If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The writer discusses his personal, political, and critical assessment of hip-hop’s golden age.
My introduction of Hanif Abdurraqib would be remiss without a warning: There are no casual Hanif Abdurraqib fans. His writing blends and bends the genres of poetry, essay and criticism—both musical and cultural. For outlets ranging from PEN American to The New Yorker to MTV, Abdurraqib writes about the camaraderie in fandom, infecting his readers with his devotion to his subjects; you can vicariously become an instant fan of Carly Rae Jepsen and Taking Back Sunday in the span of several pages, or feel the weight of the entire life of Marvin Gaye. But like any great artist, you have to see him live to feel the maximum impact of his voice. I first heard Abdurraqib at the Cave reading series a week after Trump’s inauguration, a time when promised horrors were turning into actual horrors. Halfway through his reading of the piece “Defiance, Ohio Is the Name of a Band,” I was ready to read anything this man would write. A week later I traveled with photographer Mitch Epstein to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota and witnessed what would be the waning days of the pipeline protest camps. Two of my faithful companions on that trip were his poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, and We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, A Tribe Called Quest’s final album. In his new book, Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (University of Texas Press), Abdurraqib has crafted a personal, political, and critical assessment of one of the most beloved groups of the so-called golden age of hip-hop.
Ryan Spencer You have a chapter towards the end of the book that is focused on the days immediately following the 2016 presidential election. You start by discussing Leonard Cohen, who passed away on November 7th, although none of us would learn about it until November 10th. The following day, A Tribe Called Quest released We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, followed by an SNL performance two days later, the first episode post-election, hosted by Dave Chappelle. That album and performance capture a moment of great catharsis, rage, and beauty, as well as undeniable loss as Phife Dawg’s passing was made raw all over again. You talk about sharing several Leonard Cohen poems at a reading you did then. What music or poetry did you gravitate to in that period?
Hanif Abdurraqib The thing about Leonard Cohen is that to me, he wasn’t a great poet. He was an eager and always-seeking writer, but I don’t know if poetry is the form that I most loved him in. That said, in the immediacy after learning of someone’s death, there is a way that looking upon their language asks for a type of mercy. Or, at least, the air that their words sit in feels different. Speaking of mercy, I suppose I do remember myself with Cohen’s The Book Of Mercy, and mulling over a line in “Poem 50” while sitting in a car outside of my pal’s house in Philly the morning Tribe’s album dropped:
“The heart is a rage of directions / but your name unifies the heart / and the world is lifted into its place.”
What a burden to place on a single name, or a single person, but that is what death does for the living—gives us new burdens to place on the people who aren’t here. Beyond that, though, I don’t remember much. I always think that I should have some guideline for survival from around that time, after the election. But, quite frankly, my personal life was falling to pieces at the same time as the country took another aggressive dive in an already stunning chorus of dives. I most remember that stretch of time being spent in my room, convincing myself to take the covers off of the bed and drag myself through another day. It’s not romantic, but survival—the bare bones and tactile details of it—isn’t always romantic. It’s the part of the movie people want to pull their eyes away from until they can get to the glorious ending.
RS Your writing about music, in this book as well as They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, along with the way in which you incorporate music into your poems in The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, does imbue an artist or a song or an album with great meaning; it uses music as a vessel for memory and emotion and deeply personal reflection and confession. The more specific you are in your writing about music, the more universal it becomes; everyone attaches their thoughts or feelings or memories to a song and that is part of the communal and cathartic nature of music. Is there a song or album or musical moment recently that has inspired you? Or is there a song right now that can handle the weight of our collective burden and desire?
HA Oh, absolutely. I think there’s kind of a consistent stream of these things, largely because I’m always interested in the revisiting of the already visited. I think as long as the world continues to move, I have a desire to go back and see if my listening has moved along with it or what I’m hearing differently in the work I have loved. I’m spending a lot of time with 1980’s-era Springsteen right now. I’m coming to terms with the fact that what we’re seeing is Springsteen getting more and more sparse, and speaking more and more clearly, because he’s trying to shape out his legacy. This, to me, means that there’s at least some awareness of his mortality. That’s a hard thing for me to come to terms with, since I have loved his music for so long, but I’m interested in what I can hear again in his work from the 1980s. When he wasn’t as young as he was when he started out, but certainly wasn’t as old and hardened as he got in the early aughts. There’s something about that time period and the intersection of wisdom and whimsy that I’m trying to find heart in.
RS The music of the 1990s had a very tactile quality to it, as did the music culture at the time. You eulogize that heavy click a cassette player makes as a tape reaches its conclusion, like an exclamation point or final percussive note at the end of the side of a tape, or having to spool a cassette with a pencil to repair it after a Walkman mishap. By touching the actual music, you are in some way a part of it. Beyond the music itself, we had music magazines, collected and dissected and pinned up on walls. How has your music consumption and relationship to it changed in the digital era?
HA Well, as much as I want to say that I have stayed committed to the physical act of pausing tapes and kicking needles across vinyl records, I have most of the shit I dig stored on my phone, and I play it most commonly on plane trips, when the ruckus of our shared living can be swallowed by noise-cancelling headphones. I think I most love the way sound can consume other sound. Sometimes I’ll play anything, just for those few moments when the headphones kick on and the world shifts. I make playlists and tell myself that it’s the same as the painstaking hours I spent recording radio to tape. It isn’t, of course.
What made those times special, for me, was the reward. Like with my affection for headphones now, the music back then was also secondary. To sit by a radio and wait for a song, YOUR song, is an experience like no other. To hear the first notes of it and rush to press record on a tape and then play it back over and over again. To know that your slow wait for a brief joy might pay off. I miss that. I miss holding The Source magazines and skipping straight to the reviews, which me and my pals would argue furiously over while on a bus to school. All of those things, though, built the world that I can comfortably enjoy music in now. All of that gave me a language for my musical desires, even if it’s all at my fingertips. Even if I sometimes take it for granted.
RS All I’ve wanted to listen to since starting your book is ’90s hip-hop. You talk about the Tribe song “The Hop,” which was always a favorite of mine on Beats, Rhymes, and Life. It was a classic J Dilla beat featuring a particularly fierce verse by Phife, in the middle of which he spits the word “faggot.” The venom of that word sticks out to me more now than it did in 1996. Tribe was, especially by comparison to many of their contemporaries, progressive—incorporating lyrics about the dangers of transmitting STDs (“Public Enemy”) and an indictment of date rape (“The Infamous Date Rape”) on 1991’s The Low End Theory. However, the track “Show Business” on The Low End Theory was originally a song called “Georgie Porgie,” a collaboration with Brand Nubian deemed so grossly homophobic that the label refused to release it.
Coincidentally, on the day I finished Go Ahead in The Rain, I saw the 1994 Marlon Riggs film Black is…Black Ain’t. The film is made in large part from Riggs’ hospital bed while he was being treated for AIDS, and he passed away before its completion. He addresses toxic masculinity and homophobia in the African American community at the time. I’m interested in how you separate the deplorable aspects of an artist’s output from the part of them that you love, as a fan, as well as a music critic? And how much of that is reliant on time and context?
HA A lot of it is reliant on time and context, and a lot of it is reliant on what those deplorable aspects are. I don’t think there’s a key that solves all things, and I don’t think that acknowledging the two truths of an artist is bad (i.e. “this person meant a lot to me once, but also did horrible things.”) But I’m also thinking a lot lately about the real value and worth of expressing the virtues of bad artists in an attempt to grant a type of permission to memory. I don’t really have as much of an interest in that anymore. Sure, I danced to R. Kelly songs at high school parties, but what does that have to do with the me now? Fuck R. Kelly, and I can say that without indicting myself as a sixteen-year-old, you know? To want to take homophobia, transphobia, abuse, sexism to task in all modes of popular culture, a person should have a personal stake in it, even if it means that their hands were once dirty. They should have been once, I suppose. This is America, and there is a real cost to consumption here. But that doesn’t mean that views aren’t allowed to shift, and that doesn’t mean that a part of you that enjoyed something long ago shouldn’t be able to stand on your own two feet and shout that shit down as you grow and evolve. There’s gotta be room for that.
RS Popular and political culture have become increasingly binary, which I don’t think necessarily reflects the reality of most people; like, no one is totally a saint or completely a monster. Hagiography is dangerous, but the opposite of that is also troublesome; to erase from our own memories or our collective memory as a society the cultural contributions of problematic artists, or discard the entire catalog of an artist because of the parts we take issue with can also be dangerous, especially depending on who is doing the erasure. Like you said, it depends on the offense, certainly. To me, it feels like we have become increasingly quick to damn and slow to forgive. I’m with you, I’m 100 percent for accountability. But do we need to leave room for redemption and real progress for the individual, and for the culture to grow and evolve as well? I’m curious about which artists or works you feel embody this duality that you referred to. Have you seen any narratives that display artistic redemption?
HA My first question, as always, is to ask who the “we” is here. Because, surely, there are situations where I (or others) absolutely do not need to leave room for some individuals to progress—or, at least, there doesn’t need to be a personal stake in that individual’s progress. There are some folks I’m not all that interested in providing room for, and that’s fine, because surely someone else will. A real part of that is that artists—particularly when they are men—are still so rarely actually facing material consequences for their work. There can’t be any accountability if there’s first no consequence, even if that consequence is a simple recognition of wrongdoing and then actions that push back against the wrongdoing.
I’m not ready to talk about forgiveness and redemption when there are still a lot of folks who have done harm, still comfortable in their field of work. I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but it’s important to remember that in a lot of these cases, forgiveness doesn’t rest on me. In the large scope of what I can or can’t do, I’m not in a position of power to take an artist’s career away. I’m one consumer who makes decisions on what I do or don’t consume based on a constantly shifting moral fabric that is, undoubtedly, flawed but trying.
I’m saying I have enough to weigh on my own, and unless I am personally harmed by an artist, the choice to forgive and redeem doesn’t rest on me. I sometimes think there’s too much weight put on this, from the standpoint of consumers. If I damn an artist and take them off my personal playlists, that choice doesn’t impact whatever institutional failings remain in place that allow for the faulty power dynamics that allow for the type of harm that might push me to move an artist off of my playlist, or whatever.
Liam Neeson admitted to seeking out a black person to kill in the name of revenge, and he got to go on Good Morning America literally less than twenty-four hours later to seek out redemption. If those are the cards on the table, me and a bunch of people not going to see his movie doesn’t rock the boat of redemption. He’s already gotten redemption in the wider American narrative. It has to be about personal stakes and the way a person votes with their consumption choices. That isn’t going to crumble the American desire for redemption, but it is something a person can cling to. It bears mentioning that I’m not particularly one to hover over people and tell them what they should or shouldn’t consume. Look, that’s everyone else’s business, and I have surely got enough on my plate. Like I said, I’m as flawed a consumer as anyone else, but these personal choices have value, if not always power.
RS And lastly, I have to ask: Favorite Tribe song?
HA Definitely “Busta’s Lament.”
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.