The Black Performance of Literary Quiet: A Conversation with Hanif Abdurraqib




WITHIN MINUTES of Hanif Abdurraqib’s birth, his father whispered an Islamic call to prayer into his right ear. This might explain the role of ritual and wisdom in his writing. For a decade, Hanif Abdurraqib has been stretching Black intellectual curiosity into new shapes and forms. And for that, he’s special — special because his work is grounded in intuition and a set of tools that a university didn’t provide. Though he obtained a BA degree in marketing, his credentials are shaped by a life outside academic institutions that enshrine white literary canons and, in the process, push many writers of color away from a life of writing. In an interview on the podcast On Being, Hanif explains to Pádraig Ó Tuama how his approach to the page moves beyond traditional notions of craft and form. He has no “‘formal training’ in writing,” he says. “[M]ost of my relationship with language was just hearing how my people spoke, growing up, which for me was something that connected me to an emotional understanding of the world that, in a way, was detached from language entirely and attached more to sound and tone…” This informal training was an asset to Butler University, who, in 2018, invited Hanif to teach in their MFA program as a “Visiting Poet.”

The youngest of four, Hanif recalls hearing music coming from every direction in his house, from the basement to the top floor. He grew up with the understanding that there was always room for multiple styles of music, and was surrounded by lyrics, rhythms, and movement across time, space, and generations. Yet to understand his work, one must also consider the amount of time he spent, as a youth in the Midwest during the 1990s, in the private act of listening to music on his headphones. And here’s the thing: race and place matter. Hanif is a dark-skinned Ohioan man. He grew up Muslim in a majority Black Columbus neighborhood while learning to play jazz on a trumpet, against the advice of a white teacher who told him his lips were too big. His prose is colored by Black geographies, a voracious reading practice, and lasting encounters with whiteness — all of which contribute to his compelling gift for storytelling.

I can’t read Hanif Abdurraqib if I’m in the middle of a piece of my own. His writing is annoyingly perfect like that, captivating and confident with intimidating ease. He “chops and screws” language in a way that grants the rest of us permission to form unique systems of poetic witnessing. He is a cultural witness and a trenchant poet. He plays with memories and reconfigures grief in such a way that those who follow his work get swept away in the emotional landscapes he builds — landscapes that complicate the limitations of category. This borderless writing style is key to his growing presence as a public intellectual, and to the expansive body of work he’s built since the first anthology of poetry he edited, Again I Wait for This to Pull Apart (Freezerway Press, 2015). Hanif is the author of three books of poetry — The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (Button Poetry, 2016), Vintage Sadness (Big Lucks, 2017), and A Fortune for Your Disaster (Tin House, 2019) — and three nonfiction books: They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017), Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (University of Texas Press, 2019), and A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Random House, 2021). He is prolific and, though still under the age of 40, stands poised to build a voluminous body of interdisciplinary work in the spirit of giants like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin.

When the pandemic struck, I browsed through my library for books that could hold me steady through the global folding; I reached for Hanif Abdurraqib again. I needed to slip into other worlds, make space for uncertainty, and prepare for what could have been our last days. At the very least, they were the last days of normalcy, of a life we could take for granted. According to the reggae gospel, Jamaican roots rockers and Rastas, pulling from the Bible, might describe the last year with images that conjure the Book of Revelation. And though I’m not Christian, I firmly believe that Babylon is falling, and I believe my grandmother’s warnings about the end of the world to be a kind of Black church epistemology. So, the “good book” I reached for was They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. In my initial reading of that collection, I had to negotiate my time, in order to figure out ways to consume as many stories as possible. But here’s what happens — he pulls you in. Starts in one direction, then shifts course to make an obscure but somehow relevant point, and then returns to the first sentence, which you thought had nothing to do with the second to last paragraph. When he begins to wind down with final thoughts and reflections, you realize that you’ve become invested in a pop group you’ve never heard of while pondering the pain of losing a mother and praying to Allah on a soccer field. Turns out it was an album review in the soft shape of a memoir.

Hanif Abdurraqib is who Amiri Baraka was thinking about when he called for Black writers to write about Black music at the height of the Black Arts Movement, citing the absence of social and cultural context in the jazz and rock criticism written by white journalists. Baraka was demanding a politics of care, and Hanif demonstrates the practice of care as an art form, one that extends beyond Black people. His essays have taken me to places I never thought possible and to albums I thought I never wanted to hear. And when he turns his lens on Black people, his writing invites anyone to share in this private collective experience. 

His quiet care is most evident in how he writes about women. I believe this to be related to his unmistakable connection to his late mother. He often travels back to the first song he remembers, “Pirate Jenny” by Nina Simone. In his essay “Nina Simone Was Very Black,” he celebrates the singer as the formidable character she was without allowing her pain to become the center of her legacy. Instead, he offers her the gift of complexity. I know Nina’s story well, and I held on to each word in the essay, understanding the protection they carried. It’s the same protection that Nikki Giovanni’s words carried when she wrote “A Poem for Aretha,” reminding us to consider the demands of Aretha Franklin’s life on and off the stage. In his essay on Nina, Hanif responds as though honoring the sacred duty of writing her eulogy:

It is easy to be black and non-confrontational if nothing is on fire, and so it has never been easy to be black and non-confrontational. The silence may reward you briefly, but it always comes at the risk of something greater: your safety, your family, how the world sets its eyes upon you, and everyone you love. When you look like Nina Simone looked in the 1960s — dark, with an Afro piled high on your head — the confrontation will find you. It will inform your existence and the way you move through the world. Nina Simone sang songs of protest even when she wasn’t singing songs of protest. 

This is the critical tenderness Nina’s story deserves.

In thinking about Hanif’s soulful curation of disjointed histories, and his at times dizzying range, I can understand why, in 2017, the College of the Atlantic granted him an honorary degree in Human Ecology. His technique as a writer feels rooted in a pleasant cacophony of ideas. It comes to life in his New York Times best-selling second work of creative nonfiction, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest (2019). The book solidifies him not so much as a music writer as it does a literary musician.

Before reading his latest work, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, I was already pondering how Black folk have performed through the failed American Dream for centuries. In A Little Devil in America, Hanif walks readers through Black archives of dance, film, social struggle, and song as though these “intimate histories” of performance (as Saidiya Hartman calls them) could free us from anything that misses the beat. For this collection of essays, he does the work of a DJ: he digs through the crates, selects the most appropriately unexpected songs/topics/subjects, builds a collage between cuts and scratches, and presents his set. His books are soundscapes in print, and I was somehow listening to each sentence as if it were a breakbeat of personal narrative and socio-historical commentary.

Hanif is one of the most exciting writers of his generation. I had the chance to interview him and to ask about his world-building process and how it inspires both readers and writers to find joy in the most vulnerable human conditions.

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DJ LYNNÉE DENISE: How would you describe your literary work in sonic terms? In other words, what does your poetry and prose sound like when you read it to yourself or read it to an audience? Is there a genre, musician, instrument, or song that comes to mind that describes your writing?

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: I read my work to myself first, in my own editing process. I record myself and play it back. I don’t necessarily consider the voice as an instrument as much as I consider it a vehicle for instrumental language, and so I am constantly thinking over the ways to build out language in the same way a conductor might build out a body of music. Hard and heavy words, when run together, can create a type of percussion. I’ve started to give up on punctuation. I barely know how to use the shit correctly. But beyond that, there’s something about the pacing in my work that I love when I remove the constraints telling me when and where to pause. I came up listening to several things, sometimes hardcore music — fast, rattling, and loud. I love a piece of writing to feel like that. A clashing of the many instruments. Something that forces someone to grab the edge of their seat without even knowing that it’s happening.

Let’s talk about place. You’re a son of Ohio, and it shows up all over your work. Is there something in the water that you’ve been sipping on too? Toni Morrison, Ohio Players, Zapp and Roger, the Isley Brothers, Bootsy Collins, and the godmother of blues Mamie Smith! I even recently found out that Anita Baker was born in Toledo. Tell me about Ohio and why you’re still there.

Ohio has such a rich legacy of both musicians and writers (and astronauts, as it turns out). I think, often, of how many times I hear people (usually white) list off the greatest bands from Ohio. And how many times they don’t even register or think about Ohio’s rich funk music history. Unlike in some other places our folk migrated to, the Black folks in Ohio had houses with basements and attics. Places where music could be played to bodies eager to move. I love that funk was born, in part, out of Black people having literal space, and wanting something to do with it. I am thankful for Ohio — particularly Central Ohio — because of how eagerly it afforded me that same type of space as an artist in my earliest form. When I was writing and fucking up and locking myself away and then coming back out and writing again.

I used to read at basement shows. In attics, and in living rooms. I honed my reading style and my curiosities and my excitements in Ohio, where no one was checking for me except the people who loved me, regardless of what I could (or couldn’t) write. I have gotten a lot from Columbus. Some of it I have asked for, and a lot of it I haven’t. And I still love it here. And even the fact that I still love it here is a gift. Something that I am undoubtedly benefiting from. And so, I believe in an exchange. I don’t simply want to take. I live on stolen land, in a city named for a violent colonizer. One that has a Christopher Columbus statue towering over its downtown. I don’t want to add to a legacy of theft, even if the city has graciously given me so much. I want to open up whatever resources I’ve gained and give back to the city in ways that afford its artists/activists/most vulnerable folks an opportunity to find similar things to what I found, if they want them. I realized a long time ago that I can’t do that from afar.

Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest is a masterpiece — you take readers to so many unexpected places. How did you approach the research for this book?

The thing about research for me is that it is truly a gift. To look back on history and find some small part of yourself or your passions, or even something you once enjoyed. An act of excavation is, sometimes, a reminder that you have once lived and loved something. Along the way, there are new discoveries, sure. But the real pleasure for me is in confirmation of a past beyond myself and my lived experience. This book was exciting, particularly because I had, indeed, lived through so much of what I was writing about. But the real work came from reminding myself that I was not the first to uncover A Tribe Called Quest, and they were not the first to uncover themselves. That they were a set of hands linked with a long line of other hands, in each direction. And so, weaving into the story of rap is the story of percussion — people making music with their bodies when the drums were taken. Woven into the story of a group’s breakup is the story of old magazine covers and Otis Redding drowning in Lake Monona. So much of my task with this was to stretch a beloved story out so wide that everyone could find a place to enter it. Through grief, through pleasure, through a music video they vaguely remember, being sketched back to life.

What brought you to your latest book? What were you thinking as you were conceiving of A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance? And can you unpack the book’s title for us?

I’d written this long essay on Memphis. On Justin Timberlake, on Al Green, on Elvis. I was interested in the white artist as chameleon and how that, in a way, was the magic trick of white performance. Particularly in the pop realm. At the same time, I’d gotten real invested in stories of Black performers who made their way in the early 1900s or so. Magicians like Black Herman. I wanted to first write a book tracing the arc of the performance as a magic trick, but I had a hard time with this concept because the arc, as I had conceived it, still ended with whiteness. And the arc required so much writing on appropriation, or that which could be taken.

Toni Morrison passed away as I was thinking about reworking the book. Ms. Morrison is immensely important to me, as an editor, as a writer, as someone who had a vision for her people beyond pain. And she talked, so often, about how the imagination could flourish if whiteness was not centralized. And so, I took to the book again with that in mind. There is an essay in the book about playing spades with my friends, and some might argue that it doesn’t move much or that it isn’t revealing any large answer. But it was revelatory, to me, to honor this game — a game that has provided countless opportunities for my existing affections for my people to spill over. The book became more interesting when I thought of it this way. The glory of the Soul Train Line, the praise for Merry Clayton, the honoring of our dear Aretha. None of these people having to always be bridges to anywhere else but where they are, or where they were at their most luminescent.

The title is from Josephine Baker’s speech at the March on Washington in 1963. Her speech sometimes gets buried in the history of the march, but she was there, and she spoke. And among other things, she said: “Now I know that all you children don’t know who Josephine Baker is, but you ask Grandma and Grandpa and they will tell you. You know what they will say. ‘Why, she was a devil.’ And you know something … why, they are right. I was too. I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America too.” And this was Josephine at 57, back in America, wearing the uniform of the French Resistance. It isn’t the most memorable line of the speech for most people, I’d imagine. But it is the one that stuck with me. Because of who Josephine Baker was, and how committed she was to making trouble in the name of various liberations. I am so thankful for her, and her life.

I’ve noticed your use of the term “notes” in your titles, as in Go Ahead in the Rain and A Little Devil. Is there something to this that readers should understand?

I think, for me, the notes are the books. It’s something that I think reassures myself and others that I’m not an expert. I’m a curious person building out ideas as I go along, with varying degrees of success and varying degrees of fullness. In these pieces, like in most of my pieces, a lot of thoughts set out on a collision course, the address shifts in the middle of the piece. I write the way I speak, the way I think, the way I scribble down notes. There’s a type of ecstasy to it, like in the way our dear ancestor Richard Wayne Penniman would get into a groove and move somewhere beyond language, just a series of sounds that still made sense. With any luck, that’s what I’m going for.

UCLA professor Shana Redmond introduced me to a piece of writing by Toni Cade Bambara titled “Medley” (from Toni’s collection of short stories The Seabirds Are Still Alive). I had to put the book down several times, overcome by the beauty and the jazz in her writing. What Black women writers transform you and send you back to the proverbial womb? Is there a line or a sentence or a book that haunts you with its beauty?

My mother was a writer of fiction, and so she was the first writer I knew. And she surrounded herself with books of fiction by Black women. I was a fiction reader first, which is shocking only because my fiction reading practice is so poor now (though I’m working on it! I’ve had help eagerly diving into books by Brit Bennett, Angela Flournoy, Kaitlyn Greenidge, and others over the past two years). I’m a big Zora Neale Hurston disciple. Zora, I think, was speaking the language in her work that I heard my people speaking on porches, on basketball courts, on sidewalks. There was a permission that I didn’t know I needed until much later. Joan Morgan and Dream Hampton and Danyel Smith are the Black women critics I first loved and still return to — a departure from the way I saw and read critics talking at me, instead of to me or with me. Bebe Moore Campbell’s Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine was one of the first fiction books I recall loving, because of how it begins where many books would end: with a violent, racist murder. It spends the rest of its time unraveling the history attached to each person adjacent to that death, over decades. I read it once every two years or so. There are no words for how important Suzan Lori-Parks has been to my understanding of how vast and endless Black storytelling can be. How layered and complicated and difficult and rightfully messy. I could keep going, but I would like to shout out Octavia Butler, who has a line I love that serves as an epigraph in Fortune: “Drowning people / Sometimes die / Fighting their rescuers.”

Fred Moten once said that

improvisation corresponds to the necessity of paying attention to the history that we are and the history that we live. It’s what we do in the face of that history, it’s what we do when we make something out of nothing and it becomes both the method of our survival, but also the object of study for us as we try to understand our survival. […] [I]mprovisers prepare for the unforeseen. 

What role does improvisation play in your writing? How are you shaped by improvisation?

I will mostly say that I think to grow up poor is to gain a relationship with improvisation, perhaps especially if you grow up in a family that some would consider to be a large family. Where there are few groceries, a meal can emerge. To have that experience was a gift, or at least a reminder that I came from people who came from people who were used to making magic out of scarcity. Which isn’t just about food. It was also, for me (especially as a kid), about utilizing the imagination when some of the other trappings of American Childhood weren’t accessible. And so, my entire work practice goes back to that idea: me, as a young person, in my room and building a world better than the one I was given. And because I was the lone architect, anything was possible. That feels like a type of freedom that I hope to never let go of.

How has the pandemic changed your reading, writing, and listening practice? 

I think, most centrally, my relationship with linear time has changed. And that has impacted my practice, all around. Particularly in the cavern of winter. It got dark early, and the darkness lingered for hours. In the darkness, I feel most responsible for my brain, my heart, my immense feelings. I have to find a way to reconnect to things that make me understand that, though I might live alone, and though I might not see or touch or even hear another voice, I’m not entirely isolated from the world. All of this plays most heavily into my reading and listening practices. Maybe listening the most. I believe in listening as a community practice, even if that community is just myself and whatever a record has to offer. Mingus wrestling with Roach and Ellington on Money Jungle is as much of a conversation as anything else, and I’m simply bearing witness to it. Aretha and the Southern California Community Choir seeking each other out and then falling into a sonic embrace on “Amazing Grace” is a gift that I feel present for. I’ve taken to listening as a more physical, visceral experience, I think. I needed to make that adjustment just like any other adjustment I’ve made during this echoing and uncertain era.

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Born and raised in Los Angeles, DJ Lynnée Denise is an Amsterdam-based artist, scholar, and writer whose work reflects on underground cultural movements, the 1980s, migration studies, theories of escape, and electronic music of the African Diaspora. She is a 2020–2021 artist-in-residence at Stanford University and a lecturer for African American Studies at UCLA. Her current book project, Why Big Mama Matters, will be published in 2022 by the University of Texas Press. Her website is www.djlynneedenise.com.

 

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