“We don’t do songs.”
Moor Mother was running a line test at The Hideout in Chicago, and uttered one of countless cutting truths while prepping with sax cohort David Boykin. The sound engineer wanted to know how long Boykin’s set up would be needed, perhaps for one song? But in the spirit of the night, indeed, Moor Mother does not do songs, and instead faithfully pledged allegiance to writhing waves of synthetic bliss to the sold out crowd. This was my first time seeing Moor Mother, after unfortunately missing at least two previous Chicago shows, but it was especially worth the wait to see the noise artist combine with local experimental heroes, ONO.
For the first time in ages, the ONO exhibition email seemed to include no songs that I recognized. As I was looking to get hyped about getting to the late weeknight show, this curiosity remained in my mind: where would ONO take us? As I understand it, this set was comprised of songs that may be appearing on the next ONO album. Perhaps the line up that we might call “Late Era ONO” someday, the Rebecca / Ben / Brett / Connor / DaWei / P.Michael / travis band (I think that’s everyone, I may have missed someone else playing on the floor), showed why they can be regarded as the fiercest experimental outfit in the City, as the players dutifully and mercilessly trudged their respective paths towards unclassifiable arrangements. The club mix also happened to be one of the best I’ve ever heard applied to the live band, and the intricate timbres of synths and keys joined metallic crescendos and unrelenting beats behind travis’s vocals. With each passing album, one can see in greater completeness P.Michael’s unending knowledge of common / popular forms of Americana and prescient awareness of independent and outsider contrarians; with each passing album, the band appears to run deeper and deeper into that trench as well, creating a transcendent sonic platform.
The written and vocal material was scathing and introspective as well, and I am beyond words for hearing it. Yearning for some idea of closure after Charlottesville, closure in the sense that perhaps justice or emancipation may still exist in some strand of the universe, travis’s writing and presentation was a timely excursion of the pasts that bore our future. On August 23, 2017, travis recalled the fateful August during which African slaves were criminally transported to American shores, delivering a gutwrenching demonstration of such a dehumanizing sale and reminding us that our current situation is only one such anniversary in a line of countless others. Travis’s vocal delivery was uncanny, simultaneously conveying the brutality of the scene while demonstrating the cold, singularly human ability to create disastrous commodities. We live among the shells of our commodities, from discrimination born through slavery to the housing crisis reified through Collateralized Debt Obligations; the United States of America is as much an aggregation of those unfathomable commodifications as any other element, The Constitution itself preserving the progression through various evils codified into law during our tenure as a nation.
I cannot overstate the brilliance of the band, who delivered an unending fluctuation of experimentation, renegade funk, pure classic noise bursts, and testimonial keys. Travis’s delivery heightened the prevailing mood built from those sounds, and ONO in turn provided the audience with a glimpse into what might now be anticipated as their next masterpiece.
Moor Mother twice chided the audience on ONO, as we are not grateful enough for being in the presence of this singular musical (and non-musical) entity. This chiding was one of the artist’s many hats, as I believe as audience member we were honored to meet Camae Ayewa the music fan, Moor Mother the poet, the speaker, and Moor Mother the rapper. Camae’s voice is well-rounded and the artist talented to deliver each of these aspects. By wrapping these seemingly disparate deliveries from earnest to angry, from the approachable everyday to spiritual, from musical and rhythmic to amorphous and abstract, Moor Mother’s live performance demonstrated the exponential talents that made Fetish Bones (Don Giovanni) such a suspenseful debut album and so easy to return to for repeat listens. Musically, the set itself leaned more toward the noisy, wall of sound Fetish Bones side of Moor Mother’s work than the more open, tightly wound repetitions of the Recurrence Plot Sound // Memory Station (House of Future Sciences / AfroFuturist Affair) work. But make no mistake about it, the latter sonic style is there, and this live setting showed how the blend of raging distorted synthetics coupled with samples that are gone in an instant, or fleeting blips or waves are compiled within the backing sounds for the vocal performance.
With David Boykin accompanying on sax, Moor Mother demonstrated an enviable artistic flexibility by performing “Walka Walka Walka Walka” (and perhaps elements from another poem?) from the Fetish Bones poetry collection (by Camae Ayewa, House of Future Sciences / AfroFuturist Affair ) alongside minimal noise and free association by Boykin. Boykin delivered advanced breathing and abstract techniques on the reed and keys, which resulted in bursts of air that were enlivening and suffocating along each word from the poem, enlivening with the feeling that there are great wrongs committed in the name of colonialism, modern medical science, sexism, homophobia, international politics, industrial capitalism, etc., and suffocating in the sense of inability to correct these wrongs: “no vaccine / not enough dead bodies / not enough white people dying / not enough dead bodies / not enough profit / not enough motivation / not enough dead politicians / vaccine coming next year but not now / just not enough funding / not enough interest” (Ayewa, p. 28). The idea that the future is inherent in the past, or rather that the future is embedded in the past, that time is not linear but cyclical, subtly laid beneath both Boykin and Moor Mother throughout this particular performance.
As a solo artist, Moor Mother blasted snippets of beats, found sounds, synthetics, and samples, some related to the constructions on Fetish Bones, and delivered diverse vocal styles through a short-echoed / reverbed mic. While this mic did not achieve some of the most warbling, pitch shifted genius that appears on Moor Mother’s recorded work, the immediacy of the vocal delivery allowed the artist to showcase flexibility and multiple strengths. Moor Mother is precise and eloquent as a rapper, fierce and urgent shouting, and ritual / spiritual when bridging those realms with more traditional folk / rhythm and blues / Gospel singing. I loved every moment of the urgency on stage — Moor Mother pulling away from the mic and singing along with a sample to the audience, glaring at us for our paralyzed motion while so deeply feeling the samples.
But it was impossible to move; the world is so imperfect, American politics are reeling to the point that we need not even search for any silver lining, any grand narrative about peace or emancipation or justice. But justice is among us, emancipation is among us, it just does not look like anything we have ever seen before, it certainly does not sound like anything we have previously heard, and that is perhaps what makes it so impossible to grasp. Yet it is among us, and always has been among us, borne alongside each decision, each motion to the contrary. On the most positive interpretation, I believe Moor Mother (and ONO, for that matter) embodies justice, embodies emancipation, by morphing between sonic and vocal deliveries, peeling back our linear time to unveil the cycles and majestic realms we are yet too timid to travel. The future is now. Thank you, Moor Mother, thank you, ONO.