Moor Mother’s Revolutionary Radio Signals

Moor Mother’s latest album is “Black Encyclopedia of the Air.”
Flickr/Steve Louie

We’re used to easily absorbable music. Due to TikTok’s minute-long video limit, pop songs now lead with their hooks. Robby Ricch’s “The Box” initially blew up on TikTok because of the rapper’s “ee-er” screech at its very start. Even on streaming services, songs have taken precedence over albums, which are now seen as opportunities for individuals and official playlists to carve them up at will. If this gives the listener a certain freedom, it’s resulted in a vast amount of “fast food music” intended to be heard a few times and then forgotten about.

Queer spoken word artist/rapper Moor Mother’s “Black Encyclopedia of the Air” does not reveal itself on a first listen, or even the first few. Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) uses the full range of her voice, whispering and mumbling. She even pitches her voice up to double herself. “Temporal Control of Light Echoes” is a solo song, but it sounds like a duet with a robot. She doesn’t harmonize with herself, but uses her own voice and others in conversation with themselves. Her voice is so deep that it almost sounds artificially slowed down. Her lyrics are important but sometimes hard to make out. The music calls back to the Roots or Erykah Badu, with jazzy, watery electric pianos. But the album sounds relaxed and jittery at the same time, as paradoxical as that is.

In 2020, Moor Mother released three albums in different genres: punk (“True Opera,” a collaboration with the band Mental Jewelry), hip-hop (“BRASS,” made as a duo with billy woods), and a jazz opera (“Circuit City.”) The free jazz group she fronts, Irreversible Entanglements, also put out an album that year. Her collaborative ethos is remarkable. She’s worked with artists as different as the hardcore band Show Me the Body and the venerable jazz group the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Her feature on “Vexed,” one of the high points of the Bug’s London dancehall apocalypse “Pressure,” shows her prowess with straightforward hip-hop. And her music is part of a round of endeavors including poetry, activism and teaching.

But she has now signed to a large indie label, ANTI-Records, releasing her debut for them. Reaching a larger audience usually comes with the expectation that one can be pinned down for marketing purposes. With this album, she’s kept up the collaborative ethos of her work. Only four songs don’t include features from other artists.

Her 2016 debut album “Fetish Bones” laid out a collage of samples that never quite sounded right together, with constant references to America’s history of racism. (She declared “I’ve been bleeding since 1866” on the opening song “Creation Myth.”)

In a Pitchfork interview, she admits “I’m constantly going into different genres and fields to make the message more accessible…This record is like a gateway, a trickery: bringing people in with the smooth vibes.” Most songs include an element that introduces anxiety. Drums aren’t just thrown onto a song automatically. The percussion on “Race Function Limited” comes and goes, out of time with the rest of the backing track. She rarely works with standard hi-hat/snare/kick sounds, drawing on shakers and African hand drums instead. “Obsidian” weaves heavily distorted vocals together over crackling percussion and distant piano chords.

Moor Mother pays tribute to her artistic and spiritual ancestors. “Zami” was named for the late out lesbian Audre Lorde’s memoir. The video for “Obsidian” was shot outside John and Alice Coltrane’s house. Her references looks back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: fusion, spiritual jazz, proto-hip-hop spoken word, even Beat poetry. Her lyrics speak about the damage done by intergenerational trauma, but they also look to the future for hope. Her sci-fi imagery places her work in the lineage of Afrofuturism, but it also describes the present. “Zami” says “we could all die in the name off…,” but it also calls to dismantle “the master’s clock” and a world that’s colonized our minds with technology. “Clock Fight” expands on that metaphor. “Temporal Control of Light Echoes” serves as an intro to a larger audience, pondering how she got to this point. The idea that linear time is a destructive lie runs through the album.

Having lived with this album for a week, I feel like I have barely cracked its surface. In her Pitchfork interview, Moor Mother lamented the absence of present-day protest music. But on “Black Encyclopedia of the Air,” she forms links with a community of avant-garde fellow travelers, describing the toll of living in a country where they’re not wanted and trying to open up revolutionary possibilities.

MOOR MOTHER | “Black Encyclopedia of the Air” | Anti- Records