Last night at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., some of the most influential female musicians working today, including Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Gang Gang Dance's Lizzi Bougatsos, came together to celebrate music and art legend Yoko Ono. While the concert was curated as part of Yoko Ono's Four Works for Washington and the World, an exhibition commemorating the tenth anniversary of Wish Tree, her interactive artwork at the museum, it also highlighted a younger generation of women who have clearly been influenced by Ono's nuanced performance art.
One artist in particular is Moor Mother's Camae Ayewa, who performed alongside Gordon and Bougatsos as last night's concert. While young enough to be Ono's granddaughter, Camae also embraces the poetic resonance of performance. Her work is both political and lyrical, calling on audio and visual components that make more of an artistic impact than they do fit into a specific pop-music category. As Hirshhorn curator Mark Beasley explains, "We need more music and lyrics that tell it like it is. Moor Mother's 'slaveship-punk' protest music assails the listener; it sonically choreographs these times."
Katy Diamond Hamer: Your music and poetry are one and the same. Do you plan your performances, such as the one celebrating Yoko Ono at the Hirshhorn?
Camae Ayewa: With a lot of my shows, the content comes from my daydreams. [My focus is] on performance art versus a straight musical performance. I don't want to make it easy for the audience, and I feel like that's one thing that Yoko Ono is known for: not making it easily digestible. She's been my inspiration, in that sense, for making the audience think.
KDH: As a black woman, you are breaking through boundaries, preconceived notions, stereotypes, and saying, "I want to be heard." Has anyone in particular inspired your journey?
CA: I try not to mimic anyone. I think a lot about my early inspiration and how I found punk rock. When I started looking into music, I found Bob Marley. He really rocked my world because he played electric guitar, sang folk songs, and also hung out with all the British rock stars. I [realized I] could take part in all these different things and not have to lose my own identity or be confused about that identity.
KDH: Have you always been inspired by activism, or activism through the performative gesture?
CA: I can only write songs about what I see and what I'm going through. Most of my upbringing in Maryland helped carve my identity. I remember when Spike Lee released the movie Malcolm X and when I went to see Public Enemy live — [those experiences] definitely changed my life. But beyond that, loving yourself is the most important thing.
KDH: What percentage of your written words — your poetry — is based on personal experience versus historical experience?
CA: For me, it's so hard to erase the historical part of it that helps tell more of the story. For example, I can be [performing somewhere], but I still need to know the history of the venue or city so that I can really get a feeling of it in the present. I don't really write my set list before I go to a place; I prefer to see what the place actually needs.
KDH: When you perform something that is spiritually infused by a place, how do you channel that energy?
CA: At every show, I learn how to better love myself and take care of myself. It's the sounds, the words, and the poetry that guide me. It's very important for me to constantly cultivate joy. When you see me, I'm very happy and excited, but once the sounds and the music hit, I go into a trance.
KDH: Does the current political climate find a way into your performances, or is it something that you try to avoid?
CA: I actually don't really speak on current affairs. Of course I write about what's happening now in my poetry, but it's not set in a specific time. You'll hear me talk about 1919, then I'll jump to the 1960s. I'm not working with time in a linear sense. My thought is that we're not headed toward doomsday — a lot of the work that I do with my collective, Black Quantum Futurism, talks about this. The collective is a collaboration between me and my partner Rasheedah Phillips. We produce books and zines, and we just had a performance at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
KDH: I love that your voice is part of this resurgent interest in poetry. Listening to your music and spoken word, it sounds like a nonlinear poetic narrative. Do you relate to that?
CA: Two of my favorite poets are Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou, but we can't always rely on voices that have been tried and true. I've realized that it's my duty to write poetry.
In Black Quantum Futurism, we say poetry is a form of time travel. It's just like a song; it can take you to so many places. One of my favorites is a haiku by Sonia Sanchez, who thinks about time zones, written in 1973 on a trip to China as part of a morning haiku ritual. She penned, "Let me wear the day / Well so when it reaches you / You will enjoy it."
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Katy Diamond Hamer is a Brooklyn-based arts writer with a focus on contemporary art and culture.