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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

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MAY 2021 Issue
Books In Conversation

Hanif Abdurraqib with Eric Farwell

Hanif Abdurraqib
A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance
(Random House, 2021)

I first came across the work of Hanif Abdurraqib when I needed it most. I had been reviewing books I found underwhelming or outright forgettable, and I missed so badly the magic of reading someone you feel both isn’t wasting your time and on your wavelength. A friend of mine express-mailed a copy of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (2017), and it relit the fire in me that loves criticism and cultural discussions. More importantly, it reminded me how great music was; and since music was the very first thing that had saved my life and set me on my path, it was more of a gift than I can articulate.

Every subsequent project Hanif has put out has been a favorite book of the year. Not only are the books raising the bar for what music or culture writing and memoir can be, but they’re also increasingly intimate. It takes incredible guts and generosity to trust a reader with yourself at your most vulnerable, when and especially if it’s prismed through tastes and cultural obsessions. When I found out Hanif had a book coming out this year, I arranged for an interview. Below is our conversation about place, identity, the relationship between audience and writer, music, and technique. I hope it inspires you, if you need that right now.

Eric Farwell (Rail): What are your days like?

Hanif Abdurraqib: My days are almost always long, but more so now, as I run my errands on Saturdays and try to kind of do nothing, which is actually harder than I'd like it to be. But I give it my best.

Rail: Is the doing nothing because you're working on a new project and you're trying to make the weekend the time to really devote to the project, or are you trying to actively really just do nothing?

Abdurraqib: Oh, I'm trying to actively do nothing. I mean, during the week is when I work, and I'm really good at trying to protect my weekends. That’s just the practice that I've picked up over the past few years. I also think even doing nothing can feel a little bit punishing when you are kind of restricted to the house in the way that I am.

Rail: Obviously Columbus [Ohio] means so much to you. It's where you grew up and it's where you returned to. I'm curious how you view Columbus in terms of your work. Is it something that you feel nurtures your work, or is it something that you feel like you're kind of rebelling against in some way, or ignoring in a way to do the best work you can?

Abdurraqib: Yes. I mean, I think living in a place I am familiar with, in a place I have a lot of affection for, and in a place that is complicated for me to love, all of those things kind of enhance my work. In some ways I feel like I'm in a constant wrestling match between affection and complication, and a desire to stay, to kind of be here and be here for, you know, a long time, a permanent time. All those things are propulsive for me. But what I think is most propulsive for me is simply a familiar and somewhat lovely geography that I know. I have spots where I drive to watch the sunset, which has been immensely healing for me in a time, in a moment where, you know, days really unfurl into other days without any signifiers of time. I know when to pop into the record store to get the new drops. These are propulsive to me. I'm someone who knows my work is upheld not because I'm particularly talented, because I don't think I'm especially talented, and not because I'm even especially driven or focused, or all that hard working. Despite what any output might suggest, I'm not that hard working. I think my work is upheld by a desire to do some level of justice to a place, and the people who have believed in me for a long time before I wrote anything. Not anything “worthwhile,” but anything at all.

Rail: Do you feel like that that's what's maybe keeping you to some extent there, because you mentioned earlier that, you know, there is this thing that maybe you fight at times, which is the desire to try somewhere else, relocate, whatever it might be.

Abdurraqib: Yeah. I mean, I'm probably never leaving. I don't feel an overwhelming desire to leave at all. I can't really never say never, obviously, but my intention in the past year, especially, has been to put down meaningful roots here, and to contribute to the community in lasting ways that will hopefully outlive my time here. Whenever it comes, be it by me leaving, or by my no longer living, I really want to be contributing to the community, and particularly the fight for Black liberation in the city, in the autonomy of the Black arts community, in ways that are much bigger than one person.

Rail: I know that you were in Connecticut for a little while. And I know that that's where you were assembling and expanding what you had because it was made up partly of pieces from Pitchfork, MTV News, and other outlets you've written for. Did you notice if there's a difference between what you were producing in Connecticut and what you're able to write in Columbus?

Abdurraqib: I don't know if the work changes itself, you know, because actually I wrote most of almost everything new in the first essay collection in like a two week stretch in Provincetown. But I think the way I approach the work is different. I'm a more comfortable writer in Columbus, which means that I meander a bit more. It is harder for me to capital “P” produce words on the page, but in some ways it's easier for me to produce work because in my comforts, I spend a lot of time in research, and I spend a lot of time going down pleasureful rabbit holes. I spent a lot of time soaking into understanding that I don't have to leave a place, you know, that I'm home. When I was in Connecticut for that stretch, I didn't feel like I was home. What that did for me was it unsettled me. It made me feel like I was always on the verge of exit, or always looking for a way out. And when I am not on the verge, when I'm not feeling like I'm looking for a way out, I have endless time to kind of sink into the work, which doesn't always equal putting words on the page. Sometimes it means watching hours and hours of archival footage and then putting that footage to use whenever I get back to the page. So I think I'm a more effective writer here.

Rail: You've kind of had this incredible run where in just about eight years, you've had all of these books one after the other, this incredibly successful podcast season, the new book, and then whatever's next. How long is it from the conception of a project to gestation?

Abdurraqib: I don't really sit down to write ever with the project in mind. I am sometimes kind of barreling towards a lot of different work at once, and then the project emerges. But I always sit down to write, just kind of picking away at, ticking away at curiosities, you know, picking away at some things I can't get off my mind, or some things that I am seemingly unintentionally overinvested in. And then through that picking, I realize, oh, well, I've got 10 poems that are maybe braiding together in a way that seems interesting. What are these about? Or I think, oh, wow, I've written 10,000 words about this idea. What's going on here? I'm very big on letting the work inform the work, letting it illuminate for me the path that it most wants to attempt to go on. And how this is helpful for me, too, is that it means I'm not beholden to the completion of something, or I'm not beholden to a single path. I mean, this new book and Fortune both changed halfway through and became very different books. I had freedom to do that. I felt real freedom in taking that detour because I was letting the work tell me what it needed, and I was letting the work define for me where I was going and where my head was going, instead of trying to continually force my way into following the path I started on just because it was the path I started on.

Rail: I remember when it was announced, before it became A Little Devil in America and had the focus that it did, the project was announced as They Don't Dance No Mo’, and it was going to be a history of minstrelsy. At what point did that shift for you?

Abdurraqib: When I was working on the book in its initial stages, it was draining for me in a way to find myself, by virtue of perhaps my approach, feeling not required, but drawn to center Black pain and the desires of whiteness. I don't think I could write about minstrelsy without centering the desires of whiteness in some way. And it dawned on me, particularly after Toni Morrison's passing, that the imagination of the book in my excitement could flourish in a newer and better way if I detach myself from centering those desires, and instead very purely chase after this idea of celebration. And when I started thinking about it as a book that celebrated performance, that meant for me that I could define performance in any way I wanted to. I could ask myself better questions about what it means to perform, and performing for whose benefit, and who can still get their roses, so to speak, and who is no longer here, but still should receive more roses. These were better questions to me. Another thing is in none of my work do I want to position myself as an expert on anything. I'm just, quite frankly, not. I'm not even an expert on myself, but I do think that it’s more exciting and more interesting for me to spend some time thinking about not expertise, but the pleasures of small moments that have a little world inside of them. And then the question is can I briefly become an expert on something in that world?

Rail: So then is that how you are deciding what to include in the book? Are you just following your proclivities and watching things break naturally, or, since the book does read historically in so many ways, is there deliberate choosing going on, where you're like, well, this moment seems to be really important in context to this era in this decade?

Abdurraqib: I think so much of it did the work for me. So many of these things kind of collapsed into each other on their own. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that my editor, Maya Millett (sp) who I sought out, sent me this really generous note when I sent her the first draft. At the core of the note was it's important to define early on who you imagine this book to be speaking to and who you want to feel excited by the movement of the book. Even though I didn't have a specific answer to that, I knew I wasn't speaking to … I knew I didn't want to have this be a book of explanation. I guess, for me, explanation would be a roadblock to pleasure. An explanation was a roadblock to my own excitement. I felt like a lot of times working on the writing of this, I had something in my palm. And I was like, I can't wait to show this to people. And I kept asking myself in the editing process, like, is this explanation just drawing out that excitement I have and hindering it? Because I have something I can't wait to show people, and I gotta get it to them soon.

Rail: The book really is this great celebration of these moments, and I completely understand why you wouldn't want to have to explain and why you'd want the book to be the way that it is. It is this incredible and beautiful celebration of obviously Blackness, not just in the performances you're choosing, or the moments you're choosing, but just in physicality. I'm curious if you noticed that this book really is of the body in a way that the last two essay collections haven't been.

Abdurraqib: Yeah, it's interesting. I don't know what has caused this shift. I mean, I should probably spend some time thinking about that, but I think I've gotten more interested in physical intimacy. I'm writing this “On Hoops” column for The Paris Review, and the first piece was all about the physical intimacy of one-onone basketball. I do think that I have gotten some investment in physical intimacy, whereas before I think my work was kind of orbiting ideas of touch, and ideas of intimacy, and longing. And I'm actually wondering, even though I wrote this book pre-pandemic, I do think now I see my work floating into that because I am personally in an era, and I know a lot of people I know and love are in an era, where touch is at a premium. So I do find myself ruminating on the physicality of intimacy, and intimacy as it appears physically, though not always in contact with another person. The piece in the book that really turned this book for me, shifted it in a different direction, was the dance marathon piece. That absolutely blew my mind. I didn't know about those until a homie of mine hit me up and was like, you know, “have you heard of these dance marathons? There used to be these Great Depression dance marathons.” And I was like, no, no, no. In the moment I was like, you know, I don't really think that's what I'm trying to do with the book. But he sent me this folder of photos and videos, and I was looking at those photos, and it blew my mind. I couldn't believe … I mean, it was just a part of history I didn't know about. It was interesting because initially I was like, “I want to write a book about Black folks performing. I don't know if I want to read about, you know, these white people with dance marathons.” But it was a window to me that opened up a better way to articulate what I was trying to articulate about Soul Train. Also, there was something about the physical nature of enduring that dance marathon that just really rewired my brain a bit.

Ever since then, I've been thinking about the physical limits of intimacy and how they vary depending on what act is being undertaken.

Rail: It’ll be interesting to see what emerges in terms of whether the physicality gets deeper, or if the work will be totally different because I think the pandemic is just impacting us in ways that we're not going to figure out until it's all over, you know?

Abdurraqib: Yeah, yeah. I don't think we're really going to know. One thing that's real for me is that I'm trying to also spend time and sit in the kind of gratitude of having finished the project because none of that's promised. And every time I sit down to write something it feels like it's not going to be possible, you know. I know that there were points working on this book that I really struggled with it. To be clear, too, writing this book was the most fun I've ever had. The pleasure that I got out of writing this book was so immense, and to sort of part with it and have it become a part of the world, while there is, of course, immense gratitude, there’s also a little bit of heartbreak, because I can only hope that I have this much fun writing a book again, but that's not promised

Rail: One thing that I really appreciated or noticed about the book was that it was a book totally of you in a way where you’re just peeling back the layers, letting things go, trusting yourself maybe in a newer way. I know you and I have kind of a unique thing in common in that we are both fans of Melissa Febos. And I know that you're really impressed, as am I, by the way that she uses the word “you” not as in “you” collectively, but as in “you the reader.” At times, I felt like you were also trying to hold the reader either accountable, or bring the reader along with you as you kind of traverse through the expanse of Black performance that you chose, and also your own kind of autobiography and where you fit it into all of this.

Abdurraqib: That specific aspect of Melissa’s work is a big influence on my own. She makes it very clear that there is a speaker and there is an audience. And so there's never this disembodied narrative. There's always something pulling the reader back. And I think she does that so well because the other parts of her work often allow for self indictment, which is not the same as punishment. I think that that is effective for her, in part because she's so good at clarifying between speaker, reader, listener. So that's something that I picked up from her that I thought would come in handy in this book, because, you know, part of me was like, I need people to know who I am speaking to, when I am speaking to them. And I need to have enough room and enough space to also speak to myself when myself needs to be spoken to. I wanted to use that trick, so to speak, to cover as much ground as possible and not let myself or anyone else off the hook. It’s also an honor to have this book releasing on the same day as Melissa’s new book.

Rail: When you're writing, obviously autobiography, your biography has always been part of it, where you're bringing your writing about yourself in context to these larger events and trying to situate yourself and understand them in maybe a different way. But with a project like this, how did you figure out this is where I come in, or this is where I should be having a conversation with myself, or I should be writing about something I've gone through?

Abdurraqib: Much like a lot of other processes in the book, I think the decision is sometimes made for me. It always feels important for me to connect the historical to the emotional, to the realities of my own living. I also am very aware of the fact that I'm not all that interesting. And I'm especially not all that interesting, just like on my own, you know, without any of those prior scaffoldings. So, to return to the dance marathon piece, I'm barely in it. What's holding up that piece is that the Soul Train line and the dance marathon are beautiful and fascinating enough without any entry of the self. But it's important for me to say, “well, here's how I think about love.” Just maybe that is what the actual engine of the piece is: love and commitment to a person for 30 seconds in a line, or for 18 months in a barn. And it's important to say I'm not presenting these things to you in this order for no reason. I think the main takeaway is that when I'm presenting things in a certain order, I just need people to know that there is a method to that order. And I think the best way to do that in the most effective way is to say “I'm here with you.”

Rail: I know the one thing in terms of you writing about yourself in context is the fact that Columbus has changed so much and the layout of it has shifted. Businesses have disappeared. New companies have emerged. And in so many ways, you're trying to hold on or recreate in your head as much scaffolding of that memory as you can. Do you find that that's still true for you or does the reasoning or the value of your own narrative and where you're coming into the work shift away from that?

Abdurraqib: I think it's still one reason, but another reason that I return to work and write the way I do, and why I'm unafraid to kind of try to pull together multiple threads at once, is because I am almost required to believe deeply in my own emotions as a machine of many moving parts that are connected to things that have happened before I was here, before I was living, perhaps before my parents were even living. This is why I'm so focused on aligning and intersecting the historical and the emotional. What I feel like I'm trying to do is make sense of feeling, and to say that these large feelings that I have are not necessarily inconsequential. As foolish as they may seem, or as silly as it might be that I get largely emotional over what seems to be a small thing, it is possible that it is not a small thing.

Rail: One thing I noticed is that there's an interest in hiding or obscuring yourself at times. Do you have any idea why that might be kind of coming through, why that might be important to you?

Abdurraqib: I do in some ways like to pile a bunch of ideas on top of each other, not to protect myself from what's going on, or from being right or wrong, but as a way to present some layers between myself and the very multiple subjects that I am tackling. What I'm often trying to do is offer myself multiple entries and exits through which I can move, because it's less about hiding in some ways, and more to me about understanding that sometimes I'm going to need a way out, and I'm trying to build those ways out as I write, as I'm building new ways in.

Rail: You came up in the punk scene, and you wrote about how these are largely white spaces where you have to either bolster your own sense of identity, or find your own way to connect with the scene at large. Do you feel that experiences like that informed these aspects on the page where you recognize you need ways in and ways out?

Abdurraqib: I think that's a big part of what informs my approach to a piece. But I think what I'm also trying to do is be as generous to myself as possible, while writing and understanding that in the midst of a piece, if I'm like, ”I can't go there. I don't want to go there. I'm not equipped to go there yet,” there's something that'll catch me on the way down and steer me in a gentler direction. And that's a vital and very big part of the process for me.

RAIL: Do you have an example of something that really stands out to you in any of your projects where you knew you weren't ready for something or couldn't access something yet and you had to figure out how to get there?

Abdurraqib: "Fall Out Boy Forever," in They Can't Kill Until They Kill Us was a piece that, for a long time, took a different shape because I was maybe running away from confronting the grief and sitting in it. And through that running away, I think I found a better container, a better narrative container for that grief to sit in, which is why the piece is non-linear. I don't think I could emotionally confront that piece being linear, but the non-linear movements of it allow me to both tap into an era where my friend was living, and present and return to an era where that friend was not. Instead of just continually soaking in a linear thing where my friend is here and now he's gone. Instead “my friend is here.” Now, my friends present in a different way. My friend is physically present again, you know, like bouncing around in that way. So sometimes form, in the way I choose to deliver information, is a question of how gentle I can be with myself.

RAIL: Was it a similar function in writing the letters to Tribe? Because I know that you said that the letters in some way came out of you being uncertain you had the language to really express how much The Low End Theory (1991) meant to you.

Abdurraqib: Yeah. It was kind of like finding a different way, you know. I mean, all those choices that would … especially, all these choices, I think, are about finding the best way to deliver information when I am overwhelmed by what the delivery of that information might do to me emotionally, mentally, or in sometimes, you know, the answers that I just kind of walk away from, the attempt of living with the information altogether until I feel emotionally ready to re-approach it. But yeah, I'm always looking for gentler ways.

Rail: I read your McSweeney's letter for their anniversary issue, and in it you obviously wrote beautifully about working at a Borders.

Abdurraqib: Yes, I worked in the music section at a Borders.

Rail: You write about the connection you formed with this kind of lonely guy who's seeking out certain music like you were. And you've also written about other basic day jobs you've held, and this lack of awareness or any recognition of your calling as a writer. Do you feel like the jobs you had outside of writing were helpful for you in becoming a writer, or did they just delay that for you?

Abdurraqib: Well, I don't think they're related at all. I think that if they were useful at all, which I do think they were, they were in my ability to get a slightly better understanding of people. And because, gosh, I liked working at that Borders and in that music section I think it's funny to think about now. This is in the big CD-era, like 2007, 2008, when CDs were still really prominent, so much so that Borders had its own music section and needed a person back there who knew music. That's the closest I ever got to working at a record store, which was actually a dream job of mine. I think I grew up … I'm not very educated, at least in the kind of big, big scare quotes traditional sense. I mean, like, what I know is people. You know, I was a very good server, because I think, among many other things, it takes patience and a kind of self-awareness to know when a conversation can be pushed, how it can be pushed, and where it can go. I've done a lot of jobs that put me in very close contact with people. And I think that working those jobs, and working with folks who are coming up in a working class household, a working class neighborhood, living around working class folks, and working alongside working class folks, these are the people who I believe have the most interesting things to say about not only themselves, but the world. These are the people who I think are the most interesting observationalists. To be completely frank, these are people that I personally learned the most from. You know, in the book, I write about spending a little bit of time being incarcerated, and these are folks I learned from. More than I learned from anyone in any ivory tower or whatever else, so it feels important for me to carry that in my work and write in the same voice that I was taught by the people I worked alongside of, and, you know, spent time in what some would consider “undesirable” situations alongside of.

Rail: You've said that your goal as a writer to some extent is to be a fan existing among other fans and ideally arrive at a revelation together. So what goes into tearing down those boundaries between the critical tower and sincere fandom, and how is that process still evolving for you when you are writing?

Abdurraqib: I think in some ways, the most fun I have is when I feel like I am telling a story to people who know me well. If I am to imagine an audience at all, it is that I'm telling a story to people who have known me well for a long time, and that immediately detaches me from any obsession with the institution or institutional power, or anything like that. Instead, I think it allows me to be a little more playful too, if I'm being honest. It allows me to kind of be a little more excited about where I can take some of the things I want to do. But it evolves because, depending on what is being told, it shifts who I'm imagining in that room, because obviously not everyone who's known me for a long time knows me in the same way, or knows me with the same level of intimacy. But that’s who I’m speaking to.

Rail: That's incredibly generous. I feel like you're giving the reader the benefit of the doubt then, and also really trusting them to know you. When it comes to something like the podcast, you said that the one goal you had for it was to explore the questions of how you react to a world that might not be as excited about your new work as much as you are. Do you feel like that's something that you're ever at risk of, or are you not trying to think about that?

Abdurraqib: Oh, I'm definitely not trying to think about the risks and the process. I do think I get closer and closer to an important thing to me that I'm not really seeking. I feel best in my work when I'm not explicitly seeking answers, and instead I feel good when I'm seeking one, a better articulation of the question, and two, ways to push my thinking beyond what it was. The more I get to the point of an answer, searching for answers, seeking, the more I think I get a little bit away from maintaining curiosity and allowing myself an ability to be wrong, which is another thing that I feel really good about. I want to do work that opens up enough doorways for later correction, because that is also exciting for me. I'm always telling myself I hope that I did the best I could do with this work at the time with the tools I had, with the full understanding that, you know, a year after a book is out, I am undoubtedly going to return to say I wish I had done something better here. This doesn't mean that I'm ashamed of the work. I say that with gratitude for evolution, self-evolution, and personal evolution. I return to the work and say, you know, “I wish I would have done something a little different.”

Rail: One thing that you are admittedly interested in are musicians with a certain mystique or built in sense of mythology. If we're talking about revisiting work, or creating spaces to be wrong in, or revisit what you've previously thought, what makes artists like that interesting to you?

Abdurraqib: Well, because I could see myself. I can see my many complications reflected in the moment through my love of the band or the music. I think feeling personal, or feeling the personal presence in that understanding, gets me closer to something that feels right or righteous at the moment, even if it isn't necessarily. Does that make sense? Sometimes I'm building out the personal in lieu of the personal connection, in lieu of a different type of understanding, and that too allows me to return and say, you know, “I would not have done something better.”

Rail: I imagine that since these artists continue to exist, it's always possible to revisit their discography, their work and reconsider it, right?

Abdurraqib: Oh, of course. And I think going back and listening to the work as I evolve creates a different experience too. I mean, there are musicians I wrote about in They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, who I just feel a lot differently about now listening to the music today. And that book isn't ancient, you know? I know it feels like, for me at least, it feels like 20 years ago, but it came out in 2017, so not only are musicians continuing to live in our shared existence, pulling us in different directions, sometimes closer, sometimes not. But also, as I evolve, the older work of musicians that I once loved does not always hit the same, and that's a part of it too.

Rail: Do you have a certain sound or revelatory experience that you're just always hoping you come across again?

Abdurraqib: Yeah, I'm enthralled by the power of the choir, which is interesting since I didn't grow up in the church at all. But I also believe the power of the choir can be summoned by things that are not just voices. The emotional swell that I get when I hear a choir can be brought on in ways that can be summoned by instrumentation, or by just an accumulation of unifying sound or unified sound. I feel like I'm always on the search for that; I'm always on a search for vocalists who know when to pull back and allow the music to do the work. I also love the song that fades out, and I feel like those are becoming less and less prominent. Most people I know like a song and need to know when a song is ending. But I like a song that fades out, because a song that fades out suggests a certain haunting, something that exists in perpetuity. Take "God Only Knows" or "Knocks Me Off My Feet". You know, those kinds of songs just fade out, especially with repetition. It can make one feel like the song is still going on somewhere, always.

Rail: You mentioned that Whitney Houston knew how to work the pauses, and that her legacy and death are certainly significant. What did she symbolize for you to Black culture that you wanted to explore or connect to the larger scaffolding of the new book?

Abdurraqib: What I wanted to explain about Whitney Houston is the connection and language around who is or isn't enough, or who is and isn't like the way that folk have earned their way into circles through unspoken trust and unspoken kind of tests and nudges, and also. you know, the folks I come up around and come up around, and the folks, I think that I am still sometimes around, we just know what's up, so to speak, by the way someone moves. I do it sometimes unintentionally. We pass these kind of silent judgments on people, and the labor that goes into trust that's earned over time. You know, before someone is kind of judged as being down(?), whatever that means, exploring that with Whitney Houston was an interesting journey. But also, she's another artist where it's like, no secret, I love Whitney Houston a great deal, and spending any amount of time with work that considers and reconsiders and honors her legacy of importance.

Rail: But was there a particular reason why? I mean, do you feel like Whitney Houston best captured that idea of, you know, who is and isn't enough in that era? Is there something you feel is particularly fascinating about Whitney Houston and the way that she handled that?

Abdurraqib: Yeah, I mean, I think because Whitney Houston the pop star, Whitney Houston the person, and Whitney Houston the presentation were so different, it fit into this idea I had about performance and how sometimes performance is something that's thrust upon us, and we are not necessarily excited about having it thrust upon us. Whitney Houston was an interesting … I don't even want to say, like, study, because for me it was a very emotional place to go, because I continually and will continually grieve the fact that Whitney Houston could maybe not always be who she wanted to be publicly, and have the fulness of her humanity honored in public. So I grieve that, and I still grieve that along with grieving Whitney Houston's loss.

Rail: Connecting with this idea of not being who you want to be all the time, or having to play certain angles, or having your history rewritten for a white audience, you mentioned this idea of feel-good whitewashing in context to racism in films. This writing and the rewriting of history to make white people feel better about the long, tragic history of America. Do you have any thoughts on why white people might tend to shy away from or overlook films that more accurately capture the Black experience? I apologize if this isn't a fair question.

Abdurraqib: I think it's the shortest answer I can give. I don't know. I mean, I do know I try to detach myself from the psychology of whiteness when I can. I imagine that there's something about prioritizing feelings over humanity, which, in my mind, is most illuminated when looking at the political landscape. For example—and I do not like referencing Twitter in an interview—but I saw that a white woman with a large platform tweeted something like a week ago, that was like, “it's amazing how much better everything feels, how different and wonderful everything feels less than a month after Trump left office.” And, you know, a lot of Black folks, and folks, would tell her it's wild that everything feels so different to you, because for a lot of us, it's the same or worse, if we're talking like immediate material shift. But I also think that there's something big about the prioritizing of feeling and decorum over humanity, harm, and history, too. That's the big rainbow over all the other things. It's history to feel good in a moment, and I don't mean this broadly, because people should feel good when they can feel good, but prioritizing or feeling good in the moment over not only the present, but the history that suggests that the present will be prolonged and painful for someone other than themselves.

Rail: In a piece like your essay on Bernie Mac, Mike Tyson and gentrification, how did you find that connective tissue like the refrain of “I'm not scared of you, motherfucker”? It seems like such a crucial piece to it, but is that what locked it into place for you?

Abdurraqib: The Bernie Mac thing was it. The piece was only going to be about Bernie Mac. But it's funny because I was watching the Bernie Mac clip, and it even felt early on that he actually is kind of afraid every time he lands one of those "I'm not scared of you" punches. He becomes less and less afraid if I begin to think about it as a different type of sparring, or a different type of fight(?). I was most interested in fear, in a language of fear, and also, of course, a performance. Not so much like I am afraid now, but how can I present myself so that someone else will be afraid of me? That was the entire machinery of that, and Bernie Mac was the center point because I was so amazed by that performance, and remain amazed at that performance.

Rail: That performance and when Chris Rock comes out with Never Scared or Bring the Pain, those two things I just feel like are electric. There's just this kind of arrival going on in terms of who these comics are—speaking of electric talents, let’s talk about Jessica Hopper, who gave you a break at Pitchfork, brought you with her to MTV News, helped shepherd Go Ahead in the Rain, and started the Lost Notes podcast you took over. What is it like having a mentor like her, and how has that relationship evolved?

Abdurraqib: Well, I mean, you know, Jessica's someone I've always looked up to. The one thing I want to say and one thing I really want to stress is that Jessica is a singularly great writer, an unearther of historical archives, and storyteller. Whether or not she thinks about this, I do think a large part of her legacy will be what she’s doing right now, and also how generous she's been for writers who are not herself. When you have someone who's dedicated a lot of their life as a writer to the lives of writers who are not them, sometimes it can get lost that their work is also significant. I don't think this is happening with Jessica, but any time I get asked that, I always want to lead with the fact that what inspires me most about Jessica is her writing, her ability to write, her ability to think through history. I have so much gratitude for her for showing me a better path to generosity and not placing my writing and my quote unquote career over for, like, understanding. I'm not the only writer I want to read, you know, like a big reason 68to05 came to life in the way it did is because of things I learned by being around Jessica and watching her move through the world, and understanding there cannot be a world where the only music writing I'm interested in is the music writing of me or my pals. A big part of what I learned from her to kind of extend all of this also makes you a better writer, too, is the thing, at least for me. I could have been a writer if I spent time immersed in the work of other writers who are not me, who were not like, you know, the writers who much like me or, you know, I came up like writing on a blog and no one read and I came up like writing in journals, no one read. And I the reason 68to05 looks the way it does in terms of the writing aspect of it, is because I wanted to get back to the era where it's like it feels like a blog where you can just like write about an album you like, and we don't have to, you know, we don't have to go through this whole process of like I wanted to be as good as I wanted to do with as little gatekeeping as possible, you know, and just tell people if you like this thing, I'll give you a little bit of money to write about it, and I want to read it. It’s something that just makes me happy because I know that there are a great many things that I can't write on. It’s not that I don't have the time to write on that. I literally am not the best person to write about it. And if someone's excited about something, and I feel like Jessica homes in on this so well, if you catch someone on the upswing of when they're excited about something, that's when the best work arises. As much as I learned from Jessica as a writer, I've learned even more about how to be generous with others, and to cultivate a world where I'm helping shepherd other people's excitements into the world.


Contributor

Eric Farwell

ERIC FARWELL is an adjunct professor of English at Monmouth University, Brookdale Community College, and Ocean County College in New Jersey. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in print or online for The Paris Review, The Believer, GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Salon, McSweeney's, Inside Higher-Ed, River Teeth, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Poetry Foundation, Spillway, Guernica, Pleiades, Tin House, The Writer's Chronicle, Ploughshares, VICE, Rolling Stone, PANK, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, and Slice.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

All Issues