Music as a Mirror: An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib

by    /  April 9, 2019  / Comments Off on Music as a Mirror: An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib visited City of Asylum in early February to read from his new book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, a collection of essays about A Tribe Called Quest’s rap legacy, the history and development of jazz, and Abdurraqib’s own relationship with music. Abdurraqib grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where he currently resides. He is the author of the poetry collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much and the essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which was named best book of 2017 by the Chicago Tribune, Stereogum, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. Abdurraqib is a former columnist for MTV News, and his writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Pitchfork, The Fader, and Two Dollar Radio. Last month, he spoke to Sampsonia Way over the telephone to talk about art in his life and the magic of live music.

I. Widening the Doors

So, to launch into this more generally, when did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?

That’s a tough question. I grew up writing because my mother was a writer, so I saw my mom taking on the work and decided that it seemed like fascinating work to me — it seemed like something I could see myself doing. I didn’t really take writing seriously until I was in my mid-twenties.

And once you started taking it seriously, was music and pop culture a large impetus for that?

Yeah, I knew I had access to a lot of knowledge about music. I was very excited about music. I was often attempting to find my way into conversations about music and popular culture and to have those conversations with people in public in ways that were exciting and unique. In some ways, writing was something I pursued just to widen the door to my interests.

What were your music influences growing up in Ohio? What was the local music scene like?

There was a great underground rap scene here, and there still is. I was somewhat involved in that and also very much involved in the punk and hardcore scenes in the Midwest, especially in my late teens and early twenties. Mainly in Ohio, like Columbus, Dayton, Cleveland, and Akron. But also in other corners of the Midwest. Detroit had a really great scene. Chicago, of course, was a cultural hub for a lot of punk and hardcore during the time I was coming into the scene. Being within a few hours driving distance of so many cities where I could see a live band, and for not a lot of money, was a really exciting thing.

In your books you talk about seeing artists perform live and your experiences of immersion at concerts. How does that experience of live music transform the relationship between music and writing for you?

I’m always very interested in what a live show does. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean the show itself — the music on the stage is something that I think is, of course, spectacular. But it’s also something that I think happens on stage several nights throughout a month or year or whatever. What I’m mostly invested in is the ecosystem or the geography of a room beyond the stage, where everyone’s emotional impulses are kind of linked by the thing that brought them there tonight — that idea that audiences could see something potentially magical and impossible, and what that does to a room, what that does to the people in a room, and how people share that and hold that space with each other, for better or for worse. To me, that is more interesting. The kind of tactile human nature of concerts. And I think that’s really valuable.

II. Realness in the Absence of Irony

I went to both of your readings at City of Asylum: the reading for high school students during the day and then the evening reading. I really admired how you interacted with the high school students. It seemed like you were more interested in having a candid conversation than a formal Q&A.  And seeing your posts about your travels and readings on social media, it seems like a lot of your readings are geared toward those adolescent audiences. Do you think this is because a lot of the music and pop culture writing harkens back to an appreciation for your own adolescent experiences with music?

I think so. And I’m also just really heartened by the lack of irony that exists when talking to young people about the things they’re passionate about. I’m very invested in breaking down the imagined, or sometimes very real or enforced hierarchy that exists when someone older speaks to someone younger, as if the only knowledge exchange comes when the older person is dispensing it to the younger people. To me, it’s a real exchange. It’s an exchange of ideas, and it’s an exchange of values, and concepts, and emotions, and it really comes to life for me when I’m able to sit with young people and talk to them about the things they’re passionate about. It allows me to leave those conversations looking at the world differently.

You tend to grapple with your own adolescent identity, and it’s no secret that we write off teenagers as being uninformed. And like you were saying, we kind of have this conception that it’s a one-sided relationship, in terms of information exchange. When you’re doing those readings, are you thinking about ways you can validate those opinions of young people, as opposed to kind of quieting them?

Absolutely. It comes naturally for me because I think that I am wholly interested in those ideas, right? I’m interested in young people who know that I’m not an authority on anything and are willing to push back on any understandings I share, so that we might better understand each other. It’s kind of easy for me to want to validate those ideas because I’m somewhat driven by them. I rely on them in some ways.

III. Navigating Memory and Mirrored Relationships

Do certain memories come back to you when you listen to artists from pivotal stages in your life? What is that process like for you?

I think that I’m listening to music so often that it kind of naturally attaches itself to either past memories or current experiences. So, I don’t really sit down to write, seeking something. I usually come to the page having already experienced that which carried itself to me. Music really allows for the arrival of memory in a way that doesn’t rely on me to search it out.

Pretty early on in Go Ahead In The Rain, when you’re describing the legacy of  A Tribe Called Quest, you write: “There is a type of mercy in this honoring: a long reach backward toward something magical, in hopes that an unspeakable distance, perhaps between a parent and a child, can slowly become closer.” What does music do for you in terms of forming those connections to family?

A Tribe Called Quest was important to me, specifically because the dynamic between Q-Tip and Phife was somewhat similar to the dynamic between myself and my brother, which I write about in the book. To project that onto a group allowed me to look at that relationship with more nuance.  It’s much like anything else where music is the mirror through which I view certain things in life and through that mirror I see things more clearly, more excitedly, and with more layers.

In the book you talk about crews, and how you think it’s important for artists to form a kind of group identity. How do you think hip hop groups create a kind of culture, coolness, or relatability through their group identity?

I think for me, having a crew meant not having to create a solo identity. Or it meant being able to tuck your solo identity underneath the layers of several identities with others, until your crew became one homogenous identity. I grew up in an era of rap groups and boy bands and watched something happen, where folks began to identify with and choose these members of the groups based on how much they related to them. And I was no different. I think about Phife in my writing and how much I related to him. He was an underdog type of figure, or definitely not as beloved as Q-Tip. But that allowed me to see part of myself in someone that people loved.

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