Conversations with Contributors: Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, was named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award and was nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was named a book of 2017 by BuzzFeed, Esquire, NPR, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Pitchfork among others. His most recent book is Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.


The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Marcus Clayton: How has the reaction to the release for Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest been?

Hanif Abdurraqib: It’s been good! Or, at least, it’s felt really great. People have been really warm and I really value and appreciate that. But also, you know, this is my third book and the release—every time—feels a little different. It remains exciting, but I am so much more focused on, “how do I effectively get back to the work?” It feels like the thing I’m always asking is, “how can I revel in this, but stay focused on what might be next?” People have been really supportive in that, too. It’s easier this time because I have a poetry book coming out in November and my excitement for that is very-very-very high.

MC: I actually want to start with that: you have a couple of books coming out, right? A poetry book, and another project focused on black performance, correct?

HA: Correct, yeah! Th[e black performance book] doesn’t come out until late next year, but the poetry book comes out in November with Tin House, and I am more excited for that book than I’ve ever been for any book I’ve put out in my life so far.

MC: Really?!

HA: Yeah, because it feels like this book is the book that….Well, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much was my first poetry book, and I don’t necessarily feel like that book represents the poet that I thought I could become, but the poet I was at the time. And Vintage Sadness was a little chapbook I put out with Big Lucks and that was very much a bridge to this project, which really feels like I’m settling into being a poet that I am going to be—but I also have moments where I think this could be the last book of poems I write. Which doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing poems, but I don’t know if I’ll write another book of poems again. Which, you know, that is something that is vague and actually doesn’t mean anything. I said that after I finished The Crown Ain’t Worth Much. My whole thing after The Crown Ain’t Worth Much was that I could not imagine myself writing another book of poems, and then I did. So I think that’s just the feeling I get when I finish a book.

MC: How does this new poetry book differ from The Crown Ain’t Worth Much? Is there a through-line in terms of theme?

HA: This book is more interior and emotionally aware. I think the faux in The Crown Ain’t Worth Much was institutional and large and looming. It was gentrification and institutional racism and racialized violence. [The book] was also written in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, and I literally wrote one of those poems while descending on a plane into Ferguson and I wrote some of the poems while watching live streams of the Baltimore uprising, and all of that. So the poems reflected the emotional moments I was in. This [new] book is attempting to unravel an emotional upheaval and learning to trust myself and allow myself to feel what I want to feel. In short, I went through a pretty large break up—and I think traditionally, men making break up art is not very useful, right? It often feels like there’s a viciousness in the targeting of a person who hurt them who also doesn’t have the platform to respond. And I really wanted to avoid that. I wanted to make a book where I was interested largely in unraveling my own reactions to heartbreak and how that echoed through the world I was living in. The problem with that is this is the second iteration of the project. I thought it was going to be a heartbreak book about the looming specter of pain and the emotional condition. But halfway through working on it, I hit a different point. I moved home to Columbus, Ohio, and re-fell in love with the city and my friends. Beyond that, I entered a new relationship and developed a new appreciation for sacrifice since the first year was a long-distance relationship. So the book just began to take a different shape. It dawned on me that there was not a lot of usefulness on my ruminating only on heartbreak and not also ruminating on the possibilities of what exists after or beyond. I’m an emotional person. It’s not a surprise to anyone who’s read my work. But I’m obviously also a political person and those two things are not mutually exclusive. So I wanted to really roll around in the politics of emotion and the politics of feeling in this book because I think that is the poet I am. That is what has always drawn me to poetry.

MC: That’s really cool to hear. And you keep referring to yourself as a poet, which is obvious from your work. Even reading Go Ahead in the Rain, there are a lot of passages in there that—even though it’s prose—have a very lyrical quality about them. When you write material or a full book—and I know every writer has a very different answer to this—how do you know topics like “politics” or “heartbreak” will be a set of poems, versus a collection of essays or a general fiction piece? How do you know, if you know, when to write what genre?

HA: I don’t! And I think that’s good. I think it’s healthy, for me at least, to come to the page not knowing what I’m trying to wrestle out of myself or what I’m trying to wrestle out of the work. That kind of uncertainty is how I find and re-find things around experimentation and things around the multiple possibilities of language. I’m not necessarily—and I’ve said this before, but I really stick to it—I’m not really governed by genre. I’m governed by everything else other than genre. Genre is the end result of my own searching, and I don’t search with genre as the light. Genre is the end. Genre is what the light leads me to. The light itself is whatever I’m wrestling with. But I will say—as to not be entirely whimsical—that my desires first rest with poetic language and seeing what the idea of poetic language can do. So, even in my short draft forms, I’m thinking of poems first, then editing outward in a larger way.

MC: So when you were creating Go Ahead in the Rain—and I can imagine this could only be a nonfiction, reflective piece—how did you feel about writing this as a whole? It is a very niche project. It’s up my alley, considering I love your work and love A Tribe Called Quest, but how did you know, or did you have hopes that, it would hit a wider literary audience? Or did you assume it would only gain the attention of Tribe fans?

HA: Oh…I…well…[Laughs]. I’m a bad person to ask this particular question because with every single book I’ve written, I’ve always thought, “only a small amount of people are going to read it.” With The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, my whole thing was, “Well, if people in Columbus read this, it’ll be nice.” The book is so much about Columbus, so I was very much thinking, “If some folks on the East side of Columbus, where I grew up, read this book, I’ll feel fine.” With They Can’t Kill Us [Until They Kill Us], I was kinda like, “If a few music nerds read this, I’ll feel good.” So with this book, I think you’re right. I was writing it not knowing what to expect, but imagining, “If a few A Tribe Called Quest stumble upon this thing, I’ll feel great about it. I’ll feel like I did a service.” The whole concept of the book was to honor the music I grew up with, to write about the music I grew up with with reverence because I wasn’t seeing that everywhere. And to imagine a world where the music of young people is taken seriously. As a music fan, and a young music writer, I grew up with so many older critics telling me what I had to listen to first before I could earn the right to love what I love. I had to listen to the classics, to the Beatles, all these things that we still hear people telling young folks today. It goes without saying: the canon is bullshit. Every iteration of the canon. Literary canon, the American musical canon. The American canon and all that it consumes and asks of people. It’s all bullshit. Which isn’t to say I don’t like The Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band] is a great album. Whatever. I don’t revere The Beatles like I revere A Tribe Called Quest. I don’t desire to build an altar to the Beatles the way I desire to build an altar to De La Soul or Fall Out Boy or these other bands that were instrumental in my life. Instrumental, guiding lights for me. Bands I latched onto when I had nothing else. That is more important to me than some historical concept of greatness passed down by someone who maybe does not have my best interests in mind, but just wants to project their passions onto me. So I wanted to write a book that felt generous in that way, where I’m not just trying to tell people what they should like; I’m trying to give people a window into how a band changed my life and give them permission to explore whatever music has changed their own.

MC: I totally agree with that. I remember when I was in middle school, a lot of my friends were very much into classic rock and would tell me, “You have to listen Led Zeppelin and only Led Zeppelin!” Or the Eagles, or whatever. A lot of the music I listen to now came out around the time I was in middle school, being told only Led Zeppelin was good, so I almost feel like I missed out on a lot because I was forced to listen to the canon of what was revered at the time.

HA: Yeah!

MC: But I don’t hate Led Zeppelin!

HA: [Laughs] What’s your favorite Zeppelin record? Do you have one?

MC: Probably [Led Zeppelin] II.

HA: You know, I like [Led Zeppelin] IV, but Zeppelin was another one of those bands I was told I had to listen to. And I think revisiting them as I got older, and restructuring my relationship with them, felt really important.

MC: I completely agree! [Continuing with Go Ahead in the Rain], this is a very thorough book! I learned a lot about A Tribe Called Quest, but I was curious about the information. How massive was the research? Did you reach out to Tribe themselves, or people that knew them? How did you gather all of this information?

HA: Oh, just through hard research. We did have to talk to Cheryl Boyce Taylor because we used some of her language in the book—she’s a phenomenal poet—but largely it was tracking old videos, old interviews, old magazines. A thing I always talk about is that a big part of my research work for this book was just to confirm that I’ve lived and experienced the things I’ve experienced. I write about Chi-Ali’s freestyle on Yo! MTV Raps and I remember that. I remember being young and sitting in my basement past my bedtime, sitting on the floor when my older brothers were watching Yo! MTV Raps and listening for my parents upstairs to see if they were awake and if they were going to come downstairs and collect me, and listening to Chi-Ali with the other ear. I have such a tactile memory of that, but there’s something very rewarding in being able to type “Chi-Ali freestyle Yo! MTV Raps” into the YouTube search bar and have that video return to you. For me, it was confirming this idea that I had lived and felt these things. To revisit that Tribe Source magazine cover was to feel it in my hands again and have those feelings rush back. So research in this book was kind of like an emotional confirmation, or a confirmation of a history that I had with this group. So that was really rewarding.

MC: When I was reading it—considering this book came out in 2019 at the tail end of the decade of “Google Searching” and “YouTubing”—every now and again I would get to a part in the book that was visual, and I’d put the book down and Google, for example, Yo! MTV Raps and watch [A Tribe Called Quest member] Phife Dawg walk ahead of Q-Tip in extreme discomfort. This was especially true in the Source Awards chapter, wherein you wrote about things breaking down during the ’95 show, and there was a quote from Snoop Dogg: he asked the crowd, “You don’t love Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre?” From what I know of him now, I imagined him being really laid back while saying it, but Googling the incident, he looked so…angry.

HA: People don’t remember that Snoop Dogg, right? Snoop Dogg’s become a mascot of his own self and become this kind of caricature of an old dude who loves weed. But the thing about that Source Awards—people always frame that Source Awards as the thing that ignited the East Coast/West Coast beef. Which, sure, but people don’t remember OutKast. People don’t remember the anger in Andre 3000. I don’t know if you watched that clip where Andre 3000 and Big Boi go up there and say, “The South got something to say, and that’s all I gotta say,” and that’s it. These were young artists who—and I think about OutKast in particular—who had this incredible anger. They were these young, genre-pushing artists who felt overlooked by this coastal establishment. They felt particularly overlooked by what, I imagine, they might have thought as petty—these petty arguments between these grown folks when they just wanted to make records. And they made a groundbreaking record. So yeah, that Source Awards chapter, I wish I had gone even deeper. There could be a whole book written about the ’95 Source Awards, and not just the awards but the way the aftermath of those awards rippled out and echoed for years and years ad years. It’s unique.

MC: Did you feel much of that East Coast/West Coast tension when growing up and listening to hip hop, considering where you’re from? I’m from L.A. and could feel those tensions of West Coast loyalty even when I was eight years old. If we didn’t listen to Tupac or Death Row records religiously, we were “traitors.”

HA: Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, I felt very much on the outside of the East Coast/West Coast thing. I’ve talked to friends who are hip hop heads who grew up in proximity to the West Coast or the East coast and they felt very much centered or embroiled in it. I very much felt like a spectator on the very outside of the ring watching it all go down because it was mostly translated to me through magazine covers or by MTV news clips. And no one around me was asked to choose a side. I grew up in a housed with a lot of East Coasters—a lot of my immediate family is from New York—so we listened to a lot of East Coast shit in the house. Part of that was simply because, in the Midwest, there was no way to translate West Coast rap visually or aesthetically for us. And if you cannot translate the lifestyle music is talking about aesthetically, it’s hard to grasp onto it. Like, motherfuckers can’t put Dayton [rims] on a car in Ohio! No one had drop top Impalas and shit like that because it’s motherfuckin’ raining all the time. [Laughs] You can’t put Dayton’s on a car because those will rust out in a week, you know. So it was hard to capture the aesthetics, especially when we’re talking about West Coast and the Death Row rise. In the summertime, sure, perhaps. But beyond that, it was hard when the East Coast aesthetic was so much easier to capture for people in my particular corner of the Midwest. So we felt perhaps more beholden to East Coast rap, but that doesn’t mean I picked a side, though. I have a hard time listening to both Tupac and Biggie now for various reasons, but growing up I remembered being more enamored and curious about Biggie, who, for me, seemed very committed to a brand of storytelling that was very unique and in the vain of Slick Rick, who I grew up loving.

MC: Slightly darker question…

HA: Darker question! Yes!

MC: One of the most striking chapters in the book was about the Source Magazine cover revealing Tribe’s break-up, and your connections to Emmett Till and Otis Redding’s death images in Jet Magazine was an incredible piece of writing. When you were writing that particular part, did you have in mind to connect the cover to the two events, or did the events remind you of the Source cover? How do you make these connections?

HA: Well, I don’t want to give away my secrets…I’m joking, this is not a secret. [Laughs] When I sit down to write, the thing at the forefront is, I have to somehow write about A Tribe Called Quest on the cover of Source Magazine. That’s the centerpiece, but I don’t sit down to write with that centerpiece in mind. In some ways, I set that aside and try to connect as many other threads that interest me and then see if I can somehow wiggle that centerpiece in there and make it fit seamlessly. It’s like making a puzzle, but hiding one piece until the very end. Keeping one piece in the box, and you know where it is, and you know you have to get back to it to complete this whole thing, but building around it. So, more than A Tribe Called Quest on the cover of Source Magazine, I was thinking pretty vigorously about the presence of blackness on display as entertainment or blackness on display as a type of mourning. Images of black people mourning, or images that push black people to mourn, are so prevalent in American society. And they’re used in such ways that make sense to me, you know? Mamie Till didn’t open up Emmett’s casket for her grief. She was trying to show America something. Yes, I’m sure that aided in her grief, but she opened up that casket so she could show American what was done to her child. It’s an old adage of, “If we show the violent what their violence has done, does that dull the blade?” It doesn’t seem to—in all of American history, it does not seem to—but I get the impulse. Obviously these things are not on equal levels—Mamie Till opening Emmett Till’s casket is not the same [as the Source cover]—but it devolves. I thought of linking that to Otis Redding’s body on the cover of Jet Magazine, then the living body of A Tribe Called Quest declaring themselves finished on the cover of another magazine. All these things are different modes of presentation offering different modes of grief. And the Otis Redding thing is so haunting. It’s, like, fucked up. It’s something I can’t imagine now. Could you imagine any magazine putting the dead body of a pop star on the cover? It’s just…wild.

MC: I didn’t even know that’s how [Otis Redding] passed away, either!

HA: Yeah. The story of the Otis Redding plane crash fascinates me—not necessarily because of Otis Redding, but because of Ben Cauley, who was the sole survivor of the plane crash and who lived until 2015. Up until his death he wrote about having nightmares or how he couldn’t sleep because he still heard the screams of his friends drowning. There are no words to really impart how daunting and devastating this is, but I cannot imagine floating on the surface of water and having to watch all of your friends slowly drown knowing you can’t save them. He couldn’t swim, so he couldn’t save them. He had to sit there and float on a plane’s cushion while all his friends drowned. I couldn’t imagine having a life after that. It’s haunting. But yeah, I think about Ben Cauley all of the time. All of the time.

MC: It really is hard to fathom living for almost 40 years with that kind of survivor’s guilt.

HA: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

MC: Trying to shift gears towards a couple of positives before we wrap up, one aspect I thought really came through in this book was the “love letter” portion of the reading. Whenever you wrote toward a person, it made the writing that much more personal. Little things like saying, “Hey, Tip,” adds another layer to this book that was appreciated.

HA: Yeah, it’s somewhat foolish in it’s familiarity. [Laughs] But I did want to break the, whatever, wall? Third wall? Fourth? I wanted to break down the distance between Q-Tip and me. [Laughs]

MC: Well, surfing Twitter, [I found out] he read your book, didn’t he? Or at least is aware of it?

HA: Yeah! He read it and said a very nice thing, and I was thankful for that. You know, I think I was very anxious about him because he notoriously does not like a lot and I just assumed he would not enjoy the book. But yeah, I was very hyped that he responded to it so positively.

MC: Well, it’s a great book all around, so it’s easy to imagine he had positive things to say! Speaking of all around, the cover is very interesting. It’s a play on both The Black Keys and Howlin’ Wolf. Any connection to the contents and the cover, or was it a simple aesthetic choice?

HA: Yeah, it was an aesthetic choice. I’ve had wolves on both my other book covers and had very much wanted a wolf on all of my book covers, or at least this book cover. But University of Texas Press said, “There’s no way to get a wolf on the cover that makes sense since this is about A Tribe Called Quest.” I love that Howlin’ Wolf album cover [for The Howlin’ Wolf Album] so much, and I love how The Black Keys paid homage to it [on Brothers] and I love how they built an entire aesthetic around that, so that was my way of getting a wolf on the cover.


Marcus Clayton

Marcus Clayton is an Afro-Latino writer who grew up in South Gate, CA, and holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from CSU Long Beach. He is an executive editor for Indicia Literary Journal, taught English Composition at various colleges in Los Angeles, and will be starting a PhD program in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California in fall 2019. Some of his published work can be seen in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Spry Literary Journal, forthcoming in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and DUM DUM Zine among many others.

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