Visionary Musicians Seek Truths for the Future in a Spiritual Past

Camae Ayewa leaned into her microphone closely and uttered evocative, devastating, prophetic poetry as video of a raging fireball was projected behind her.

The electronic soundscape coming from her laptop built to a series of shrill, greasy explosions, and Ms. Ayewa — who performs under the name Moor Mother — addressed the audience in a stern voice. “We want our realities back,” she seethed. “We want our futures back.”

Later, adopting a rap cadence, she chanted: “I just want to make it clear — revolution’s everywhere.”

This was 2017, at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and she was opening for the rock band A Place to Bury Strangers. Much of the audience seemed unready for the intensity of her set, but Ms. Ayewa leaned in, berating the crowd — not performatively, not playfully, but dead-serious — demanding that people engage. In the end, they had no choice.

Mr. Gay describes his work as a process of “dealing with folklore and history,” but also of forging ahead. “When you’re trying to find something, it is a search,” he said in an interview. “You’re thinking about the future already.”

He was raised in Chicago but found his musical voice while living in Brazil in the 2000s. “One important thing was when I was able to connect the samba man and the blues man,” he said.

Melanie Charles first experienced live music as a vessel of spiritual communion, too. The Brooklyn performer still lives in her childhood home, where her Haitian grandmother hosted prayer meetings that sent songs of praise throughout the house. “They would sing these Haitian hymns, man,” Ms. Charles recalled in a recent interview at a Bushwick cafe. “Loud and out of tune, and so beautiful.”

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