Hanif Abdurraqib is a writer of words, observer of worlds. He’s a poet, essayist, cultural critic. I remember reading some of his articles on pop music – and liking them, but things really came alive for me with the release of his second book, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, a selection of essays.
And instantly I was back to check out his debut full-length volume of poems (released in 2016). The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is great. His poems have catchy titles like The Ghost of Marvin Gaye Sits In The Ruins of The Old Livingston Flea Market and Considers Monogamy.
And he loves music. Music is all through his poetry – the musicality of the way he uses language, the rhythm of the words, the rhythm in the layout, but also music as subject. Music, too, as background subject. Check out The Summer A Tribe Called Quest Broke Up (and you can actually hear him reading the poem if you click that link).
So, okay, I was totally on board by now. A poet that mentions music, that writes about the connection to music and the way that music informs our other decisions and influences our relationships, or at least is the trigger for memories of certain relationship with key people, or key moments with certain people. And then, when he wasn’t writing poetry like Ode to Kanye West In Two Parts, Ending In A Chain of Mothers Rising From The River he was penning essays about Bruce Springsteen and Nina Simone and Prince.
I am in. I’m all in…give me his content!
Hanif Abdurraqib definitely influenced how I started to stretch out some of my titles and some of the ways I wrote about music in my poems. He was a big influence on the shaping of The Death of Music Journalism.
And then his third book arrived, 2019 saw his love of A Tribe Called Quest extend beyond a title of a poem to an entire book about the band. I’ve got a copy of Go Ahead In the Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest and I’m still yet to read it. But just writing these words has me moving it to the top of the pile.
I recently finished his latest collection of poems – more brilliance, more pop-cultural references as the universal touchstones within his specific, personal stories.
A Little Devil In America: In Praise of Black Performance is his latest. I’m about to start it. To read his take on how black artists have shaped and been shaped by America will be to rise above any cliché, to dig very deep, to be moved by the skilful interpolation of his own story and lived experience with an examination of black genius through the modern ages. I’m already planning a little reading-party for myself when that book drops this time next week.
As if all of this wasn’t enough – Hanif is also the curator and host of the most recent season of the Lost Notes podcast. Across seven episodes the year is 1980. The subjects are Grace Jones and Stevie Wonder, The Sugarhill Gang and Ian Curtis, John Lennon and Minnie Riperton, Hugh Masekela & Miriam Makeba. These episodes are all brilliant. Even if you don’t know the work of some of those people, even if you don’t think you like the genre they’re associated with, Abdurraqib will pull you in. I devoured this podcast series over the Christmas break. Expert Level Storytelling. (And great, great music). It was meant to last me for my holiday, before Christmas Eve I was done and thinking about starting it all over again. Rich stories passionately and beautifully told.
This is true of his work on the printed page. This is true of his work when he reads it for the stage.
Here is his tribute to Bill Withers from The New York Times. Just because I want to share a couple more links.
And finally a link to his website where you can read more about him and more of his work.