If I had to draw a portrait of the black woman, or even black women, I’m not really sure where’d I get started. This is a hard thing. Like any group, we aren’t a monolith, so there is that natural challenge. All the same, Fetish Bones, the new album by local artist Moor Mother, gives me the sense that if you gave her a canvas and ask that question, she would know exactly what to do.
Moor Mother’s music has been called many a thing. The top three maybe are noise, rap and punk. A colleague of mine, who would urge others to listen close to her samples, considers Moor Mother “a rising star in the Philly electronic music scene, of which we don’t have many despite there being a healthy underground scene for it.” I have heard and read several old heads, finger wagging at the youngs, describe Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back with the words that I would use for Moor Mother— radical, uncompromising, pugilistic and exceptionally adept at capturing tensions at their boiling point.
I need to sit with this album longer; I’m still processing it. On my first listen, I thought Moor Mother was speaking to and as younger black women, living through the dismaying police shootings. I thought I was hearing something that registered with my age specifically. But Moor Mother doesn’t really believe in time or age.
“I’m into studying every place a black woman has ever been on the planet, so once you start doing things like that, you start to understand how time comes into the picture of history,” she says. Calling someone a “pre-teen,” she points out, hasn’t always been a thing. “Being super preoccupied with age is kind of like an evolving factor,” she says— obviously one that she’s not down with, and of course she wouldn’t tell me how old she is.
Her grasp on black female stories is likely aided by her work at the Community Futures Lab, a project/community center that’s been gathering oral histories in Sharswood, where the Philadelphia Housing Authority is taking upwards of 1,300 units through eminent domain. The lab is powered by the Black Quantum Futurism Collective, which Moor Mother leads with fellow artist Rasheedah Phillips. Moor Mother aims to capture black females stories across the board in her music, but “especially the black women that are offline, that are not fetishizing themselves in a way. Single Mothers. I try to tell those kind of stories,” she explains. “I have endless stories, literally endless. I just need the time to write them all out.”
I ask her about the themes of the album. The joy peeking through comes through essentially survival stories. Fetish Bones’ themes are dark and heavy mostly, sharing stories of violence in different forms frequently. Moor Mother replies it’s not just that. The experience of being bedridden is on there. Motherhood (duh) is on there. Breastfeeding is on there. “Yes, the truth is dark or whatever. [But] there’s all this resilience,” she says. “To understand me, I was born in Washington Park projects [Note: in Aberdeen]. I didn’t graduate college. All of this stuff, for me to even survive?”
I have returned several times in my brief time with it to Fetish Bones’ opening track, “Creation Myth.”
The first time you heard that whisper of death
The death that’s always been lingering here since the day you were born
Telling you that must be both dead and alive
Want us to be dead when a man wants to beat us
When they want to rape us
Dead when the police kill me. Alive when the police kill me.
Moor Mother explains that as a lyricist, she prefers to be quite “literal,” the razzamatazz of metaphors left to the wayside.
“How simple can you get?” she summarizes the thought process. “It’s kind of like this perspective of ‘okay well, who is saying this stuff?’ I’m actively looking. I’m not saying it in some vague way, saying explicit so someone’s mother can understand.”
“There’s the political dance song. I mean, there’s whatever you want,” she says of what’s out there. “But is it just a hook? Are we only singing a hook at the protest? Or can we actually quote these things? Can we actually, as they say in hashtags, #SayHerName? Can we say all our of names? Can we recognize who we’re forgetting and leaving out?”
I’m not sure if I’d quote Moor Mother just because. Some of her verses strike my ear like spoken word. Others I hear the same way I heard certain moments in the house, watching TV, when someone would observe that a black girl would not receive months-long national media coverage, as Elizabeth Smart and Natalee Holloway did, if she went missing.
It’s something today that’s in essays, in plays, in comedy, and maybe some of the most cerebral rap, but no, they’re aren’t a lot of black women going there on wax. Moor Mother doesn’t really think it’s that political. She sees it as just telling the truth.
Moor Mother is having an album release party/concert at Yung Kandy Collective in Brewerytown this Saturday at 7 pm. The line-up is deep. Here’s who’s playing, via Facebook.