Featuring poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib | By Brittany Moseley
Spotlighting the important work of those who are changing the landscape of our music scenes without playing a single note…
Two years ago, Hanif Abdurraqib drove to Provincetown, Massachusetts, in December. The beach town was deserted “except for the town drunks and the bars that kept open to serve them,” as he puts it. Abdurraqib went to Provincetown with one purpose: to find out what type of writer he wanted to be. He didn’t exactly succeed—but that’s OK.
“If I could answer that question, I would stop writing,” Abdurraqib says. “I thought I could go there and find that answer, but thankfully, I didn’t. My hope is that every time I sit down to write, I’m a different writer, which I didn’t think about then. It is in consonance with the type of person I am. It is in consonance with what I’m learning or what I’m going through or what I’m finding out about myself and the people I love and care about.”
At the time of this conversation, Abdurraqib is home in Columbus, Ohio, a brief and increasingly rare respite from a busy schedule promoting his second book, “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.” Published in November 2017 and comprised of essays from The New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, as well as previously unpublished pieces, “They Can’t Kill Us…” is the result of Abdurraqib’s lost weekend in Provincetown. It’s a study on race, culture, and Carly Rae Jepsen. Whether he’s writing about a friend’s suicide through the lens of Fall Out Boy’s meteoric rise or Migos and Johnny Cash and the trouble with personas, he approaches every story with thoughtfulness and respect. Abdurraqib reminds us that all music is worthy of consideration.
“I don’t ever want to be the old guy who’s listening to songs and telling people younger than me that the things they’re listening to are bad or stupid. I think there’s a lesson to be found in adjusting the way I am hearing and adjusting what I am asking of the music I listen to,” he says. “The work of the critic is to be wrong and to be comfortable in your wrongness enough to seek out something that helps to explain that to the world better. I want nothing more than to be so wrong about music that it leads me to these great moments of discovery in songs that I would have never considered listening to before.”
Abdurraqib is praised for his use of language—which often reads as lyrical—and his ability to weave together personal stories and cultural touchstones in a way that is poignant, insightful, and expansive. He has established himself as one of the leading voices in cultural criticism, a feat made even more impressive when you consider the reaction his writing got when he first started.
“It’s funny as I think back now. So many of the complaints about my music criticism were things that it’s being praised for now,” he says. “In 2011 or ‘12 or so, a lot of people were saying, ‘It’s too flowery’ and ‘It’s getting away from the songs too much’ and ‘There’s too much poetic language in it.’ I wasn’t making enough money to keep writing music stuff, so I decided to try something else, try putting some of the poetic language to use.”
This decision led him to poetry and the thriving community of poets in Columbus. Through attending open mics, befriending poets, reading books, writing bad poems and making them better, Abdurraqib found a welcoming outlet for his work, eventually publishing a book of poetry, “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much,” in 2016.
“I really took to poetry because it felt like I was being told repeatedly that what I was doing in music criticism wasn’t working, and I found this thing with people telling me, ‘You have room to work here,’” he says. “I was just trying to have fun and create consistently. And then, I found a voice that worked for me and a style of writing that worked for me. I found a way to bridge these voices, this critic’s voice and this poetic voice. That felt like I found a new home.”
For him, music is often the bridge between poetry:
“me & tyler jump into the pit head first even though four older boys got patches that say NO BLACKS & NO QUEERS & between us I guess we got both those covered cuz I flinch & throw my hands over my head when the drum kicks too sharp & I don’t know what could be more black than that”
“I don’t remember the first time I heard a racist joke at a punk rock show. Rather, I don’t remember the first time I was grabbed into a sweaty half-hug by one of the laughing white members of my Midwest punk scene and told don’t worry about it. We don’t think of you that way. I don’t remember the first time I saw a teenage girl shoved out of the way so that a teenage boy her size, or greater, could have a better view of a stage. I don’t remember the first time that I made an excuse for being a silent witness.”
“My goal is to look at the world through a lens of what I’m listening to,” Abdurraqib says. “A way to do that and also not close myself off completely is to think about how what I’m listening to informs the world or how it brings me closer to the world I live in or what threads are resting underneath the music I love. My goal is always to write to figure that out. So much of my writing is a failure to figure out the bigger picture I’m trying to see through. I don’t think failure’s a bad thing. I think failure is opening me up to new and exciting ways of hearing.”