“You can’t keep depending on the same tools”: Matana Roberts & Moor Mother in conversation

Matana Roberts, one of the most productive figures of New York’s spiritual jazz scene, and Moor Mother, Philadelphia based outspoken musician and activist, got together on a Zoom chat to discuss the ways that they experienced 2020. 

Illustration: Saydan Akşit

On the effects of pandemic

Moor Mother: I mean I’ve been able to work. More. Before I was travelling so much, I had to kind of work on the run, so I would say that it’s been beneficial to have this time to really process some of the things that I had been working on, so I could finish it up and see it in a different light. You become obsessed with things, because there’s nothing else really to obsess about.

Matana Roberts: Yeah, I feel similar. I’m a lot slower. But the choices I’m making and things that I’m making are a lot more deliberate than they’ve been. My schedule’s usually just so crazy, so I’ve been able to have some time to slow down. Even though (you lost so much work) and I’m still working. I feel really lucky that I still manage to work through some of that. Like after everything being cancelled but still some things came through I wasn’t expecting, so I feel really blessed in that. Yeah, I don’t… It definitely ups some creative anxiety for me at the same time so I just cope with that.

Moor Mother: You’re meaning towards the streaming stuff or just being out of practice?

Matana Roberts: I spent the last year focusing…I deliberately took last year, 2019 to 2020, to just focus on being a composer and just doing commissions. And see if I like that. Just see if I wanted to be more in the sound art world, performance world and exhibition world. About 8 months into that, I felt like I had enough, where I was like “okay.” I love performance, also. I love playing the saxophone. I love doing these things. And not gonna be able to cut that part of myself off. So I was really looking forward to 2020 and hitting performance back a bit harder than I had in 2019. And now I can’t cope with ’19, you know? It has ruined all the plans, any plans. There was no plan.

Moor Mother: Right. I was fortunate that the tour was January, February.

Matana Roberts: Aah! Wow!

Moor Mother: Yeah, and I had some stuff in Italy.

Matana Roberts: Wow!

Moor Mother: So I was slowly seeing… I had been to some small towns in Italy, had to go to London, came back to Venice. When we came to take our luggage they were taking everyone’s temperature. And I was like: “Wooow, this thing I’ve been hearing about is intensifying.” So, yeah. I had this kind of feeling…

Matana Roberts: …that something was coming.

Moor Mother: Yeah. I was scared. You’re always shaken up flying and stuff, but I just had this fear when I saw them that things are really changing fast.

Matana Roberts: Yeah, it’s interesting because I had been in Europe and the week before everything, like a few weeks before everything I was back in New York and I remember coming to JFK and it was eerie. There was an eeriness in the air and then getting to customs, I never forget it, all the customs agents were wearing masks. Every single one. And I thought: “Okay, what’s that about? I’m not really gonna pay that much attention.” And I then remember running around in the city, and I hit a favorite coffee shop or something, I walk in and there were signs about how certain things were under the counter now, you have to ask for it. And I remember saying to the people there like: “This COVID thing, it’s a thing?” But even saying that then, I had no idea how much of a “thing” it was. It just kind of…

Moor Mother: No definitely. I was a little bit hopeful because I had to leave again in March.

Matana Roberts: Right!

Moor Mother: But, yeah. Then I was like: “No. You’re going nowhere.”

Matana Roberts: No. Nothing’s happening. I mean, I spent the first three weeks of the first series of shutdowns being like: “Okay. This is how I’m going to die. This is what’s gonna happen and okay, I’ve got to do some things that I’m really glad I got to do.” Just because the things were wrapping up in headlines worldwide it just seems so apocalyptic.

Moor Mother: Yeah. Definitely.

Matana Roberts: What was adaptation like? Are you adapting?

Moor Mother: I mean, it’s not easy. Some days I’m just in the studio, banging things out.  Some days I’m just sitting there. So, it was just about, I guess it’s been difficult to start the music. Once I start I’m fine, but it’s this new thing that I have, like getting out of my head in the morning to then being able to make… so I’m doing a lot in my head kind of stuff that I don’t like. So, I guess I’m just finding ways to self-motivate, to be more discerning about what I put my attention to. Definitely my relationship to social media and stuff has definitely changed, because of that so many things are put in my head and ideas of how much work am I doing. Am I doing enough work? Is this too much work? That kind of thing. Because work to me is like the healing thing. Like I said, once I get going, I get tuned out. But I guess it’s more about, is it just the tuning out thing, or am I actually doing the work to be more soothing for self thing? I don’t know if it makes sense.

Matana Roberts: No, it totally makes sense. It’s been about asking some deeper questions about why I’m doing what I’m doing and what its purpose. Kudos to you for even being on social media. Because I had to take a complete break once the headlines started to wrap up. The combination of that and the constant violence continuing to happen to black bodies, I just couldn’t… Self-preservation during this moment so I can witness and pull myself back out of the hole that was pushing everybody into. But it’s a strange thing, because also we were all losing so much connection, so I don’t know the adaptation. Adaption… For me, is still ongoing. I mean like you, being in your head so much, I guess I didn’t think about it so much, but I tried to be as present as possible. Because there was so much unknown and there’s still a fair amount of things that are unknown, but there’s nothing that any of us can do about it, or I can do about it. So I have to be focused. But I definitely am working slow. I’m usually slow, but I’m a lot slower right now. And I’m trying to accept that that’s what it is. And I never knew what it was like to be slow. It’s always been like “bang out bang out bang out, getting down.” But now it’s like “Okay. bang out. Bang out. But wait a minute. Have a moment to think about a little bit more than the years past.” And maybe it’s a positive.

On their demands from the music industry

Moor Mother: I would say the demands are the same demands you have for everyone. To be treated fair, not to be looked at like some worker… But I don’t really, I’m not in the latest news about all the different things happening in the music industry.

Matana Roberts: Yeah I don’t really pay attention. That question is interesting because there is so much that I… Like somebody wrote me today, asking me about how they should write an application for some funding for their music. “Should I do it this way?” or “Should I do it that way?” And I was just like: “You should do what you want to do. Do whatever you want to do.” It doesn’t have to be this way or that way. And so, whatever is going on in the music industry, I consider myself a fringe musician, so I just don’t even think about these. Maybe I should. I don’t know. 

Moor Mother: Right. I usually ask the question: “Am I really in the industry?” 

Matana Roberts: I feel really grateful that I don’t have to think about that stuff. Because the more you learn about how much of a machine it is, and the amount of emotional labor that musicians who are deep within that, have to deal with. I guess we deal with a different… There’s a whole other side of that. I’m not into boundaries so, yeah. What’s your main motivation for creation? 

Moor Mother: Main motivation…I mean I have a lot of different motivations. I don’t know if I would have a main one. It’s not such “stuff”, but I think it’s important for me to tell stories of my family and include sounds that I grew up listening to. Things that remind me of my father, my grandmother and I like to tell these certain stories that just don’t fall off the sky, but there are certain stories that just come to me when I’m not searching for them. Stories about the people in my community, or people that I didn’t even know. Artists that came from my area that I didn’t know about, that I’m just finding out. Stuff like that motivates me quickly. I want to write the song or something when I come into contact with these stories. So, yeah, I guess the main motivation would just be sharing stories.

Matana Roberts: Yeah, I guess I feel something similar. I was speaking with a friend today who’s a theatre actor and she was talking about how she had an old teacher that had told her that usually in your life, there are certain themes that show up. And you should really pay attention to these themes that really interest you. And definitely storytelling, a sense of self-preservation, which has really been tested in the last year. Having a super strong inner world, I think, for me, motivates me to pull it out and put it inside out. That’s really important to me. But I also just really feel, and I’ve always felt, that so many people suffered for me to just “be” that I just am trying really hard not to take that for granted and not to let all the holes that get poked in me as a creative person from time to time to just let it roll. 

Moor Mother: I feel like that’s why I try to be as fluid as possible, not just really stuck on a genre. It’s okay that my family may say “Whoa that was a little too loud!” or “different” or something.

Matana Roberts: Right. 

Moor Mother: Because that was always me and they understand that. They’re like “okay”. They definitely appreciate when I bring it to where they can, not like “down”, but frequency levels that they’re usually comfortable. Also, I just like to keep playing with that form. 

Matana Roberts: Yeah, it’s funny because I have an uncle who from time to time says to me, he says, “you just need to write that next big hit and when you write that hit you can go back to all the weird stuff that you’re doing”. I’m like, “No! You don’t understand. It’s not about that. I’m not looking for that great next hit.” But I do think about that too. In terms of I want people to have multiple points of entry into the things that I’m trying to figure out. But I also, I love it when they don’t like it too. 

Moor Mother: Yeah. 

Matana Roberts: That’s a really nice thing, because it’s allowing them some form of critical thinking about what it is they’re hearing. 

Moor Mother: I used to structure all my albums that way. Make sure to allow this kind of thing that people may not like comes first, so if they like it they really need to work to get to the nice song, which would be the last song. 

Matana Roberts: That’s perfect.

Moor Mother: But I kind of changed it up. You can’t put everything in this pattern, but I just like people to wait through something. To some kind of thinking process before you start dancing.

Matana Roberts: Yes, I agree. I don’t like to hold people’s hands through the sound. I just want them to carry themselves, and make their own decisions. Because, music can be so manipulative. It’s an interesting thought. Another question, what has the past year taught you? Oooh, it’s still teaching. I’m still in class. It’s still teaching. I don’t know. I mean, history has shown time and time again that the humans can be put through a lot. We’re very malleable and we’re very adaptable to certain situations, and there are periods of history that I’m really glad that I didn’t have to live through in order to have that understanding. This experience has been particular. There’s been so much loss. But also, people have been trying to find edges in life that are interesting. I’ve been reminded about the certain survival skills that I forgot I had. And that’s been a good reminder. And again, my inner world is rooted in ways that it wasn’t before. Just some things that I forgot about and it’s nice to have that back. But I still feel like the year’s teaching me, so…

Moor Mother: I wish I could say I learnt the lessons. But I’m still working with them. And especially here, because of the season change. 

Matana Roberts: Right.

Moor Mother: When it’s nice out, I have a whole routine that I go through. And that was really pushing me through and carrying me through, but once that snow hit, it was almost like I needed a different version of it and I didn’t prepare myself for a kind of thing like that. I was going with the flow and now not being able to be outside, to the park, looking at water, that’s just been really hard for me. I feel like I’ve been, which I thought was kind of a bad thing now I see it as a good thing, I’ve been the most emotional I’ve ever been. I’ve been soothing all my life basically. For the past at least 6 or 7 years or so, I’m really having to turn to new methods of caring for myself in this kind of way of healing. And that’s kind of good I think, because you can’t keep depending on the same tools. And I guess that’s what it taught me, with my music too, keep the ways that I center myself or bring myself into the different areas I want to go into. Never had to fight so much cloud before. 

Matana Roberts: I like that phrase. I’m a really active person and I like to be outside. I’m like you. I like being able to have a certain view to the sky or view to water. I love being in the water and not being able to do a lot of things during this time has been hard. Not being able to, like, I’ve never been afraid of going anywhere and having to … walk down the street and make sure you use enough distance between you and the person you don’t know. Or just the soothe or ease of going to someone’s show, or stumbling upon a show, or stumble upon a gathering, or not having to do all this calculated thinking that has to be done right now just to function. So like you, I found again just kind of moving back into my imaginary inner world about how different ways you can trick your brain into just feeling that you’re somewhere, tricks your brain into thinking that you’re in that place. Kind of dopamine and lift that you get from that is super important. I have a regular meditation practice that has been going to new places that I’m not sure would have gone before the pandemic. I don’t know. I mean I’m working really hard to stay physically strong, because if I’m physically strong, I’m mentally strong for myself. And that’s just my obsession.

Besides the pandemic, what other key changes had an effect on them

Matana Roberts: This shift from he-who-shall-not-be-named to Biden and Harris. That, I mean, I side eye American politicians. I always have. I probably always will. But, just the shift of watching what’s-his-name walk out of that White House and try to understand “Well, we’re in some kind of era”. But, it also feels like the same shit different day. So, Black Lives Matter and just the consistency of black death that is continuing to happen by the police state is really terrifying. And I don’t know if I see any of what’s been happening in the past year as a key change. You know the storming of the Capitol… Watching that go down and seeing some people act surprised… Some people act surprised. Like really? Are you surprised? 

Moor Mother: Not at all.

Matana Roberts: Not at all! But, watching the images of those white men climbing the wall, thinking like, okay they can do that. That’s interesting. We know what it would look like if it had looked different. We already know what it looked like when the BLM protests were happening in the Capitol. They had SWAT and state police and everybody was out there. But for this? These folks scaled the wall. They got let in the building. I don’t know. Do you feel like you’ve seen key changes? 

Moor Mother: Besides the things you said, I feel like the same shit different day. I’m over here in North Philly. I’m not as close to DC or even people in DC, you know how segregated that area is. So, I think for me it’s been more about people getting sick. This kind of thing going back to health.

Matana Roberts: Right. 

Moor Mother: And how we talk about that and how we don’t talk about that. I felt that was really interesting. And for a while, people were talking about people that were losing their lives from COVID-19 but something as massive as this you would think that it would be something that would be covered in a very intellectual way and in a compassionate way. So I was just looking at how we relate to death as a whole and how uncomfortable we are about it and how we still, like other countries drop bombs on whoever has swept under their rug, this kind of thing being normalized. 

Matana Roberts: It also feels a bit psychedelic in terms of what is being focused on and what is not being focused on. It’s shown very clearly the amount of structural racism that exists in these moments. The amounts of what’s going on in community infrastructures and where help is being but where that’s being ignored. I just don’t know what to think about where it’s headed and I’m trying to stay hopeful and trying to stay thankful as a saxophone player, this idea of, and I’m sure for you too, this idea of something to do with my lungs is terrifying. 

Moor Mother: Yes! Oh my goodness!

Matana Roberts: I have nightmares. The only nightmares I have that are music related are like, either has to do with my lungs or my teeth. Like the teeth disappearing or some sort of lung thing, or a weird saxophone thing… But seeing it in real time, “it’s a virus you don’t know when you’re going to catch.” So just trying to release that and try to have some better understanding of this acceptance that is being forced on a lot of us. Like okay, I don’t want to go like that, but if I’m going to go, I’m going to go… 

Moor Mother: But like you said on the flipside this has returned to health. To really thinking about it, be like “oooh my lungs, I really need those!”. Just thinking about our bodies in this kind of ways and trying to do better for our bodies. I think that’s something that has come good about it just realizing how, and not to say this to be extra, but how gross a lot of things are. Just thinking more about the cleanliness of stuff. I mean I will always ask someone at the airport like “excuse me, can you give me a couple of feet”. I always want the extra space. I was already there. Now, I’m just quicker to be like, “move”. So, just also want to keep my cool not to be watching people. But you have to, to take better care of yourself.

Matana Roberts: Yeah, it’s the “your health is your wealth” sort of old-school scenario that I grew up around it’s just interesting to be like “yeah, they’re right.” 

Moor Mother: Right, it’s grown back into that.

Matana Roberts: So, I don’t know. There’s still a lot that’s not being noticed or taken care of. There’s a lot of suffering. 100 years later we look at this time I just wonder what they’re going to say. How are they going to really write this one out? This is like a bad science-fiction novel that no one wanted to read. It’s so boring! Like a virus, okay, people have to wear some masks, thousands of people are going to die. Where are my aliens? I’d rather deal with that.

Moor Mother: So true. 

Matana Roberts is one of the curators of Le Guess Who? festival’s 2021 edition, between 9-11 November. 

This interview is originally published in Turkish in Bant Mag. No: 74, our special music issue.