In Conversation with Hanif Abdurraqib on 'Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest'
by Arriel Vinson
A visiting writer in the MFA program at Butler University, Hanif Abdurraqib is an acclaimed poet and cultural critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, MTV News, and other outlets. A nominee for the Pushcart Prize, he is the author of the highly praised poetry collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much and the essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which was included in the Chicago Tribune’s 25 Must-Read Books list for fall 2017 and received recognition from reviewers coast-to-coast, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly. He is currently at work on They Don’t Dance No Mo’, a history of black performance in the United States, and A Fortune for Your Disaster, a forthcoming collection of poetry.
Arriel Vinson: We like to ask all of our writers this: tell me about your journey to publishing.
Hanif Abdurraqib: Well, it’s pretty unspectacular, I think. I spent so much of my early time in writing with the understanding that no one was going to read my work. Or that, at best, I would get a few passionate readers and no more than that. I came up a bit in performance poetry, and that offered some immediate audience feedback, which I really found fascinating. But I was never writing with the idea that I needed to, or was going to, publish books. I think it bears mentioning that I still have no idea what the fuck I’m doing. I send a handful of emails to my peers and my agent every week and they’re all kind of just like, “?????????”
I did know that, at some point, I became interested in creating a body of work that held a narrative arc within it. I became really invested in using the tools of my various passions to tell a story of some sort, which is how the first poetry book arrived. I began to look at the book (or the creation of the book) as a challenge. But I still never thought anyone would read these things. I don’t really have much of a publishing journey as much as I have a journey of trying to figure out what to do with all of the things I have to get out of my own head.
AV: I’m wondering how you’re able to move between genres the way you do. This is your second essay collection, yet you’re still publishing poetry as you prepare for the pub date. How do you strike the balance?
HA: I think it’s really easy to move between genres when a writer imagines genre as a kind of arbitrary boundary and not something to be governed by. So much of my writing is rooted in poetic language and poetic movements. I’m most excited about the way I can get language to bend, or granting a sentence the most freedom possible for it to flourish on its own terms. I get to do that most eagerly in the poem, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t also do it in the essay. It would be irresponsible of me not to do that in the essay, you know? If I allowed myself to be governed by genre, I think I would lead a writing life (or a life in general) of witnessing beauty and being met with instant disappointment over how I can or can’t articulate that beauty, or where I can best articulate it. I’m governed by curiosity and I’m governed by what the beauty of a moment demands. I can’t pull it off the way I want to every time, but the work of the writing I’m doing is to be comfortable with failure.
AV: Go Ahead in the Rain is lyrical and moved me to tears at moments. Do you feel like your poetry contributes to the language in your essays and vice versa? How so?
HA: I’ve given myself a permission to lead with the visceral feeling that comes with giving a shit. That’s a very poetic impulse, for me.
AV: In both They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and Go Ahead in the Rain, you talk about music and the black experience, your experience. But Go Ahead in the Rain is described as a love letter and critical examination. Tell me more about your decision to focus solely on A Tribe Called Quest. What makes Tribe so important to you and how you grew up?
HA: I mean, beyond anything, they were one of the few rap groups my parents allowed my older siblings to play openly in the house during the (somewhat brief) time when rap was outlawed in our rooms. There’s something exciting about indulging in the forbidden, of course. I remember sneaking listens to The Chronic and loving the idea that I was getting away with something more than loving the music itself. There are so many things that make the songs secondary. So when there’s a permission granted to listen to something without the anxiety of getting caught, the music becomes a singular experience. I felt like A Tribe Called Quest arrived in my life at a time when I didn’t know much other than the fact that I seemed to be more comfortable in my anxieties, my isolation, my weirdness. Of course, being black and weird is not an isolating experience. But when I was a kid, it was easy for me to imagine myself as alone in my experience. Tribe’s music was like a permission slip. It was a door, opening wide to a party I’d always wanted to be invited to.
AV: How much of Go Ahead in the Rain was research, and how much of it was from your experience listening to and experiencing this genre as a whole?
HA: Well, I think my immersion in the music and my experience of the genre throughout my life is a type of research, in some ways. Or, at least, the ways I found myself trying to tie together threads from my life and into the music was work. It was all about seeing the things that were there the whole time. How I left my wallet at a gas station in the middle of a desert once, but never thought that story was speaking to my experience with Tribe until I was forced to. How Cheryl Boyce-Taylor and I are somewhat kin in the vast family of loss. Research, to me, is anything that forces honest excavation. Anything that sits two disparate moments or feelings out on a table and begins working the threads to pull them together.
AV: In Go Ahead in The Rain, you talk about your personal experiences—not being a great trumpet player, having a crew of outsiders, driving to Odessa—and weave those into the music of Tribe/other artists. Yet, the book isn’t entirely about you. Why did you take this approach?
HA: I thought it would be best to place myself in the book as a fan, but not as an expert. I didn’t want to position myself as an expert on anything other than the interior of fandom. Someone with a history inextricably linked to a single group and the many ways that experience can act as a mirror. Not just for myself, but for anyone who has affection for an artist.
AV: In “Once Upon A Time in Queens,” you focus on storytelling and narrators in hip-hop songs of the late ‘80s. What have you learned about writing from listening to and examining music?
HA: Mostly what I’ve learned has to do with stretching the limits of syntax and narration. I do poetry workshops now where I play Vince Staples, 2 Chainz. I’m trying to figure out a way to talk about my interest in sound and the way music feeds very specifically into that. Searching for whatever meaning rests behind a song means that a song is never just about one thing. That’s a lesson I’m always trying to drag into my own writing.
AV: How do you think your writing has changed/grown since The Crown Ain’t Worth Much? How can writers continue to grow in their craft?
HA: I’m so much more willing to be wrong now, you know? When I wrote Crown, I was so interested in being correct, or I was so interested in sounding like a certain authority within the poems. I think, now, I’m coming to the work with a bouquet of curiosities, and I’m not trying to walk away from it with answers, but I’m hoping to walk away from it with a fresh bouquet of new curiosities that I can then carry into whatever’s next. I’m not looking to be right, I’m looking for better ways to articulate my wrongness, and whatever other layers of wrongness might arrive in whatever I take on next. I’m so eager for research, and I’m so eager for tying that research into a larger narrative, but I also know that in the middle of all that, I’m committed to the beauty of language. I’m committed to engaging a reader. I’m committed to opening my palms and telling people I really want to show you this thing I’ve fallen in love with. And there’s no way to do that and be right all of the time. You can be curious, thoughtful, and eager, but you can’t always be an authority. I’m so much more comfortable with that now.
AV: I know you’re working on other projects. Tell me more about what we can expect from They Don’t Dance No Mo’ and A Fortune for Your Disaster. How do you decide which genre you’ll explore your ideas with? What were the inspirations for these works?
HA: I’m really proud of Fortune. I spent a lot of time chewing on this idea that no one is required to love anyone else. I thought I was writing a book solely about heartbreak, but then it kind of organically became a book about the rediscovery of this overwhelming bounty of love that had been neglected while I was sad about parting with a single love. It’s the most honest stretch of writing I’ve been able to do. I was thinking about all of the failures in the grand spectacle of breakup art, particularly when written by men. I wanted a book about heartbreak and repair that had no exterior targets, just a reckoning with myself until that reckoning looked like a new approach to ideas about love and loss and entitlement. My life changed from poem one to the final poem, and I had to figure out how to honor that as well.
I can’t say too much about They Don’t Dance other than the fact that I’ve really loved the work coming out of it. It’s a book about the various modes of black performance in the United States—like how being good at spades is a type of performance, or the bravado of a playground fight is a type of performance. I’m really chasing a lot of different ideas and excited about each one I’m lucky enough to catch.
Arriel Vinson is an Indiana native who writes about being young, Black, and in search of freedom. She is an MFA Fiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and received a B.A. in Journalism from Indiana University. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, [PANK] Magazine, HeART Journal Online, and also won third place prize in LUMINA Journal, judged by Donika Kelly. Her fiction has been featured in Lunch Ticket. Arriel's work has also appeared in Electric Lit.