Author Hanif Abdurraqib spoke with Okayplayer about his new book, A Little Devil in America, how current Black music is shaping the racial justice movement, his favorite A Tribe Called Quest albums, and more.
Black Americans have long been asked to perform hope to satisfy the white imagination. Sometimes, that hope can almost feel self-sacrificial. Although Dave Chappelle’s sketch comedy series, Chappelle’s Show, humorously tackled racism and access to the ‘N’ word, in 2005, Chappelle voiced his discomfort of the white gaze when a man on set laughed a little too hard at a satirical punchline. In 1969, soul and gospel vocalist Merry Clayton was coaxed by Mick Jagger to perform background on “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones. Clayton was pregnant, but Jagger urged Clayton to belt with an emotional intensity that would rattle listeners. While “Gimme Shelter” is now considered one of the greatest rock songs of all-time, Clayton suffered from a miscarriage shortly after recording, possibly credited to mustering strenuous vocals. In his fifth book, A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance, (out today March 30th) essayist, poet, and culture critic Hanif Abdurraqib poignantly writes vignettes dedicated to Chappelle and Clayton, seamlessly interconnected with anecdotes about America’s consumption of Blackness in performance, jubilation, eulogy and everyday life.
“I was so excited about this idea of asking myself how far I can stretch my definition of what a performance is and [doing] some self-analysis and self-indictment, too,” Abdurraqib said. “[I asked] myself, one, ‘how do I perform?’ even though I still perform in my everyday life. And two, what makes me adverse to this idea of performativity?”
Abstractly divided in movements, chapters of the book cover the multitudinous expressions of Black culture. The book is worlds away from Abdurraqib’s earlier works, but it authentically captures the manifold of Blackness, true to Abdurraqib’s nature.
Ahead of the release of Little Devil in America, we spoke with Abdurraqib about how Josephine Baker inspired the book’s title, his deep immersion of music, being a “Nina Simone disciple” and the deconstruction of grief in his writing.
You originally approached A Little Devil in America with the intention of writing about the history of minstrelsy and blackface in America. This later became a meditation on various forms of Black performance and a reconciliation with your origins. When did you decide to alter this idea?
I’d realized pretty early on that [the] approach I found myself taking was still kind of centering whiteness, in a way — not centering the kind of celebration that I wanted the book to center. It was centering Black celebration, but with covering the specter of what could be taken and pulled from the Black celebratory tradition and how whiteness could wrap itself up in that.
It wasn’t fun to marvel at these performances that Black people were doing at a time before I was born and then go down these historical rabbithole to see how they have been manipulated or appropriated. Instead, it was much more exciting for me to write about juke joints or underground performance circles, or about Soul Train — places where there were barriers in place for black people to feel free and celebratory in their movement to motions without worry.
What prompted your idea to initially write about blackface?
I spent some time reading and researching minstrel shows and minstrel performers who — some of them felt immense freedom in what they were doing, despite the fact that it is a form of degradation. Then I went down the history of musical appropriation and how it impacted very specific cities like Memphis, for example.
A big thing that shifted me was watching Aretha Franklin’s funeral being present online, and watching other Black people watching alongside me. Even though the funeral had some flaws in it and [it was] immensely long, but through length and through the kind of endurance of watching, That was so beautiful for me, that was so exciting for me. It felt like this practice is not wanting to let our beloveds and our elders go. Things like that deserve more space in the book for me.
You revisit Columbus, Ohio in your writing often, but this time there’s a detachment from the city that raised you and the city that it’s becoming. What’s your current perspective of Columbus since you’ve unpacked its microaggressions?
I got a house here last year. I can’t say I’ll never move, but I don’t foresee anything happening in my life that will cause me to want to move. That said, the love is not inactive, it’s a very active love and it requires aggression and activity on my part. I think loving any place in America as a Black person comes with immense complications. For me, to love a place actively means that you are intensely aware of the ways that place is not serving the full population equitably.
My love for Columbus means that I’m trying to do my best to collaborate with the communities I built here who are also interested in dragging the city to a more equitable place, though there are margins. I think I was a much more passive lover of the city perhaps five years ago. That doesn’t really cut it for me anymore, because I would like everyone to have an opportunity to, if not love where they live, at least be able to survive there.
Throughout the book, you balance the art of Black performers with their humanity. What commonalities drew you to the subject that you wrote about?
Fortunately, not many. I write about the intimacy of two people about to fight where they’re circling each other and there’s eye contact. That felt intimate to me; more than violent — more than only violent, at least. So, there wasn’t as much of a connection. Only connected thing was, how can I convince myself [of] this being a performance versus not being a performance? How can I be myself closer to a celebration and understanding of the vastness of Black performance?
What makes me bristle at the word “performative,” especially when I’m wearing that against the scope of being on stage with Labelle with pounds of feathers on, or Josephine Baker doing a split in the air? What’s the mode of performance I embrace versus what’s the mode of performance I bristle at? How can I bring myself closer to a celebration of these really small, intimate performances that might take place in the spades game? Or that might take place in conflict, too?
You eulogize your mother frequently in the book, even referencing how frustration with her children with a form of protecting them. Does writing about your mother — and even death overall — aid your healing process?
There’s a return to, or a constant orbiting of grief in my work. Every time I return to grief, I deepen my understanding of how much gratitude I have for having lived a life at all where I knew someone who loved me as much as my mother did. Would it be more ideal if my mother lived until now, if my mother was still here? Of course. But I got twelve and a half years of life with someone who loved me as deeply as my mother loved me.
Grief is the sum of many parts and I really like deconstructing it and taking what parts serve me most, and then leaving the rest when I can. Which doesn’t mean I’m not ever sad, but it just means that I need to balance that with an understanding that grief is akin to gratitude, or a really rich and beautiful longing that can expand my imagination around not only to love people who are not here, but how to love people who are still present.
To live with an understanding of loss for me is to really love in the present with the type of intensity that I [would] otherwise not be propelled to. The understanding of loss makes it so there’s something about celebrating our present affections that feels vital.
At one point in the book, you touch on the sanitization of racism and films like The Help and Green Book. Following racial unrest of 2020, do you feel that entertainment has commodified the revolution, or does it reflect the times that we’re in?
Of course. I mean, God, the fucking Green Book. The machinery of America is about modifying Black revolutionaries and of distilling them to their most quotable and palatable forms — that is just how it works.
I remember someone tweeted this Fred Hampton quote and left off the whole back end that was the most indicting of the American infrastructure. Whole revolutionary histories of Black women get not even reduced to what is palatable; they get erased entirely. The book takes its title from Josephine Baker’s speech from the March on Washington. Do you know, as much as I’ve learned about the March on Washington, living in America and being in school and what not, I never knew Josephine Baker spoke at the March on Washington until five years ago?
That was a big deal — she was coming home for the first time in years, coming back to America. It’s wild that it’s not woven into that history that gets told about the March on Washington. Josephine Baker’s part is just four minutes, but these things that seem small in terms of time or in terms of presence, they add up. These small erasures add up to very, very large erasures and before you know it, someone’s legacy has been reformatted to fit something they maybe did not want to fit inside of.
You combine intimate storytelling with sound, music and emotion on your podcast Object of Sound. How did you establish a depth of listening?
That’s been my practice my whole life. I’m big on liner notes, and when I was a kid I would listen to albums, open the booklets, read the liner notes, and immerse myself in the samples used or in the credits. That’s the kind of thing I love.
I was born into the youngest of four and I’m not particularly socially great. I have immense social discomfort all the time, so I spend a lot of time at my most comfortable when isolated. From an early age, I was listening to music alone, and that almost required a type of internal world building that lends itself to deep listening and attention to detail to lyrics to.
What are your thoughts on how current Black music is shaping the racial justice movement?
I’m not saying there’s no good music being made around racial justice avenues, but I feel like so much of the music is serving the artist first and whatever movement second. There’s also such a great long history of Black artists who created music in service of uprisings. I think what is different now is perhaps the way the culture receives that work.
The way movements have become national and global, we’re maybe at less of a point where one song can attach itself to a movement. With any luck, there will be a multi-track universe where these songs can live and serve different needs and different reasons. At the moment, I feel like we’re maybe falling a little short.
What would you say is one of your favorite albums from the past that’s dedicated to The Civil Rights Movement? Any albums by Nina Simone?
I’m a big Nina Simone disciple. All of her work is vital to me, but if I’m looking at an album like Wild is the Wind. That album has “Four Women,” that weaves in Black stereotypes that impact folks. That album also has “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” The original version is a folk ballad that originated in Scotland, but [Nina’s] version of that is one of the great Black love songs of all time.
Nina Simone was so good at transforming songs that were not originally written with our people in mind, and making them distinctly our people’s songs. No one else did that as well as her. Nina Simone was a woman of many, many gifts, but when I think about the gift of her, it’s that she was such a great translator of song. [She would] almost push the original aside and say, “I’m gonna rework this for the black people I know, the Black people I love, and the Black people who need to hear it.”
Since releasing Go Ahead in the Rain, have you changed the ranking of your favorite albums by A Tribe Called Quest?
We Got It From Here… [Thank You 4 Your Service] is probably third. I still love Beats, Rhymes and Life more than People’s Instinctive Travels [and the Paths of Rhythm], and The Love Movement is last. I think The Love Movement is better than it gets credit for. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a bad A Tribe Called Quest album. I think The Love Movement is the quote-unquote worst A Tribe Called Quest album, although there’s a good handful of gems on that album.
How do you engage with the myriad of Black performance now since publishing A Little Devil in America?
It’s weird, I see things everywhere now. There was this clip… of [Shaquille O’Neal] talking to Candace Parker. He was on some bullshit, and Candace Parker’s face while he was talking — her face did this “thing” that I’ve known many Black women’s faces do. I was like, “Oh, gosh, not only is that familiar, but I’m recoiling because I just know that face where it’s disbelief and disappointment.”
There was a chapter in the book where I talked about Black facial expression as a mode of performance, but then I abandoned it because it just wasn’t working. The minute I saw [the clip], the whole piece just opened up in my head entirely, particularly when she looked over at Dwayne Wade.
I thought about a lot of how Black folks just don’t have to say the thing to understand the thing, but if a gaze is held long enough then there’s an acknowledgement of some seeing. I passed someone the other day — he had on a jacket I loved and I just nodded at the jacket. They knew, and so I think I see these unspoken ways of uplifting each other that I’m so invested in.
I see stuff everywhere now where I’m like, “Is that a performance? Can I convince myself of that being a performance that I can get behind?” I can’t shake it, but I’m happy to not be able to shake it. This is the best headspace I’ve ever been in leading up to a book release, and I just want to sink into it and live there for awhile.
NOTE: Hanif will be a headliner for On Air Fest 2021 which will be streamed April 8-10. —
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, contributing monthly to the city’s entertainment guide (614) Magazine. She has also written for the likes of Bust Magazine, Bandcamp Daily, Vinyl Me, Please, Vibe Magazine, AFROPUNK and more. Inspired by Columbus writing veterans Hanif Abdurraqib and Scott Woods, Jaelani focuses strongly on cultural pieces, especially within the realm of music and social criticism. You can follow her @hernameisjae