On this episode of Unlocking Us
Hanif Abdurraqib is a beautiful person and an incredible writer, poet, essayist, and cultural critic. His new book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, took my breath away. Hanif’s ability to straddle the tension of grief and gratitude, beauty and horror, mourning and jubilation is where the miracle and the genius happen.
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib is a profound and lasting reflection on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture. Each moment in every performance he examines—whether it’s the twenty-seven seconds in “Gimme Shelter” in which Merry Clayton wails the words “rape, murder,” a schoolyard fistfight, a dance marathon, or the instant in a game of spades right after the cards are dealt—has layers of resonance in Black and white cultures, the politics of American empire, and Abdurraqib’s own personal history of love, grief, and performance.
Object of Sound podcast
Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. This week, I am talking to an amazing writer, poet, cultural critic, music critic, Hanif Abdurraqib, he is the author of A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. First of all, I have to tell you, it is one of the most lyrical, beautifully written, stirring, urgent books that I’ve read in my life. And not only is it written beautifully, the content is just… Just the inextricable connection between the history of the United States and Black contribution and Black performance. This is a conversation about history, art, poetry, and some really deep genius in this book and some genius in this man. I cannot wait for you to hear the conversation.
BB: So before we jump into the conversation, let me tell you a little bit about Hanif. Hanif Abdurraqib is a New York Times Best-Selling poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in PEN American, Muzzle, Vinyl, and other journals. His essays and music criticism have been published in the New Yorker, Pitchfork, The New York Times and Fader. He is the author of poetry collections, including The Crown Ain’t Worth Muchand A Fortune for Your Disaster. He is the author of the essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest. Hanif was named guest curator at large at BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, beginning in January of 2021, and is the host of the new Sonos podcast Object Of Sound. He is a graduate of Beechcroft High School. Welcome Hanif. Hanif, welcome to Unlocking Us. Super grateful for your time today.
Hanif Abdurraqib: Thank you so much for having me.
BB: I have so many questions and thoughts about A Little Devil in America, your newest book. I read the books with members of the team, and then we do a prep, and most of the time I read with our producer here on our side, Laura Mayes, and when we got on the Zoom call, we just sat looking at each other without saying anything. And she just finally said, “Art.”
BB: I said, “Yeah, art, art.” No words, art. Just wow, thank you. And congratulations.
HA: Thank you. You know, it feels weird because as books go, as you know, you write a thing much longer before it comes out into the world, and I’m at a stage of kind of mourning a bit because this book was so fun to write and so exciting to write, and I’m on the verge of it no longer being just mine and it will become the public’s, which is a wonderful thing, but something that I’m mourning for the first time in my book writing life.
BB: I weirdly know that feeling, because there’s so much vulnerability in putting words to the paper, and there’s so much warmth and love in that process, and then when it becomes public, it becomes something else. Doesn’t it?
HA: Yeah, you have no control over what that something else is, so it’s kind of like the mutating of your initial ideas and emotions is something that I think as writers, you have to get comfortable with because we can’t control the shape the things take when the world gets a hold of them.
BB: Yeah, it’s very Jungian too, because I think in some ways, people project what they need the book to be.
BB: That’s hard. I want to talk about it, but I want to start with this question first. Which is a big question. Can you tell us your story? [chuckle] Can you start from the very beginning? And tell us your story?
HA: Yes, I was born on the east side of Columbus, Ohio. I’m the youngest of four, which means for me a lot of things, but I think it most prominently means that I am bad at keeping secrets and bad at holding on to things that might gain me an advantage emotional or otherwise in the world. I lost my mother when I was… In the year right before I turned 13, and I think because of that, I shaped my ideas around grief pretty clearly. I spent a lot of time in my life, childhood and adult life, thinking about grief as something not to let go and depart from, but as something to adjust towards carrying every year or every moment even. And I think that in some ways, so much of my story is defined by my capacity to feel very large things and remain curious about them and attempt to not be overwhelmed by them, you know?
HA: That’s probably an abridged version of the story, [chuckle] I skipped decades, but I feel like the least interesting parts are in those decades.
BB: It’s interesting that you say this about grief, because one of the things I’ll say about your writing, and not just your writing here, but a lot of things that I’ve read, your poetry, New York Times, stories, this A Little Devil in America, You don’t swing from love to rage or from hope to despair, or from sorrow and grief to joy. You somehow manage to write in a space that contains them all at the same time. Is that a fair assessment?
HA: That’s a very kind assessment, [chuckle] I think. I’m often trying to complicate the feeling beyond the initial feeling. I’m kind of knocking on the door of the, “Why do I feel this way?” Is sometimes when I am sad, for example, I’m sad because I am envious, or I am sad because I am romantic, or I’m mad because I am lonely, these kind of things that tease out the secondary colors that kind of make up the emotional sunset that I’m always kind of staring at, it’s kind of easy for me to point at the large orange sky going down behind the skyline, but I think I like to take inventory of the colors resting beneath that because that for me is where the kind of good and complicated and more thoughtful work of the emotional archival comes into play, and that also makes it so that I am not just shouting into a void. I’m not necessarily trying to solve anything either, which is very important, I think in my work. I’m not trying to solve any emotional puzzles, and I find myself more often trying to take inventory.
BB: I’m having a moment of stunned silence, and I’ll tell you why, because I’m an emotions researcher, and I interview a lot of emotion researchers or affects researchers on the podcast, and you just said in 70 words what we spend three hours trying to explain with terms like emotional granularity and neutrality about emotional outcome. First, Jesus, oh my God, I don’t know how that happened, but how did you learn this? Is this the poet in you and the writer in you that doesn’t fall prey to the big name emotions, but you get granular? How did you learn to do that?
HA: I think I’m almost required to understand my feelings as complex because otherwise I’d be overwhelmed by the large-ness of them. And so I don’t know if it’s the poet in me, but it is the person who has been heart-broken enough times by the state of my living and almost requires something else to propel me towards the next potential for heartbreak or the next potential for pleasure that is greater understood by the knowing of the heartbreak. This is nothing I’ve studied. I think I like to ask questions of the things I feel because if I just sit in those feelings and accept them as they are, at least in my case, I would be kind of swept away by something that would at least for a little while render me incapable of moving forward emotionally.
BB: The enormity of it.
HA: Yeah, yeah. To be frank, I’m sad often. I am always either mourning something or preparing to mourn something. My therapist would tell me that I fixate too much on the potential for mourning, but I think that even through that fixation, what I’m actually doing is cultivating a generosity for the parts of the world that are still here and still very touchable to me, and so I think I need to balance those things, evenly.
BB: I want to tell people about the book and then I want to talk about what you just so beautifully explained and how it plays out in the book, because I’m telling you, even with the eyes of someone who studied emotion for decades, it’s interesting, there’s a sweeping away by overwhelm that is really, I think dangerous, at least for me personally, and then there’s a being swept away by a refusal to deny the full human experience.
BB: That’s beautiful.
BB: Do you know what I mean? There’s different sweepings, aren’t there?
HA: Yes indeed, yeah. I’m someone who like a lot of people, I’ve spent the last 12-ish months in my house largely, and I live alone with my dog, and so that taking inventory for the first time in my life, as much therapy as I’ve done in my adult life, I’ve had this immense discomfort of checking in with myself on a frequent basis where I’m very good at checking in with myself when it seems like things are not going great. But I think in the past year, I’ve also really fostered discomfort with checking in with myself, just even hourly, kind of taking that inventory of how I’m feeling. And if I’m feeling fine, not being concerned with that feeling of fineness. I’m someone who was for a long time now, for well over a decade, I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, and so so much of my aversion of checking in with myself is an easy way to open a door through which I’ll just spiral through an anxiety tunnel, right? But there’s just something interesting about what we’re talking about in terms of breaking down the enormity of the emotion into more reasonable kind of bite-sized portions that serve my emotional state, where it’s important to ask myself what I need in the moment, and even if what I need in the moment is nothing, but what I have, it is still good to kind of tap on the window and take that little smaller inventory.
BB: I know there’s so much wisdom in what you’re saying. Did you grow up in a family where you talked about emotion, that you were encouraged to talk about feelings, that therapy was normalized?
HA: No, and this is through no fault of my family’s, I think it also wasn’t punished. Talking about emotions wasn’t something that was frowned upon, but I think that if there is a flaw here it’s in me. I did not know how to articulate my feelings at all, and I acted out… Most of my articulation was through acting out, which alienated anyone from being very interested in how I was feeling. I didn’t start therapy until, I guess this is still kind of young, but I didn’t start therapy until my early 20s, and I think that learning how to speak out loud about things I’m feeling is an ongoing battle.
BB: Me too, it’s hard.
HA: There are things I tell my therapist that I’m immensely comfortable telling my therapist, but she is sometimes not the person who needs to hear it. I can’t easily express that to the people who need to hear it because the stakes are higher.
HA: The stakes are way different.
BB: Yeah, and the vulnerability is different. I was just talking about this actually yesterday in therapy. And I just said I’m so much better at talking about how I feel to people who are not really personally affected by my choices and my behavior. But when I have to talk about how I feel with people who feel the direct ramifications of how I show up sometimes I get so scared and defensive, so I get what you’re saying. I always wonder, could you just write a note to this person for me? Tell me the story behind A Little Devil in America. Tell me how it started, what your thinking was and how it evolved, if it did.
HA: I was in Memphis in what had to be 2016 or 2017, early 2017 maybe. And I was in the Stax Records Museum, and I saw the Cadillac that Isaac Hayes was gifted when he put out his Black Moses Album, and he loved that Cadillac and it was taken from him because he went bankrupt and had to sacrifice it. And Stax bought the car, didn’t return it to him and kind of like just held it and put it in this museum, and I was really struck by that. It bothered me a bit, for a few reasons, but because earlier in that day, I had driven past Graceland, also in Memphis, the Elvis Estate, and I had seen the artifacts of his living sprawled out in a way that was so touchable for people, and I began to think about the varied ways that Blackness and Black performance is commodified and reshaped for American consumption, and oftentimes those Black performers do not get what they’re owed while they’re alive. And so I started this idea of a book about… I wrote this long essay about Justin Timberlake, also from Memphis, and Al Green, and Elvis, and Isaac Hayes, and I thought at first I was writing a book about America’s response to Black performance through the lens of appropriation and through the lens of commodification, and through the lens of whiteness as a container for Black performance.
HA: And then Toni Morrison died and I did away with about half the book, which honestly was the second time in a row. My last book of poems before this one, I did away with half the book near the finish line too. But I’d had a first draft and I didn’t feel good about the first draft, and I’m a big Toni Morrison disciple. Ms. Morrison means a lot to me, to have a writer like that from Ohio is a huge blueprint for me. And a thing that Ms. Morrison talked about often is the removal of any investment in whiteness from the work, and how that is the greatest thing for the Black imagination, for a writer, for any kind of maker. And I began to kind of think, “Well, what if I just wrote a book that was celebrating the many nuances of the ways I have performed, of the ways that I’ve witnessed Black performance? What if instead of writing about what Aretha Franklin did not get or what Aretha Franklin deserved, but did not receive, what if I wrote about this beautiful, sprawling, day long funeral where everyone gathered to not let her die? Essentially, to keep her alive for another day.” That kind of thing. I began seeking pleasure, because I think that pleasure is another form of critique, right?
HA: Or at least my pursuit of pleasure exists in opposition to sometimes a more exhausting critique. And the type of pleasure I was after in this book, the type of pleasure I was trying to articulate is perhaps nodding and winking and nudging people I love. Like the piece on Spades in the book is so much… It almost requires an engagement with a type of love that I feel disconnected from right now, the friends I haven’t seen and the friends that I won’t be around. And so I was almost writing in a language that was intent on giving flowers to people in the moments and the movements that I’ve been a part of, detached from whatever America’s claws might grasp at or not grasp at.
BB: I obviously didn’t see the first draft or the first idea, but this book is such a celebration, but yet it’s so rare. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it done with the amount of craft that I’ve seen it done in your book, where you are just not separating joy from pain and grief from gratitude. It is the full emotional experience to read this book and the critique is for me alive and well, but there’s no question as I read it, that Black performance and Black celebration is centered in this book.
HA: Yeah, that’s good to hear. And I think so much of it required me asking questions of what I defined as performance and maybe unraveling even the language of performance or performativity as something that is most often derided on the Internet, which I’m not opposed to that deriding, I suppose sometimes. But understanding performativity as something that has not always entirely been an unhealthy pursuit, particularly for Black Americans who have lived lives where they’ve almost been required to believe themselves capable of something beyond the insufficient way their world sees them. Or for Black Americans who came up in a time, an era which is still existing now, of course, where the search for miracles was prioritized.
HA: And so I think about the story of Ellen Armstrong, the magician, who, in the early draft of this book, I knew I needed something about Ellen Armstrong who fascinated me because one of her primary tricks was pulling coins from behind the ears of her audience members, which of course is a common magic trick now, but when you think of Black folks in the era where she was doing magic, in the late 1800s, early 1900s, Black folks who needed to witness something that signaled to them that they had more than they thought they had.
HA: And so to pull even a nickel from behind someone’s ear and say, “Well, you keep this now,” is to say, “You thought there was nothing here, but there is actually an abundance that you just haven’t seen yet.” And that for me is how I understood my world as a person among Black people I’ve loved. It’s the same trick as growing up and having a cupboard almost empty and yet a meal appearing on the table an hour later, or new basketball sneakers being put by the door in the day of basketball try-outs despite pay day not being for another 10 days. So I think when I break it down like this, when I think of the performance of miracles or the way that the miracle is a life-saving tool, then it becomes a lot easier for me to dissect what I believe a performance to be and who I believe a performance to serve.
BB: Yeah, and it’s incredible. I had never heard of her or her dad, actually. And so she started with her dad, her father passed away, everyone thought that would be the end of the show because how would this young woman take it over, but she never abandoned the Black community either. She stayed in Black churches, Black community centers. One of the things that resonated for me when I was reading it, I have my very marked up book here, the sound of a coin hitting a tin bucket.
BB: Can you say more about that?
HA: Yeah. [chuckle] When I was a kid, sometimes, for example, there was nothing to me like hearing the sounds of food being made in the kitchen. And part of this was because in my family, I didn’t grow up with a lot of money. Some years were better than other years as it goes, I think for families without a lot of money. But in the years where I often questioned, not so dire that I questioned, “Where is the next meal coming from?” But sometimes so dire, where it’s like, “I don’t think we have enough for our next meal.” There was something about the sound of movement happening in the kitchen that made me feel a little bit closer to that miraculous feeling. And so with Ellen Armstrong and the coin hitting the bucket, there’s something about the sound of a miracle as it takes place or the real-time sonics of the impossible coming to life and being animated that is also in line with me, as someone who’s essentially a music writer and someone who’s invested in writing about music and dissecting what sound does to our brains and our bodies and our feelings.
BB: There’s so many things I want to jump into, but I have to say, “Tell me about the love letter.” That’s what I’m going to call it. You can correct me. The love letter you write to Soul Train.
HA: A wild thing about this book that I feel like anyone who bounces around on my social media knows is this. So when I first started writing this book, I found a homie of mine who had every episode from the 70s and 80s of Soul Train on a hard drive.
BB: Oh, God.
HA: And I was just like, “I’ve got to have it, I’ll pay whatever. Random House maybe will reimburse me for this but I’ve got to have it.” And so he sent it to me, he looked out. He sent it to me for free and actually just hit me with a 90s hard drive on Monday that I can’t wait to get into now that on the other side of this book. And so I spent… I’ve been trying to chart the hours, because so many people have asked me what the Soul Train thing. It had to have been 100 hours watching Soul Train just at night, dragging it to any place, any episode. And I became obsessed with the continuity of the Soul Train Line, where occasionally you would see someone who stood out in maybe an episode from February 1977, and then in October in 1977, you see him again, different outfit, different dance moves.
HA: Different hairstyle sometimes. And it felt familial. I spent so much time deep in the Soul Train archives that it felt like a familial experience. It felt like I was present with family who kept showing up in all these different modes. And growing up for me and seeing Soul Train reruns, Don Cornelius was almost a mythical figure. He was like walk-on-water level of cool. And to get to think about him from a perspective of gratitude first as someone who primarily had a vision for Black people beyond suffering.
HA: He loved Black people so much that he imagined the fullness of them and created a platform where that fullness could be on display. I loved spending time thinking through Soul Train, and I loved spending time contrasting Soul Train with the Depression-era dance marathons which are not as romantic. Those are horrific, and I think an especially odd horror of American history. But also, there was something I was wrestling with about companionship and being present alongside someone who is your propeller through either a short line or a long run of months holding each other up. And I’m a bit of a romantic. And so I think it was also a good chance for me to consider my many relationships that I’ve had in life, romantic and otherwise, and how I’ve held and how I’ve been held, and the sometimes unevenness of those things.
BB: Growing up, it was really weird, I have to ask my parents about this. My parents were really strict around television. I was allowed to watch Disney and Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom, they both came on Sundays. I was allowed to watch 60 to 90 minutes of cartoons on Saturday morning, and I was allowed to watch Soul Train.
BB: And that was it.
BB: And I thought of Don Cornelius as God in many ways.
BB: He just seemed not of this Earth to me. And I got really emotional reading that, because there were several moments that I remember, and the experience was different for me, for sure, as a white kid watching Soul Train. But I remember the first time I saw couples with matching outfits. That didn’t start that way.
HA: No, yeah.
BB: It was like, “Oh my God, this is next level now.” Or, I will tell you one of my most excruciating stories. I can’t find the episode, maybe you can tell me. And I only was thinking about it because you were talking about the beauty of partnership in the Line, the Soul Train Line, but there was an episode where a woman, I think came down the Line by herself, and she did the splits, and she stayed in the splits while the top half of her body did the robot.
HA: Yep, yeah.
BB: Do you remember this?
HA: Yeah, I’ve seen that. Yeah.
BB: I thought this was the most important thing I’d ever seen. And so I remember with the seventh grade dance, I tried it in public.
HA: Oh, no. [chuckle]
BB: I know, it was a major white girl mistake, but what I forgot is when I was done, people were just kind of like shielding their eyes and walking away from me. But what I forgot was she ended up with her arms kind of hanging like this, like in the scarecrow and her partner picked her up from behind.
BB: But I had no way up off the floor in the splits, and so I just had to roll over and kind of beach it out. It was awful, but I just remember thinking the clothes, the platform shoes. I remember seeing the Sugar Hill Gang for the first time on Soul Train, the Isley Brothers. I would save up my money and get whatever eight-track was on that week. I don’t you can separate American History from Soul Train, do you? At least not music history.
HA: No, for me the history of America is so tied up in its music. You know what’s fascinating about having a thing like a hard drive with every ’70s and ’80s Soul Train episode on it, is that you’re seeing a progression of fashion, not only of fashion and aesthetics, but also of politics in a way, of commercials. All the episodes I have, have the real-time commercials that aired during the episode, so that’s fascinating. And I think it’s a story also of the continual… Long arc of Black liberation through movement and through fashion. It’s a lot about those early ’70s Soul Train Line is that you would see people in outfits that maybe kind of looked like they just got off work. Working class folks who had, maybe, three-piece suits on, women with like long skirts kind of thing.
BB: Yeah, and blazers.
HA: Yeah, blazers, a lot of blazers.
BB: Tons of blazers, like work blazers.
HA: Yeah. Right. I couldn’t really hit this in the book, but I was thinking about this, the difference between the work blazer and a fashion blazer, you know what I mean?
HA: And then you get ’77-ish. ’76, ’77, it’s way different vibe. People are coming in the best of their best.
BB: Gold lame.
HA: Yeah, right. The outfits definitely take a turn. The interviews kind of take a little bit of a turn. Don Cornelius himself takes a little bit of a turn. And I’m so excited. I told myself that I’ve got to get through the book publicity arc before I dive into the ’90s hard drive. But I’m so excited to get into those because I think I’ve watched a couple of clips, I’ve cheated and watched a couple. Oh wow, this is a whole other thing. The turnover from even ’88 to ’91, like house party era fashion is a whole other thing.
BB: Do you think from the early ’70s, I guess when I started watching, to when it went from like coming from work to real self-expression, that it became more Black-centric, that it became more political in both fashion and style and more celebratory in that? Because I think Soul Train was the first time I ever saw platform shoes, and these guys would have on like really big afros and 6-inch platform shoes.
HA: Yeah. Well, yes, and I also think that in some ways it became more sexually liberating in some ways in nature.
HA: Which I think is something that really jumps out in the ’80s, and then it also gets more creative in the ’80s. There’s the guy who would occasionally be in the Line, he would spin a basketball on his finger. He would go through the Line with a basketball. And also, the Line often took on the aesthetics of… There was a point where a lot of women in the Line looked like Jody Watley, who began in the Line and then became the pop star. And there was an era where a lot of the men were trying this heavily accessorized Michael Jackson thing. So in a way, the Line really reflected Black popular culture, particularly in the ’80s when they kind of started to do that really aggressively in a way that I find so fascinating. There were women who… Putting on a kind of Grace Jones air, right?
HA: It was reflecting so many facets of Black pop culture which to me was exciting. If I talk about the multitude and this nature of Black folks, it is a Soul Train Line wherein someone is aesthetically mimicking Grace Jones and someone else is aesthetically mimicking Jody Watley or Janet Jackson.
BB: One thing that I underlined in the book, and can I read you a quote from your own book?
HA: Sure. I have not read the book in a long time, so I’d be happy to hear a quote from it.
BB: Yeah. This is a great quote. “I consider often the difference between showing off and showing out. How showing off is something you do for the world at large and showing out is something you do strictly for your people. The people who might not need to be reminded how good you are, but will take the reminder when they can. The Soul Train Line was the gold standard of where one goes to show out.”
BB: Oh, tell me more about the difference between showing off and showing out.
HA: I grew up playing sports. I grew up in a sports-playing household in a very good sports-playing era, because I grew up in the ’90s. I’m also not someone who’s like, “My era was the best era.” But I grew up in the era of both Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson, and so I sometimes think about athletes as the best example of that line between showing off and showing out. Because sometimes, I think showing off is not bad. I don’t think showing off is necessarily even bad. I think sometimes, showing off is something you do because you yourself cannot believe what you are achieving. Iconically, Michael Jordan against the Blazers, when he hit all those threes and then shrugged while running back down court, that was showing off, but it was him saying, “I cannot wrap my head around what’s happening either.”
HA: “I’m surpassing a level of greatness that even I… ” You know what I mean?
HA: I think now, not to get too sports-heavy, but the showing out for me is something like Stephen Curry shooting a three and turning to run back down court before it even goes in because the job is done already, right?
HA: He understands that the job is done. And to understand the job is done, to understand that you are so good that the job is complete before it’s actually complete, and to acknowledge that you are done with the job before it’s actually complete, is a form of showing out. There’s a Jordan thing where it’s like, “I don’t know what’s going on because I’m so great, but this is even beyond my level of greatness.” And then there’s the Curry thing where it’s like, “I’m actually really certain of my own greatness, so much to the point that I can just be done with this.” It’s like what Rosie Perez, in the book, I talk about how occasionally she would not finish the line. She would stop dancing halfway through and just walk down staring at the camera. She would find the camera and just stare at the camera and walk the last kind of…
BB: And look right into it, yeah.
HA: The job was done. The job was done in that first half.
BB: Do you think you have to have some greatness to back up the showing out?
HA: Sometimes, but not always. I’ve certainly lied my way into greatness more than once in my life. Because I think sometimes the function of showing out too, I mentioned this a bit in the Spades piece, is that you have to convince people that you have something you don’t have. Or you have to convince people that you are capable of something that you are not sure you’re capable of yourself, and I feel like so much of my life has operated in that kind of… I’m not an overly confident person, so I think so much of my life is operated in the window of, how can I convince people that I am capable of something that I’m actually not entirely sure I’m capable of?
BB: I know that feeling. Let’s go back for a minute, because let me tell you, I knew nothing, nothing but maybe some post-vintage posters I had seen that were nostalgic and looked fun about these dance contests. So to give listeners some background, in case you’re not familiar, I definitely wasn’t, but dance marathons were basically these human endurance contests where couples danced almost non-stop for hundreds and hundreds of hours, as long as a month or two competing for prize money. They started as dance contests in the 1920s, but they turned into these brutal entertainment endurance events during The Great Depression in the 1930s… I’m careful about using the word brutality, but there was definitely a real brutality to these contests. Can you tell us about how these started and what these are and what they meant for people?
HA: Yeah, a homie of mine, when he heard about what I was writing about was like, “Have you heard of these depression era dance marathons?” I was like, “No. And I’m not really interested, this isn’t what the book is going to be.” Like, to be frank, I was like, “A bunch of white folks dancing,” like, “I’m good.” He was like, “But wait, wait, wait, I think there’s something emotional in here waiting to be unlocked.” And he sent me this folder. He’s a visual artist, and he’d done some work around them. So he sent me this folder of photos and there was a photo I talk about it in the book where the woman is passed out in the man’s arms and he’s looking at her, and he’s looking at her with this real sense of concern and affection. And I had read the caption on that photo and realized that those two people were not… At least they did not enter the competition in love, it was a person and his neighbor down the street… Or his neighbor’s daughter. And that kind of blew my mind a little bit because I began thinking about this kind of forced collaboration that just by nature of the closeness of it through that something like affection is born or is almost required. Because you’re talking about…
HA: You have to hold someone up while they’re sleeping in your arms, and you have to hold a mirror for someone while they carefully take a razor to their face. And I’m not trying to advocate for forced affections, but I am interested in the way that… I personally, though, of course, I’ve never been in a dance marathon, I’m interested in the way that I just by virtue of having to spend time with someone or having to be in a space with someone looks over at them and I catch them in the right light or what have you, and for a moment, I imagine myself in love when I wasn’t before or I find myself going, “Well, where did that feeling come from?” And it is the way that proximity can play tricks on our affections, and sometimes those tricks can last a very long time and become not tricks at all, but…
HA: The dance marathon was so interesting to me because it was these people who sometimes had no emotional connections, forced into this really high stakes emotional situation, we’re talking months and months and months of just being essentially tethered to a person physically. And I’m interested in what gets born out of that.
BB: And not for fun, right?
HA: Not for fun, yeah, not for fun.
BB: They’re doing this for food, shelter.
HA: In the negotiations that had to be made where women had to sometimes think about, “Okay, who is a man who is not so heavy that I cannot lift him, but definitely sturdy enough to lift me?” That kind of thing, that really blew my mind. And I don’t know, I worked hard to not overly romanticize the dance marathons because they are horrific. There’s something I know and I’m familiar with and I’m always trying to kind of unravel about close proximity to someone leading to an unexpected bout of affection that we then have to wrestle with or sit with for a long period of time. Which I feel like it’s happening to people in the pandemic, in some ways, where a lot of people are looking at a person’s Instagram or whatever online, they’re like, “I think I want to marry this person.” Well, “Do you want to marry this person or have you just not seen another person for a long time?”
BB: Which is hard to parse out sometimes. Yeah, I just thought it was kind of soft copy and fun. I never realized that people were desperately trying to win the money, they were sometimes entering for a place to be that was warm during the day. It might be helpful for you. Will you explain the genesis of this dance contest and how they became a ticket out or a ticket to basic care?
HA: Yeah, they kind of came to life in a few different ways, one America at the time was really obsessed with the idea of a marathon or world record setting, was super obsessed with world record setting. And in the book, I talk about Alma Cummings who danced for a series of hours, and then when the news of her dancing traveled across the world, people started to want to surpass her, and then people wanted to surpass other people who were surpassing her.
HA: And of course, the evil of America’s innovations thought, “Well, there’s a way to kind of capitalize on this,” tying it to the economic desperation of the times. And particularly in the Midwest, where there were a lot of barns and a lot of space to do this, you can get people to gather and just kind of dance because you got meals and you got a place to sleep. And if you were someone who lived in a place where neither of those things were guaranteed, or if you were someone who’s extra mouth to-feed was a burden on an already strained family, this was the opportunity for you for a long time to be somewhere doing something. But the thing is, on a lot of the competitions, second place didn’t get anything. And so if you danced for 1500 hours and someone else danced for 1500 hours and three minutes, there were some competitions where you just didn’t get anything.
HA: And that is a bit horrifying.
BB: Okay, I have to talk to you a little bit about your writing, because when I read something, I usually put it in one of these buckets, when I read something, I love, this is what I think. One bucket is, “This really helped me understand something new.” The second bucket was, “God, that’s some really good writing and I understand something new.” Three, “Dammit, I wish I would have written that.” And four, “I don’t even wish I would have written that because it would be like standing in front of a piece of art in a museum saying, ‘I think I’ll try painting that some time.’” That’s how I felt when I read your book. No, really. Laura and I were processing the book together… And we don’t use this word very often, I’m very careful with this word, there is some real genius in your book. And Laura said, “This is what I felt like when I saw Hamilton the first time.” You know, really, how did you get these threads together? So I want to walk you through your chapter, the official title is, “Nine Considerations Of Black People In Space.” So we both believe that this chapter should be taught in MFA programs across the world. When you write about poetry, you write it as a poem.
BB: You take us different places, you connect. There’s a definition, it may have been Steve Jobs that said, “Creativity is connecting the seemingly unconnectable.” There’s kind of a trope in writing these days where people will give you three disparate things and we need to be awed about how they tie them all together. Do you know what I’m talking about?
HA: Yeah, because I do it sometimes, surely.
BB: No, no, no, no, no, you don’t. Not in anything I’ve read. What you do is you start this chapter with a quote. It says… This is what you write, “To be fair, I cannot claim that I love the moon as much as all my pals, and ancestors, and peers. I maybe do not love the moon as much as other poets who seem to love the moon for what it is capable of doing to the waters or how it seduces the best or worst of an astrological sign.” You start with this beautiful thing about your relationship with the moon, then in the space of just 20 pages, I was laughing out loud to the point where my husband was like, “What’s so funny?” There is this incredible prose about astrology. Then you talk about Robert Hayden, then you talk about Michael Jackson’s death, the moon walk, Bill Bailey, the moon walk creator, who I always thought it was Michael Jackson, but you teach us. Your mom, the love of stars, how you want to give her the moon, Patti LaBelle and spacesuits, Billy Dee Williams, the most badass man in space, Trayvon Martin. And now, I’m sobbing in this chapter, where at first, I was swooning over poetry, then I’m laughing, and now I’m in real tears.
BB: Really, I can’t swallow kind of thing. Michael Anderson, I’m still in tears, the astronaut. Octavia Butler, the novelist. Sun Ra, a French flag that says they are Black people in the future. And then you tie this all together for us with just sublime writing.
HA: Thank you. That’s very kind.
BB: I don’t mean to be kind. I mean, I’m glad I’m being kind. I want to be a kind person.
BB: It’s a marvel. It’s a marvel is what it is, it’s a fucking marvel. How does this happen? Do you think like this?
HA: For better or worse, yeah. Sometimes worse, but I’m often beginning with one thing and trying to reverse-engineer some kind of connection points. That piece began with… I had this obsession with the Trayvon Martin aviation experience photo that kind of circulates as a corrective. Or it did circulate as a corrective. It still does a bit, but did prominently after his murder. And then I was thinking about Michael Anderson, the only Black astronaut who died upon that particular space mission. I knew I could not have this book without paying a homage to Octavia Butler, but also the LaBelle spacesuits, I went down a real rabbit hole of those, of really big LaBelle photo on the walls of my dining room, in the kind of feathered spacesuits. And so I think that in my brain, I’m oftentimes running the numbers and asking myself how I can reverse-engineer some kind of connection point to the multiple obsessions that I’m sprinting towards.
HA: In some ways, I’m sprinting towards them while trying to outrun the ones that are coming because I know that I have limits with what I can stretch myself to. But something like this where it’s kind of like a bunch of vignettes felt easier for me because each of them are kind of tied to the other one, but they’re not asking anyone to think of what they’re consuming in a strictly firm, intense linear fashion. But it is asking someone to think about the many different ways that Black people have been in a world other than this one. I think about LaBelle as a perfect example of existing in a future that seemed impossible at the time, but it also seemed like they were really shepherding people there just by the aesthetics and the sound. And it always feels, when I write, that none of my ideas are interesting enough on their own. None of the pursuits I have are interesting enough on their own because I’m someone who is easily obsessed with things and easily falls down rabbit holes that don’t really lead to anywhere but my own personal satisfactions.
HA: And so there’s a humility for me in understanding that my personal satisfactions have to or are almost required to serve some greater purpose, if I’m committing them to any page that many people are going to read beyond myself.
BB: You started us with poetry, and I thought about the moon and I was kind of swept away, but then I was jerked back about a line that you wrote. And I can’t remember it offhand, but when I read it, I guess what I saw was the importance of the moon for enslaved people running at night.
BB: But then at the same time, the same moon that might disrupt a kiss with someone we love or might shine a light on someone we love. Again, beauty and pain, making no apologies for co-existing with you.
HA: Yeah. I had started that piece in 2017, I think. I don’t want to dismiss the moon, the moon’s, fine, but I was for real on a date with someone and it was going very well, and as it was going well, she was like, “Oh, it’s a full moon tonight. We should go look at the moon.” And me being foolish and slightly younger, I don’t want to say “Well, I was so young,” it was like four years ago, of me being foolish and slightly younger. And I was like, “Oh man, fuck the moon.” [chuckle] So I think that was also one of the propelling things from this piece, was back in 2017, I was significantly less in love with the moon than I am now. I appreciate it a bit more now in my older age.
BB: You talk about Michael Jackson’s death and you talk about the night he died, how you ended up in the basement of a bar with a mass of people that came together to collectively dance to his music. But also, this felt like it broke your heart a little bit.
HA: At the time, yeah. And one thing that I will say is that I’m someone who does not really listen to Michael Jackson anymore, and I don’t really have a relationship with Michel Jackson’s music anymore.
HA: Intentionally. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I also don’t ever want to be dishonest about the way that I felt in a moment before this one, before like I evolved onto something else.
HA: Michael Jackson’s death, at the time it happened, yes, my politics on Michael Jackson have evolved in 2021 and before, honestly, maybe a couple of years after his death, they evolved. But at the time of his death, I think it was even less about him, the person, and more about this fresh absence in the childhood memories I had. And even more than that, it was kind of about the communal coming together of people.
HA: And I don’t want to be dismissive of anyone’s death, but I do think that anyone with enough hits that could have brought people to that basement at Hampton’s on King and had us dancing all night… I don’t want to say it could have been anyone and be dismissive, but what I’m actually thinking about is not the death of Michael Jackson but the communal nature of songs that bring people together on a week night when they’ve got work the next day, that kind of thing.
BB: Yeah. I thought about when I was about reading being in that basement dancing and you coming out and sweaty and the moonlight shining, and I thought about this construct from the philosopher Durkheim of collective effervescence. When he first witnessed something in churches and he’s like, “I don’t know what’s going on in here. It’s magic. It could be dangerous.” But then what he ended up calling it was collective effervescence. And I thought about, as you describe that room, I think there’s a line in there where you describe it as so packed you couldn’t raise an arm to wipe the sweat off your forehead. It was just wall-to-wall and dancing to this music, and in collective effervescence, and in community. It was so powerful.
HA: Yeah. I was just thinking back to that night and the thought of that now, is so horrifying. [chuckle] The thought of being that physically close, but that was one of the wildest nights of my life, because it wasn’t even so much dancing, it was just moving what you could, how you could, where you could, and there was this communal understanding of, “We are going to be present on top of each other without complaint.” Yeah. And it wasn’t even… As romantic as I am, but it wasn’t a romantic thing. It was in this very hot summer, this very hot and draining summer, how do we steer ourselves beyond the grief into something higher? And how do we claw away at the foundation of grief and get some light to peek through?
BB: That people often pick a path and you just refuse to pick a path here, is you do not usually separate the space between collectivity and grief either, do you?
HA: No, I think it’s impossible for me to do.
BB: It’s really, really beautiful. And it filled me with some grief about what’s happening this year for so many people who are having to mourn and grieve alone in a way that doesn’t feel like it matches our wiring.
HA: Yeah, that’s been hard for me. And I think it’s been hard for a lot of my friends who live alone and who are alone to some degree, because I think that I count myself as someone who is almost required to believe in ghosts, or to believe in the type of haunting that manifests itself by subtle, or not so subtle revisits. Because otherwise, if I don’t believe in that, then I have to believe that as long as I am living, I am alone, apart from everyone I’ve loved who is no longer here.
HA: And I just refuse to believe that. I refuse to not see my mother in signs, or my dear friends who I’ve lost in the signs of my everyday living. And so there are some ways that I’ve gotten closer to these ideas in an attempt to understand myself as not entirely alone. And this means seeking gratitude in sometimes unhappy instances, like if I’m putting up a photo in a spot and I turn around and walk away and the photo falls and the glass breaks. So I’m always like, “That’s one of my homies telling me I need a better frame for that one.” I got a cheap frame and I put up the photo and then went to go do something else and the photo fell off the wall then broke, it’s like someone’s telling me, “This photo deserves better.” These kind of rationalizations make it for me so that grief is never individual, and so that my understanding of grief is always communal, but I also do understand mourning, the very physical, collective grieving process that comes with being near your friends. One of my oldest, closest friends in the city, who I love a great deal, had a child about a year ago. And last weekend, because it was warm enough, I met them at the park.
HA: And we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. And we hung out for a few hours and it didn’t hit me until after I left the park. It fucked me up, because I was like, “Her child is walking and running around, and is curious about the world.” And the last time I saw her child, he was none of that. And it made me really confront this idea… Everyone talks a lot about how slow time is going, and I feel that. Definitely, time is going slow. But when I see real tangible impacts of things that are happening quickly that I am just missing, that feels like there are things spiraling down a drain that I can’t get back. That one of my closest friends in the world is in real time learning how to parent and I have no access to that part of her world, or the access I have is so limited.
HA: And the next time I see her child he might be saying full words. Yeah, there’s something wild about that. There’s something that feels… I think I’m mourning the way that time feels both slow and fast at once, and I’m not sure which pace I’m more comforted by.
BB: Yeah, and the markers are so real. Especially if you’re talking about a newborn to one, in language acquisition. And there’s a saying in parenting that’s coming up for me right now, as you describe this, so beautifully, which is, “The days are long and the years are short.” And it’s the paradox of, “Jesus, am I going to make it through this Wednesday today?” And then, “What the hell happened to September?”
HA: Right. [chuckle]
BB: It’s hard. I want to stay in this chapter for a minute. So you introduce us to Bill Bailey, who actually was the moonwalk creator, you talk about your mom and how you’d like to give her the moon. We go through Patti LaBelle. We talk about Billy Dee Williams, who was our Star Wars badass.
BB: And you loved that, didn’t you?
HA: I did.
BB: As a kid?
HA: As a kid, I really loved Billy Dee Williams, yeah. Yeah. It’s weird, I’m not much of a Star Wars person now. I hope the fans of the franchise will forgive me. But I remember being a kid… And he also was the voice of Colt 45 malt liquor, which…
BB: Oh yeah.
HA: Back in the day when I was a kid on the school bus, those ads would play on the morning radio shows. And so I was so intensely familiar with his voice and the idea of cool as it presented itself in his voice. So yeah, yeah, he’s my guy.
BB: And then you talk about Trayvon Martin and… This was the quilting and the weaving and the tapestry you made here just again, I was thinking about Billy Dee Williams’ character in Star Wars, and I was thinking about how he was really, I thought much more of a badass in some ways than Han Solo. He was just cooler guy, I thought, he just had a little bit more swagger than Han Solo. And he was good, and then all of a sudden I find myself weeping because after Trayvon Martin was murdered, you talk about the Internet and news being flooded with dehumanizing images of young Black men and Black boys. And dehumanizing in terms of looking dangerous, looking like the other, looking predatory, and we know that dehumanization is such a prominent tool of white supremacy. It’s just, let’s push the humanity, and then all of a sudden, we see what you would call and correct me if I’m wrong, a corrective photo, a reaction to the dehumanization, which is a younger Trayvon Martin. It’s a picture that I literally have the exact same picture of my son. It’s a field trip picture, right? Can you tell us more about that?
HA: Yeah, I think I gravitate towards the Experience Aviation photo because it’s a field trip photo and because it’s a photo that I took as a kid in some degree, not at Experience Aviation, but at something like that. But I also wanted to complicate this idea that that photo was the corrective, when for me, the photos that were actually Trayvon Martin being Trayvon Martin doing anything while living were not in need of any correctives, right?
BB: Right, God, yes.
HA: There are photos of me with my middle finger up in my teens and those are photos that are me, again, performing a version of myself for a lens that I’m not ashamed of now and was not ashamed of then. And so untangling this idea of respectability from the image and the role respectability plays in the perception of images, I felt like there was a way to talk about America’s response and desire for these corrective photos despite Trayvon Martin not living a life long enough… His life was taken from him before he got to complicate any of his past selves.
HA: And I think that that is something… The fact that I’ve gotten to live long enough to get to complicate my past selves is a real generosity and something that I hope that I’ll continue to get to do. But Trayvon Martin is among a lot of young Black folks who did not get that opportunity.
BB: I’m just having a thought right now for the first time about something I’ve never thought about, which is the privilege of integration. I definitely know that’s not hard to imagine. I have pictures of me flipping somebody off with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth, and I have all kinds of things from my past. Luckily a generation, not caught on film mostly but I have the privilege of integration. I have the privilege of living long enough to create a hole, which I’m not actually interested in without that girl and Doc Martin flipping people off, to be honest with you, that she’s part of me. But the privilege of integration, it just comes from freaking living long enough.
BB: Yeah. I have a quote and a question… I have 400 other things, but I know time is important and you’ve been so generous with yours. There’s a quote on page 133-134, and I’m reading from the advanced uncorrected proofs. But do you by any chance have that in front of you?
HA: No I do not have a physical copy of the book. [chuckle]
HA: Yeah, I’ve not seen it yet. I’m still rooting for a chance to get one soon.
BB: Okay, so can I read this quote to you?
BB: From this book that just takes my breath away. “I don’t want to go to the moon, but I do want to go to the place where Black dreamers stare at the moon and remark loudly about the signs and stars in a summer that feels as endless as those old summers, which pulled me from the paltry responsibilities of youth. The planet within the planet. People dance in space suits and young Black boys fire rockets above the trees and they always come back down in one piece and sure we’ll crack some malt liquor for the drinking folks, I guess. For as long as there is a future, there will be Black people in it, hopefully surviving in even newer and better ways than we are now. Circles of light opening their wide arms to briefly take our bodies, somewhere higher. It will appear spectacular to anyone who isn’t us.”
HA: You’re a better reader of my book than I am. I should have you do the audio book.
BB: No, I don’t know. I mean, I can’t get through that without having a hard time.
HA: I think a lot about… In terms of the last line, I think all the time about how I always believe, Sun Ra. When Sun Ra would read interviews about Sun Ra talking about how he went to space. I believe when Black folks insist that they have seen something that the rest of the world hasn’t seen, or when they say they’ve been somewhere the rest of the world can’t fathom going, I almost require that level of belief, much like I require a belief in ghosts and the unseen. I require a pathway that leads to a salvation that perhaps cannot be found in the present state of the world because I am so frequently dissatisfied with the present state of the world. And so that dissatisfaction does not allow me to only imagine that long-standing salvation or joy can come in an earthly form until I see some evidence otherwise. And so there are ways that I think… And everyone I know, I feel like so many Black folks I know, just matter-of-factly believe and understand that to be true.
HA: I joke about my pal Madison in the beginning of that piece. And again, I don’t know much about astrology. I would like to know more about astrology, but also would not like people to send me a bunch of emails asking me astrology questions. [chuckle] But…
HA: I think about my friend Madison, there’s something about her joyful and over-eager investment in astrology that feels like it is born from an other worldly place. She’s just one of many folks I have who are like this, but her pursuit of wanting to know everything about your birth time and all that type of shit is purely a pursuit of desiring to understand how you relate to the world in the way you do, and how she can better relate to your relating to the world. And there’s a real generosity in that, which is why I am slowly crawling towards a better understanding of astrology because I think there’s some real generosity in it.
BB: I agree, and it’s maybe born of the desire to want to really see people and be seen by them.
HA: Yeah, yeah.
BB: I’m telling you people are like, “You’ve got to watch Hanif’s time,” because I have seven pages of questions. But before we go to the rapid fire, which I cannot wait, I was like, “I’m going to sneak in six extra questions for the rapid fire,” they’re like, “No, that’s just cheating.” Maybe we can make a semi-commitment to talk again…
HA: I would love that.
BB: After the book is out. I would love that too. Okay, you’re a cultural critic and you are a music lover, you’re a music critic, you’re a music writer. Are all those things true, that I just said?
HA: Yeah, for sure.
BB: Okay. And I’m thinking about Dave Chappelle. I’m thinking about what you write about Whitney Houston. I’m thinking about things that I see every day in the culture today, and here’s my question for you. Somehow it’s about the word performance and I wonder if it’s what you had to interrogate around it. Does Black art change in any way in purity or authenticity or integrity when it brings not just a Black audience, but specifically a white audience? The two questions I have, is one, does something happen when Black art is consumed by more than Black people, and the second question I have is, Jesus, is there anything that white people did not commodify, appropriate, or steal and call their own in music? I mean, really.
HA: Yeah, the answer to the second one is no.
HA: That’s the easy answer.
HA: The first question is a little bit tougher because I think that the best art I make is concerned with Black people and the kind of ability for some Black people to see themselves in the work, or at least find a path to see themselves in the work, and that’s it. Now, I’m also acutely aware that when I release the work into the world, I don’t have any control over it, and I don’t have any control over who else is seen in it, and I’m also not saying no one else is allowed to be seen in this work. I’m just not overly concerned. I’m not overly concerned with audience in general, but if I think of myself as writing to an audience who already understands the nuances of what I am saying, then I feel like I’m doing my best writing. For example, in the Spades piece, I wasn’t going to explain spades or the movements of spades too explicitly, because it’s like, “Well, I’m writing to an audience who know spades enough or have some kin folk who know enough about spades to get them through this.” I’m so bad at these questions, I’m someone who genuinely doesn’t consider audience a lot when I write.
BB: I love that.
HA: Because I’m so anxious, it’s not because I’m immensely still that compartmentalizing or because I’m self-righteous or whatever, it’s because I have such bad anxiety that I simply cannot consider audience.
BB: As a cultural critic and even as a music critic, is it not about the ability of art to transcend to different audiences? Is it about big systems and machines trying to change the artist to appeal to white audiences?
HA: Right, it’s always about the machinery, right?
HA: It’s most often about the machinery. It goes back to Black soul artists recording songs and then white artists being put on the cover of the records. There’s always a machinery that is interested in making Blackness more palatable for an audience, which leads to profit and that is perhaps the bigger issue for me.
BB: I don’t know how to ask this question, but I’m curious about what you think. The consumption of Black art without the investment of understanding Black lived experience.
HA: Yeah, it’s like you want the art but don’t want to engage with the humanity.
BB: Oh God, yes.
HA: You want the idea of the person but not the person, yeah.
BB: Tarana Burke and I are working on a project together right now, and part of the introduction of this anthology is a conversation between us and she said something that I thought was so powerful. She said, “I’m not interested in any anti-racism work that doesn’t fully value, honor, and love the fullness of Black humanity.”
HA: Great. Yeah.
BB: And I think there’s something powerful there. Okay. You ready for the rapid fire questions?
HA: I am.
BB: Fill in the blank. Vulnerability is…
HA: Vulnerability is most often me attempting to not simply revel in the fact that I am capable of feeling large things, but instead thinking of a way that my capability to feel things can serve someone other than myself.
BB: That would be an example of showing out I’m just… I just want to say…
BB: Okay. That was beautiful. Okay. Two, you, Hanif, are called to be very brave, but your fear is real, you can feel it in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?
HA: I say a little prayer to my ancestors asking for guidance.
BB: What is something that people often get wrong about you?
HA: You know what, I’m going to say this here, people think that… So I have a very rigorous skin care routine that I take very intensely and people think that I did not come to it on my own. People are always like, “What ex-girlfriend showed you that?” Or whatever. I want to be clear and say, I am the architect of my own skin care routine.
BB: Okay, you’re the architect of your own skin care. You did your own research and everything?
HA: Oh, yeah.
BB: You’re not a TikTok recommendation? Nothing? Just…
HA: No, yeah. I take it seriously, yeah.
BB: Okay, do you share it with people who ask?
HA: Depends. I do because I believe in karma, but for example, I updated it because I saw a dude in the grocery store this summer, and even with the mask on, I could tell he had great skin. I was kind of like, man, “That skin looks great. Tell me what’s the deal.” And he just gave me some recommendations. So I do believe in paying it forward. If people ask, I do share.
BB: Wow, okay, the last TV show that you binged and loved.
HA: Oh, Money Heist on Netflix. There’s a new season coming. I’m very hyped for it.
BB: Okay, favorite movie.
HA: I don’t have one of all time, but I will say that my favorite movie today is Moonlight because I just re-watched it a couple of days ago and it was as good as I remembered.
BB: Yeah. Beautiful movie. God. Favorite meal.
HA: Well, now I mostly just eat salmon in various forms because I don’t know, I’m in a salmon phase. I’m also trying to eat slightly healthier, and so I am mostly just making various salmon dishes.
BB: What’s your side dish?
HA: Broccoli right now. This is very boring, but broccoli, broccoli is like a vegetable I can really get behind.
BB: Do you do anything special with it? Roast it?
HA: Oh yeah, I roast it.
BB: Boil it? Are you an air fryer guy?
HA: No. I’ve heard stories, but I’m a little afraid to jump in.
BB: No, you need to go, you need to go, and you can put your salmon and your broccoli in the air fryer, get this crispy skin salmon, the kind of charred edge broccoli, and you will thank me later.
HA: Alright, I’ll do it.
BB: Okay, a concert you’ll never forget.
HA: I saw Big K.R.I.T play his hometown in Mississippi, and that was really emotionally affecting weirdly. It was like before he got very big. And there’s something about seeing an artist play in their hometown while they still feel like they belong to the hometown.
HA: I had these experiences with The Black Keys in Akron too. So they just always come to mind.
BB: What’s on your nightstand?
HA: Crystals, some black tourmaline, which is also on my desk, the book The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart by the poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi, the book Inheritance by Taylor Johnson. And also, I have this coin holder shaped like a leaf that I put a lot of random things in, so whatever is randomly in that thing.
BB: Perfect. Give us a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that gives you true joy.
HA: I don’t necessarily love working out, but I love how I feel in the moments after I work out. I talked about in the book, but it’s true, I love walking into the sun after sweating.
BB: God, you wrote something so descriptive, I just have to stop for a second and say, where you’re hot and you’re sweaty and you go outside and there’s that night wind that just gives you that goosebumps feeling, ah, I love that feeling. Tell me one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now in your life.
HA: My dog Wendy.
BB: That’s a really cute dog name. Alright, we asked you to give us five songs. We make a mini mixtape for all of our guests on Spotify, and we asked you for five songs you couldn’t live without. So Hanif Abdurraqib, what do these five songs say about you in one sentence? “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” by Stevie Wonder, “Pirate Jenny,” by Nina Simone, “Are You Leaving for the Country,” by Karen Dalton, “Stand by Me,” by Tracy Chapman, and “Triumph,” by Wu-Tang Clan.
HA: Those songs signal that I am consistently terrified, but relentlessly optimistic.
BB: Thank you so much for putting your art into the world. Thank you for A Little Devil in America. It took my breath away.
HA: Thank you.
BB: And thank you for talking to us on the podcast.
HA: Of course. Thank you for having me. We’ll do it again sometime.
BB: I would love it.
BB: What can you say about this conversation? What can you say about this incredible poet, writer, music critic, historian? I always think about this time when I was with my therapist and we were talking about vulnerability, and I said, “Oh my God, vulnerability is just excruciating.” And she said, “And it’s exquisite.” And I just keep thinking about that paradox as I reflect on this conversation, the tension of something that’s both exquisite and beautiful and excruciating, and I just believe that Hanif’s unwillingness to choose between the things that make life full and great, the grief, the gratitude, the love, the rage, the beauty, the horror, that’s where the genius happens, that’s where the miracle grows.
I’m so glad that y’all got to join us for this conversation. Thank you. You can find all of Hanif’s information on the episode page on brenebrown.com. His website is www.abdurraqib.com. A-B-D-U-R-R-A-Q-I-B.com. His Instagram and Twitter are both @N-I-F, as in Frank, M-U-H-A-M-M-A-D. And his podcast is on Sonos.
BB: You can just go to Sonos playlist and look up Object of Sound. Just a reminder that all of our episodes have pages on brenebrown.com where you can find the links. You can get A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance everywhere you buy books. We love the indie-owned bookstores, they’re our faves. I think just do yourself a favor and sit down with this book, a warm cup of tea, maybe a little sunlight on your face, and turn yourself over to this writing. Grateful to have these conversations, grateful for this listening community. Y’all stay awkward, brave and kind.
Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Maddin. Also produced by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Kristen Acevedo and Andy Waits. And music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
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