ayewa was making a different record when she began Black Encyclopedia of the Air.  

I like to work on multiple things at a time so I can spread my feelings out, and not just be so focused on one album,” says Ayewa.  

Prior to making Black Encyclopedia of the Air, Ayewa had completed a poetry book, which inspired the album.  

I just finished my third full-length poetry book,” says Ayewa. “To me, if I write a poetry book, I can produce so much music from it. I don’t separate music from poetry because sound is music, whether it’s coming out your mouth or coming out of a sampler, all of this kind of thing. So, for me, completing a poetry book, it’s just like a medicine kit, a tool kit that you can just work from and did so much of the work of putting words down.” 

 Ayewa sees making music as an extension of writing poetry.  

“Poetry is like a tool kit,” says Ayewa. “Not everyone can do it, as you can see. Poetry is very hard because it’s not just about words, but it’s about feeling. It’s about fine-tuning your sensitivity to what’s going on in the world or universe. That’s why I call it like a medicine bag for me.”  

This was a collaborative album.  

Moor Mother

A lot of people that I have on this record I’ve never worked with before, so it was really like hearing a certain voice that the song needed,” she says.   

Ayewa is currently focusing on the production aspects of making music. She says:  

“In the next two records, this record and the next one, it’s really me, and I’ve said this before, being on my Quincy Jones, really stepping into my producer bag, really making great selections on beats, making great selections on vocalists that will join me. That kind of vibe. Singing the words and then sending them out for people to sing. Orchestrating around the beat. I don’t just get the beat and it’s finished. I’m continuously orchestrating, composing to make it to be what it needs to be. So that’s where I’m at right now.”  

She is also making scores outside of music.  

I’ve been doing a lot of scores for short films and galleries and things like that,” says Ayewa. “Getting into more orchestral instruments and things like that. I’m still, my live show is not going to be all this record, it’s going to be a mix of where I’m going, where I’ve been, what’s happening in present. I’m constantly pushing forward, constantly making albums. I’m trying to move as fast as the industry will let me, of showcasing the landscapes and colors that I’ve been working with, but at the end of the day, like what we talked about before, I’m a poet. I definitely want to highlight that more in as many different sonic designs as I can, or sonic rooms or worlds, that I can.” 

Ayewa has also been involved with a film score from Black Quantum Futurism.  

“My collective, Black Quantum Futurism, has a new film called Write No History, which I composed,” she says. “I’m really excited to get that out there. I’m really excited for people to hear the different textures and instruments that I’m working with, but like I said, I’m continually creating.”  

The music of Moor Mother has a way of uncovering and illuminating deep truths and meaning in the world. With a discography of diverse and eclectic albums, the message of Moor Mother reaches people in a variety of different sounds and textures.  

“The most important thing is the message, so it’s about expanding my world to get the message out to those who need it,” says Ayewa. “I don’t want to one track that’s an industrial track and think that’s how people get information. People get information through hip hop. People get information through R&B. Through dance. Through jazz. Through classical. I make sure my hand is in all those, so I can reach who I need to reach. It’s not about reaching the world, it’s about who needs to hear it, and for me to make sure that I have that awareness of the different ways people can understand a message.”  

Before entering music, Ayewa had been a teacher.  

“I was an educator for over a decade before I became a professional musician,” says Ayewa. “When you set up your classroom, you make it a learning environment so kids can continually have the opportunity to pick up things if they’re not listening to your lecture. Or, maybe falling off on their homework, they can look up and see some motivating quotes. They can look up and see a picture of someone that can inspire them to work harder. This kind of thing. I love to create this kind of world. That’s why the poetry and the lyrics are so important, because it’s trying to tap into all these frequencies, sound frequencies with word that can pull people in.”  

Ayewa thinks that her releases after Black Encyclopedia of the Air will be different from this record.  

“The next one after that is not sweet or beautiful at all,” says Ayewa. “It’s horrendous. I’m touching a lot of different sounds and moods and thoughts, and yeah, it’s nerve-wracking trying something new.” 

Watch the video for “Zami” here:

For more from Moor Mother, find her on Bandcamp.

Photos courtesy of Moor Mother and Bob Sweeney

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