An interview with cheikh athj on their debut EP's vulnerable and tenacious take on Black queer liberation
Photos by Eva Wo
On their debut EP an offering, Philadelphia-based artist cheikh athj delivers a vulnerable and tenacious take on Black queer liberation under the name m|ghthaunt. Paying homage to some of the foremothers of the movement such as Marsha P Johnson, the project – an act of sankofa, self-produced conceptually, lyrically, and sonically over the last two years – mythologizes formative aspects of the artist’s personal history into songs that address a range of topics from consensual sex to deep space exploration and neighbors’ noise complaints. m|ghthaunt is an ongoing manifestation of cheikh athj’s ego, a mask through which the artist attempts to channel the divine.
m|ghthaunt exists despite our escapist attempts to mask our wounded souls out of fear of rejection. The cinematic sounds woven into the EP embellish the project’s emotional weight with every utterance of personal truths, hoisting into the foreground the artist’s hedonistic explorations. Opening track “it goes” holds an atmospheric quality that speaks to being haunted by a past self. On “apollo,” the haunting continues, now coming from a future self envisioning utopia.
If Missy Elliott and Timbaland had queer sonic love children, m|ghthaunt would be one of them. On “modulation” we witness how their production is organically built around the process of finalizing lyrics, with every shift in the tempo accentuated by a futuristic sound or poetic punchline. “queen boo” and “s.t.a.r. 8 (feat. boris gardiner)” loudly expound on the spiritual dimensions of the artist’s Black queer fem identity. The cover art follows along this thread, venerating two of the artist’s mothers, TaMara Laverne Woods and Oya, both of whom provide guidance for the artist from the spiritual realm.
Listening to this project triggers a laborious healing process, especially for Black queer folks who engage with it. Spirit will ask them to reconnect with their faith in a higher (deeper) power in order to move beyond the trauma their inner child experienced for the preservation of conservative religious values.
MARCELLINE MANDENG: What is m|ghthaunt’s story? Is there a significance behind the “|” instead of the “i”?
cheikh athj: Grieta is a state cracked in half by extractive terrestrial abuse. Hovering in the air is the Estates , and below it thuthaside. Only a gondola system bridges the smokey, unpassable fissure that separates the cities. cr|me, a dark nigga queer from thuthaside, misses the last gondola from the Estates one night and is pushed into the fissure by police forces. This is how m|ghthaunt is made: not a man but a wraith, come back to venerate a dark nigga queer turned too-soon ancestor. m|ghthaunt is manifested from cr|me’s only remnants, their internet avatar @boon.woods, by an organizing force called a potential church. This is the base of m|ghthaunt’s story.
cheikh is not m|ghthaunt. Haunty Booney is not m|ghthaunt. I am not m|ghthaunt. Though this work is real as my breath and I tend to be a sp00k-y nigga, these characters are fictive and I like to remind myself that. I’m trying to keep a certain balance, so I don’t get lost in the work I am creating. | is how I disidentify with my creation, an ongoing reminder to remember the distance between my creations and myself.
an offering is in essence the genesis of this mythical figure with the production serving as a musical score to the narrative. What were some lessons learned along the way that made it into this project?
Producing work authentic to what I sense, while challenging myself and those who will witness me, is a responsibility. I can devote two years of my life to an EP calling folks to center blackness, and black people will still not have clean water. Consent is essential. Conssential. Niggas were the first people on earth and in outer space. Gender swims a fluid stroke, is whole yet lithe as smoke. And just as deadly. Black ppl, black queers, black fems, black trans ppl, black m/others*, black children hold so much creative power. We live in one big haunted mansion. Darkness/blackness is the core of everything. Everything (and anything) comes from the dark/black.
How are you and m|ghthaunt similar or different? How did it influence your approach to writing vs production?
I’m learning to center the darkness, aware of its more than infinite potential. I understand the dark to be a place where fear is left to fester – a space made reservoir for a lot of really evil human shit. But I don’t understand the dark to be inherently evil. In confronting the evil of my humanity – shit, the evil that might BE my humanity –m|ghthaunt is what has come out of the darkness to me. In confronting my internalized fear of the darkness, with protections, m|ghthaunt comes forth. Here and now, there’s more similarity between my personal becoming and cr|me’s than m|ghthaunt and myself.
Thinking about my characters’ relationships to darkness influences my approach to the work. How often black people go missing by the light of day, by a bullet or trafficking/slavery or running away, has shown me that centering light is not the full scope of my work. As a dark being in a black body, solely centering light does not holistically honor eggun of mine who do not show up in light, who reach me through the dark. I’m transitioning to a different type of time when it comes to comprehending, navigating, and nourishing my relationship with darkness.
Who are some Black fem lyricist/writers that influenced you and what are some of their words that resonate on this project?
Octavia Butler is germane to this work. Reading how she talks about the fatal flaw of humanity being the pairing of intelligence and hierarchy in Lilith’s Brood reshaped my creative existence this last year, and how I receive artistic creation. That series, and the Earthseed religion, show me what happens when we center darkness.
Liital! Aby Ngana Diop’s work bears an urgency similar to hearing my eggun speak. She is a Senegalese ancestor, and her music gives ngewel: how we say in Wolof when a song is stuck in your head. She haunts, which is what I want my work to do.
I’m a COGIC girl at heart. I sang in the Sunshine Band at Faith Tabernacle until I was old enough to join the choir. My mother ushered me to my voice, raising me and my brother on a bit of Dorinda, heapings of CeCe, a lot of Yolanda, and the tongues of Keke. When I scored a devised thesis piece for a friend in 2016, I waded through the “Deep River” to meet Mahalia Jackson. At the time I was in a depression and couldn’t see why my voice mattered. Witnessing her sing over these ethereal ass strings helped remind me that divinity shows up in the black voice. She helped guide me back to my mother. “Deep river / My home is over Jordan.”
Beyond eggun, I create for the kids and the girls. I hope Chae Buttuh peeps this work and is like, “Ok nigga, where ya spaceship at?” “It’s that gon’ shake ya ass, you a freak / It’s that gon’ throw it up to the beat / It’s that drink in ya cup / Yeah shorty what’s up/Yeah shorty look good, on fleek.” I listen to “Cool Whip” off Chae’s recent release HoFi often. I’m listening to it as I type this. This song, and her music in general, leaves me feeling sugar scrubbed and moisturized in the hoe-liest of butters. Much like her name, Chae’s delivery is smooth, gold, and has no expiration date. At first I didn’t “get” the sound of HoFi, but having sat with the work I am reminded why it is important for black girls to be behind the mic. God bless black women for all the power they usher into this world. I could not be here without it.