"The Real Magic Is In Person:" Noname's Book Club Is Building Community Across The Country
We sat down with Noname to talk about her book club, capitalism, celebrity culture, and the importance of building community.
In the middle of the holiday season, with its inescapable encouragement of hyperconsumerism, Chicago rapper Noname rallied people from all over to register for a library card with instructions on how to do so and why. January 11th, 2020 was the first-ever National Fuck Amazon Day. And, unlike most holidays we celebrate that encourage copious consumption, Noname’s holiday encourages the complete opposite.
The message is clear and it’s not only about one company, as Noname tweeted: “#FuckAmazonDay is less about the specific company and more about how capitalist institutions have destabilized communities (of color) by reducing brick and mortar patronage. They’ve also created a consumer model that is extremely addictive and removes human compassion.” Members of Noname’s book club posted their library cards and the new books they checked out en masse. NPR interviewed Noname about the club.
“Tomorrow is Library Card Registration Day. Never heard of it? Well, that’s because poet and rapper Noname made it up,” the media organization wrote, shying away from what Noname’s intentions were and the name of the holiday, only mentioning it at the end of the article. Fuck Amazon Day is a statement with vim — energy if you will. It’s more than a stance — it’s a call to action.
Noname launched Noname’s Book Club in July with the goal of creating a community for people of color and familiarizing people with texts written by people of color. In that short amount of time, the club has gained over 76,000 followers on Twitter and over 42,000 on Instagram. Over the phone, she tells me: “The success of the book club is really our success; the collective success. It’s called Noname’s Book Club but I really feel like it’s no specific name. This is our shit.”
In the spirit of the collective, Noname’s Book Club monthly book picks aren’t just coming from her. The club allows guest selections (called “Let the Homie Pick”) and has featured Kehlani and Earl Sweatshirt. In December, I offered a guest selection and chose Die Nigger Die, the autobiography of Imam Jamil Al-Amin, alongside Noname’s pick, Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine.
I’ve also had the opportunity to attend one of the book club’s meet-ups, too. While I was in D.C., I went to one that was held in Sankofa Video Books and Cafe, a Black-owned establishment. The room was attentive and passionate; almost everyone spoke. The book club now has multiple chapters, and it continues to grow. But Noname’s Book Club isn’t only intent on building chapters in different cities. It also wants to create chapters in prisons, where the majority of the books read in the club are banned.
As a proud Patreon member of Noname’s Book Club, I had a phone conversation with Noname in January about the club, capitalism, celebrity culture, hypervisibility, leftist Twitter, the internet, and what’s next for the book club.
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The first thing I wanted to ask you about is your relationship with your fans. You’re part organizer, part artist, part student, and you hold yourself accountable in a very public way when it’s impossible to win or be understood. How do you feel about that, and how do you navigate this new position you’re in?
I feel a lot better [after you told me] that I can mute people’s mentions. It’s been like heaven the past two, three days. I honestly feel like I can take over the world right now. I turned off the comments on my Instagram posts. Taking those small steps have helped. Not to make it seem like I’m on my high horse or what I’m doing is oh-so-important. But to be a public figure — particularly working within the hip-hop space — it’s important for folks to see me do this. To see me learning, but to see me struggling and not being afraid to continue just because the internet is making me really vulnerable and second guess my actions sometimes.
The internet forces you to perform so you just have to be good. You have to have a good analysis, you can’t be making mistakes on the internet and with your hypervisibility, god forbid you make a mistake. It’s everywhere.
You can’t be frustrated, you can’t be angry. I was talking to my homie, Yodon. He has a book club in New York and when I first started my book club he was super helpful. Just giving me advice on facilitating and how to organize around creating a book club. He was the one who was really like, “You got to have a subscription model. You can’t keep pouring into this, you’ll get burnt out,” which I did. But one of the things that we were talking about was Fuck Amazon Day, and he was saying it’s dangerous, sometimes, when you present a negative viewpoint in organizing. I understood exactly what he was saying, but I also want to be angry. I want to say Fuck Amazon, I want to be vulgar. I don’t want to say let’s just go to the library and that be it. I want to be intentional about my anger. And to your point, the internet — it really doesn’t allow you space to be that or to do that. A bunch of people were coming at me in support of Amazon and I’m like, “I know you really don’t support Amazon.”
People pour a lot of expectations into you because they already have their ideas about what you are based on what you gave them as a musician. So now that they realize you have a set of politics and you are willing to learn and expand how you see the world, they’re saying, “No this is not the Noname I know and like. I love Amazon,” and that makes no sense.
They’re like, “We want ‘Diddy Bop,’ we want to feel good about your happy go lucky ass music,” and I’m like, “The world is dying, all my niggas are locked up. I don’t feel good, I feel angry.”
When I was at the book club meeting in DC, I loved how there was just a mixture of everything. There was laughter, anger, frustration — a little bit of arguing but it was all in the same space.
It was healthy though [laughs].
I’ve been in the depths of “I read” leftist writer Twitter for a while. I’m curious about what it looks like to you? On one hand, all of us are pretty much on the same side, but I wonder what it’s like to be thrown into the middle of it. The differing opinions, the constant arguing — I want to know what you make of it.
That’s one thing that I think is the most disheartening. All of the arguing on opinions, methodology, and shit like that. I think it doesn’t allow access for other people to come in. Especially when other folks do come in and it’s not just like the average-fan-in-bumble-fuck-whatever-city. Some of the leftists will go in on someone also trying to figure stuff out because they’re so deeply rooted in their own methodology and the way that they think things should go. There doesn’t seem to be a general level of compassion from this organization to that organization.
I think reading and educating ourselves can only do so much in regards to compassion and empathy. Also, just because you read doesn’t mean that you’re above pettiness, which is another thing that people don’t expect from some of us.
It’s weird when it’s publicly done like that. We can be horrible and we can be publicly horrible on the internet. But it’s definitely been a struggle for me to figure out what pockets of that base I belong to, and none of it has honestly felt fulfilling. That’s why I’m so obsessed with the book club because having conversations in real life and the way people treat each other in the real world is always better. Even when you were at the DC meeting, there was hella shit that you were like, “I don’t agree with that, I’m not fucking with that.” But everyone was fine. You don’t really get that on Twitter. It’s so chaotic, it’s so damn chaotic.
[In person] you can see someone’s passion and you could see that they are not just saying it to be a contrarian and whatever the fuck. Like, this is what they believe in and this is what moves them, you know what I mean? So there’s a level of respect you can have, whereas on the internet you don’t know if someone is just being nasty. Like, are you just gonna bring me down a peg because you want to publicly embarrass me or is it really your stance? It’s hard to gauge.
Especially when there’s a scarcity mindset, and people want visibility for themselves and they’re trying to perform for the public.
I’m appreciative of leftist Twitter though. It’s just funny because, generally, the right seems to have a unanimous standing. The left seems so damn divided on particulars; not to say that it doesn’t matter, but I wish the left was a bit more unified.
Did you expect anything going into this book club? Did you expect all this?
Oh God no, none of this. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely intentional. I definitely spent a lot of time watching Black radical documentaries on YouTube, panel discussions, and seminars with different pundits and shit. I wanted to popularize radical texts among niggas who don’t fuck with it or have access. I had no idea that the Black radical tradition was even a thing because I didn’t go to college. I didn’t have access. I just didn’t know. Then after finding out, I’m like, “Oh my god we need this to be popularized.” That’s why I really wanted to have some of my fake celebrity musician homies pick books as well. Like niggas may not read if I pick a book, but if Earl picks a book, if Kehlani picks a book, they’re going to read it and maybe they’ll be interested in what I’m trying to do. I want to have public conversations about [Octavia E. Butler’s] Parable of the Sower the same way niggas talk about Game of Thrones and how we have these very public conversations about Queen and Slim or something like that. I wish we could talk about a book like that.
I think it helps when the likes of Kehlani and Earl Sweatshirt recommend books because then people don’t feel as dorky for reading because that’s also another thing.
Yeah. It does have a corny stigma on it — that you’re lame if you read. But that’s starting to go away, especially with all the new book clubs that are popping up.
Your mother owned the first Black-woman owned bookstore in Chicago. How did that impact you growing up?
For me, being in that space and being around so many different types of people from the community — like you had the brother with the kufi coming in who’s like, “I’m only reading [Frantz] Fanon.” And then you had the people that only read Triple Crown Publications-type books. Being in a space where there was a lot of variety in terms of Black literature, and it wasn’t just specifically based on political Black text, I guess that formed how I think about my relationship with community, especially being a very hypervisible person. When the bookstore was successful, like any Black celebrity that wrote a book, she had them in the store. Some were not chill but a lot of them were cool, and I think my idea of celebrity also was shaped by that. I don’t look at them in the same way other people do and by other people, I mean folks who aren’t and folks who are.
The other day I was promoting Fuck Amazon Day, and someone came at me because I wasn’t actively going against the fact that so many libraries have closed in different communities because of gentrification. But this is more so for folks who do have local libraries still in their neighborhood, and folks that can afford to not spend their money on Amazon. I understood what they were saying but I’m also just like, people have these certain expectations…and then they were like, “Oh, well, you know you’re blue check Twitter so you need to do better.” Shorty, do you think I can upend capitalism? Do you think I can create libraries? All I can do is just promote people to go.
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You can’t dismantle capitalism by yourself and you still need to work, you still need to eat.
How am I going to end gentrification?
People who have employment that doesn’t yield a bunch of fame or financial mobility, they are allowed to exist in the space where they can be publicly anti-capitalist. But because I’m able to do Coachella and I have these opportunities in front of me, people think, “Oh, you’re rich,” which is a lie. Or, you can’t be anti-capitalist because you’re benefiting off the system and that’s been the struggle.
But all of us are trying to survive in the system.
That’s how it works but I’m not afforded that on Twitter. I’m completely independent. I pay for everything; people don’t know what my expenses look like compared to what I make. Most of the money that I make goes right then and there.
I feel like most of the public doesn’t understand any kind of creative work. So if you gain even an iota of visibility for anything you do and you have the stamp of an institution backing you, everyone’s like, “You’re rich.”
“You got a blue check next to your name, you’re rich, you’re bougie, your mom owned a bookstore.” But we struggled for half the time and it’s out of business now, and I think people think it just closed. But when businesses go out it’s after years of struggling. People just have no perception of that — even now I live in the hood. I be tweeting this shit from the hood. I live in Jefferson Park — there are homeless people outside of my neighborhood every day. And then people are like, “Why are you so angry?” I wish people saw how I live and understood why I’m angry because we live the same. I’m the same as you.
Do you believe that people with platforms have an obligation to use it for societal good?
If people are passionate about something, definitely do it. I think you put all of your good spiritual energy and wholesome energy into things that you care about. I think if folks are starting whatever foundation just because that’s expected of them, I don’t usually think that’s the best idea. If you do anything and you’re not passionate about it, it’s not going to have the type of impact that’s going to yield real change. But with that being said, I definitely have sat back and pondered, “Man, I wonder if Oprah tweeted what I tweeted, what could change? What would happen if her book club was modeled the way ours is? Even with some of my rap homies — I know they see my Twitter, unless, maybe these niggas have me on mute. Sometimes I’m like, “Damn, my homies don’t really engage with it.” They don’t even like the tweets, let alone retweet them. Thebe is the only person who actually pulled up to book club. Literally said, “I’mma pull up on you.” Even just supporting other people who you see are in it for the long haul and they’re really trying to be in the fight, that goes such a long way. It’s hard to continue when you feel totally isolated and alone. Just him pulling up made me think like, “OK, I’m not crazy. There are other people who feel how I feel who are conflicted in these different positions.” Like, I’m not alone.
Who is one person dead or alive whose book collection you’d like to have access to?
This is going to be so cliche but probably André . I’m really curious about what he reads. I feel like he has good picks. I feel like he would have some very dense political shit, but also some really interesting books on music history.
What’s next for the Noname book club?
As you know, we’re really trying to raise funds to start our prison chapters. That’s not the next move, but that’s my most important move. We’re going to launch a podcast in addition to having some of the authors pull up to the different book club meetings. Having a podcast interviewing different writers and people that come to the meetups will be really crucial, so we’re trying to raise money on our Patreon for that.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of this book club?
The community, and the responses after the meetings and conversations from all the different chapters. It brings me literal joy. People are coming together and talking about a book, and they feel safe and they feel seen and heard. That gives me the most joy. I like in-person meetings. The online shit is dope but the real magic is in person.
Najma Sharif is a writer living in NY.