Meet Camae Defstar, The Philly Activist Channelling Her City’s Pain Through Music
With her music projects MMGz and Black Quantum Futurism, Defstar wants to open “a door to a dream.”
When Camae Defstar was a kid she would grab the broom in her Maryland home and pretend to be a musician, rocking out until the wood gave in. After getting her first acoustic guitar, she'd ask the kids in her neighborhood to “come make some punk shit” but only got confused looks in return. “I was always trying,” she remembers, speaking from her current home in North Philadelphia. That kid who wanted to rock was onto something—today Defstar is a poet, activist, and musician who gives voice to the unheard and imagines new futures for the descendants of slaves.
It all started in 2005 with the founding of the Mighty Paradocs, a few years after Defstar had moved to Philadelphia. A punk band born of an earlier duo with Rebecca Focus, Mighty Paradocs fused punk with hip-hop and a radical stance. The experience of Mighty Paradocs led Defstar and Focus to create ROCKERS! in 2007, an ongoing live music series and yearly festival in Philly that channels the political power of music—chosen acts “have to be saying something or trying to make their community stronger,” Defstar explains. It also acts as a genre-less showcase for alternative artists and marginalized voices: women, people of color, and the LGBT community. And then, three years ago, in December 2012, Defstar happened upon a different creative opportunity.
“The band took a lot of scheduling in order to get together and write new songs,” Defstar explains, “but electronic music was something you could set up in your house and just get ideas out.” Keen to harness her creative urges, Defstar created Moor Mother Goddess (MMGz), a solo project. From diverse sample sources—field recordings, speeches from activists and poets like Maya Angelou and Assata Shakur, and repurposed breakbeats—she fashions beats that straddle blues, punk, and hip-hop with whatever tools are available, be it an iPad app or a sampler. “I'm a product of my means,” she admits. “Whatever I’m able to use, it’s what I make music with.”
“There’s so much pain here in Philly, it’s hard not to express it.”—Camae Defstar on Moor Mother Goddess (MMGz)
MMGz's music is deliberately raw and unfiltered, like human feelings. A central focus of the project is history and memory. A substitute teacher, varsity basketball coach, and advocate for marginalized women during the day, Defstar also runs community workshops, including one where she invites people to visit spaces loaded with a history of violence or protest. “Places with true stories, neighborhoods with crazy sci-fi shit going down. We go there and I try to feel what has happened because it's still in that space, it doesn’t go away. And I create from that,” she explains. She also studies history, such as how people have made “music with nothing” through the ages. One particular interest is in the old chain gang songs of prisoners. “The music can be so rich,” she enthuses. “Like they have someone directing them in the dirt.”
The common link between Defstar's punk past and her electronic present is the need to voice the frustration she feels at the state of the world. The samples are “sad and angry,” the lyrics about being pissed off, the mood similar to the “old southern wails and cries” of her African Methodist background. “There's so much pain here in Philly, it's hard not to express it,” she tells me. “Or growing up in public housing in the sticks. Or the shit my family is going through. It’s the only thing I have to say right now.” Then she catches herself and adds, with a smile, “I like love too, and shit like that, but the frustration is what this music is about.”
“We focus on the quantum physics side of Afrofuturism to try and create a new practice, a new scientific theory. Like opening a door to dream.”—Camae Defstar on Black Quantum Futurism
In the summer of 2014, Defstar took yet another turn in her creative path, this time towards a more meditative approach. She met Rasheedah Phillips, creative director of The Afrofuturist Affair—a community project that celebrates black science fiction culture—and together they formed Black Quantum Futurism, an artistic and literary collaboration. Where MMGz can be sad and angry, BQF is thoughtful and restrained. The music is still heavy with samples but it's more defined, sitting somewhere between the bass-heavy beats of Los Angeles' Ras G and the electronic soundscapes of King Britt, one of Philly's most lauded modern producers and an early champion of Defstar. Against this backdrop, the words and ideas of Phillips, Defstar, and other thinkers interested in manipulating space-time narrate new possibilities. “We're into the idea of time traveling with sound,” she explains. “We focus on the quantum physics side of Afrofuturism to try and create a new practice, a new scientific theory. Like opening a door to dream.”
Black Quantum Futurism launched with a handbook in February 2015, combined with soundscapes by Defstar. A second volume is due in early 2016, this time dealing with “slave time from the Congo to the Carolinas” and the journeys involved. BQF installations are also scheduled for Chicago and New York City in the first half of the year. These act as a makeshift live show for the project by combining performance reading, sounds, and visual elements that relate to BQF's interest in manipulating time, such as mirrors which Defstar calls “a form of time travel.”
Having busied herself in the Philadelphia underground and communities for more than a decade, Defstar took her first trip to Europe this past October for a string of shows in the UK and The Netherlands, showcasing all the sides of her creativity. In Rotterdam, she joined King Britt at the Afrofuturism Now! festival, taking part in the premiere of Britt's new piece about police brutality, called “To Unprotect And Subserve.” Speaking over the phone, Britt recalled the first time he saw Defstar perform: “The intensity, passion, and truth she resonated blew me away. I've been a fan since. She's made me rethink my approach.” Regardless of genre, scene, or practice, it is Defstar's ability to speak truth to what she sees and feels that resonates loudest. During a performance at the Girls Rock! summer camp in Pittsburgh this past August, Defstar was interrupted by a young girl who spoke truth back to her: “You do this because you care!”