Poet Hanif Abdurraqib On The Intersection Of Black Excellence, Joy And Pain
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest is culture critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib. His new book, "A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise Of Black Performance," was described in The New York Times as using the tales of Black performers to make poignant observations about race in America. The book is also a candid self-portrait of Abdurraqib's experience as a Black man. He spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Arun Venugopal, who's a host and senior producer at WNYC in New York.
ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: For his latest book, Hanif Abdurraqib wanted to focus on the people and things that bring Black people happiness, even in times of trouble. His book, "A Little Devil In America," is wide-ranging and explores the effortless cool of Lando Calrissian in "The Empire Strikes Back" and the participatory pleasure of the Soul Train dance line. He considers one of the most glorious moments in the long career of Aretha Franklin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")
ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Amazing, amazing grace.
VENUGOPAL: He revisits the strange and fascinating life of Herman Poole Blount, who, it is said, went to Saturn, met with aliens and transformed into the influential, otherworldly musician Sun Ra. Sun Ra was a pivotal figure in the development of Afrofuturism.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE IS THE PLACE")
SUN RA: (Singing) Space is the place.
VENUGOPAL: And he pays tribute to Merry Clayton, who delivers what is arguably one of the finest vocal performances in rock history as a background singer on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")
MERRY CLAYTON: (Singing) Rape, murder, it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away. Rape, murder, yeah, it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away. Rape, murder, it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away.
VENUGOPAL: Abdurraqib is also the author of "A Fortune For Your Disaster," a collection of poems, and "Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest," as well as the essay collection, "They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us." He's also host of the podcast "Object Of Sound" and "Lost Notes: 1980." Hanif Abdurraqib, welcome to FRESH AIR.
HANIF ABDURRAQIB: Arun, thank you so much for having me.
VENUGOPAL: This book isn't what you initially set out to write, is it?
ABDURRAQIB: No, when I'd first begun the book, I started writing a bit about minstrelsy and about blackface, but largely, I was seeking out essays about appropriation and about Black culture that has been repurposed by non-Black people and then resold back to an American public who might be very interested in Black sound or Black art, but perhaps is not nearly as interested in the fullness of the people making that art. But somewhere early on in the journey of the book, I realized that if I took that route, I would be, at least for a decent portion of the book, centering whiteness or if not whiteness, centering the threat of whiteness or the hovering specter of whiteness, and only celebrating performance based off of what could be extracted from it. And that was not a good pursuit for me. It didn't feel as good as kind of sinking into hours of watching Soul Train and just writing a praise note to Don Cornelius and leaving it at that - you know, centering praise and centering excitement and centering the pleasure of these performances and then backing off and letting them kind of shine on their own.
VENUGOPAL: Your book begins in a realm I hadn't associated with Black performance, which is the dance marathons of the Depression, when people dance for extraordinary lengths of time in hopes that they'd earn some cash. What did you learn about Black marathon dancing that distinguished it from marathon dancing in general?
ABDURRAQIB: Yeah, to parallel that up against the Soul Train Line was something that really unlocked the book for me. I didn't know about the Depression-era dance marathons. I was - I mean, you know, they're pretty horrific, and so I don't want to romanticize them too much. But I was kind of stunned by the horror of them, especially by the fact that in some cases, if you danced for 1,450 hours, you won some money, but if you danced for 1,449 hours and 30 seconds, then you got nothing. Yes, you got that time of shelter and food, but this wasn't a competition in a linear sense. And by that, I mean there wasn't, like, first, second, third. In some cases, it was like, you danced until everyone everyone's disqualified, and whoever's the last standing wins.
Now, sometimes, there were first, second and third, but I was kind of horrified by that aspect of it. And to juxtapose that against the Soul Train Line, which is more of a sprint than a marathon - at least in its moment, right? - and I was thinking about the early days of the Soul Train Line where it was much more partner-heavy, where people would sometimes partner with just anyone, maybe someone they met on the dance floor or someone they came with or someone they'd known for a long time and to make the most of their time in the line among many spectators, both propelling them forward and watching at home. It felt like something I could weigh against this idea of endurance, you know? That was fascinating to me.
VENUGOPAL: So it seems like the Soul Train Line was celebratory, while the dance marathons were exploitative.
ABDURRAQIB: The dance marathons were exploitative in many ways. But I think one large - even larger than that, the difference is that the dance marathons also in many ways stripped people of their agency, you know, along a class divide, too, you know, because, yes, many of the people in the dance marathons - or almost all of the people in dance marathons - were white, but they were poor folks, and people who had a little bit more money, who didn't have to do these dance marathons for shelter or food, would come and be spectators, which for me was even more horrifying. And the universal Soul Train, at least as it was presented to the public, felt all about agency and offering agency to a traditionally disenfranchised peoples.
VENUGOPAL: I mean, it was such an institution for, like, 35 years, but there are a lot of younger Americans who have no idea what Soul Train was, right?
ABDURRAQIB: I think so. I will say that I don't know any who don't know, but I - you know, even, like - you know, even, like, younger Black folks - you know, if I'm in a high school here on the east side of Columbus with mostly Black students, if I mention Soul Train, some of them are going to know - certainly not all of them, but some of them are going to know because they have parents who were kind of forged by - who, you know, are maybe a little bit older than me, who were perhaps forged by Soul Train reruns or, in some cases, live Soul Train.
I came up on the reruns primarily because they would play them on Sundays here in Columbus on WGN, which was, of course, the Chicago network that you could get in the Midwest, and they would play these reruns on Sunday mornings. And that's kind of where my exposure to Soul Train began. But when working on the book, I had gotten this hard drive. A friend sent me a hard drive of almost every episode from the '70s through the '80s. To have this hard drive where the commercials were the same commercials of the era - you know, so there were all the Johnson beauty commercials and the Frederick Douglass Afro Sheen commercial - it felt like I was actually fully set in the world. It felt like I was in this fully living, breathing ecosystem. that a rerun could not duplicate.
VENUGOPAL: And this is a show that Don Cornelius kind of conceived of and managed to bring into being. What do you think his secret was?
ABDURRAQIB: I mean, I think, ultimately - and I - Don Cornelius, you know, there have been great folks who have written a lot about "Soul Train." Ericka Blount Danois has a great book about "Soul Train" and has, in the book, outlined - you know, Don Cornelius, definitely a complicated person who, in some ways, you know, some folks would say, was difficult to work with. But I think at the core of Don Cornelius' ethos was that he just simply loved Black people, and that was kind of what he brought to the forefront. And he commanded a certain level of respect from artists because he did so much for artists. He opened up the "Soul Train" stage to ex-"Soul Train" dancers who were getting their music careers off the ground or, when they were stars, bringing them back and bringing them back and bringing them back.
But at the root of all of it was that he loved Black people and saw - had a vision for Black people beyond their pain. You know, this is someone who was first a political reporter, you know, and kind of came of age in that era during the civil rights era and understood the propulsive nature of music during that era and also knew that Black people needed a space to be their full selves among each other and have music kind of be the glue that holds them together.
For me as a kid, seeing "Soul Train," it felt like everyone was having the best time of their lives every single week, a freedom perhaps unlocked that they could not find everywhere else out in the world, right? And I think that is maybe the secret to what Don Cornelius did, was that he built a small world inside of a much larger world, one that felt for an hour or two like there was some freedom inside of it that was unattainable elsewhere.
VENUGOPAL: It's very communal, isn't it?
ABDURRAQIB: Yeah, and he talks to people as though they're - everyone was an old friend. And I think he also - the thing, too, is that he had a level of cool, I think, that a lot of people aspire to. You know, he was, like, cooler than the guest, cooler than the coolest guest, you know? Outfits better than everybody. Voice cooler than everybody. You know, he was just untouchable. I mean, in the book, I write about the infamous moment where he danced the "Soul Train" line, the rare time he danced the "Soul Train" line with Mary Wilson.
VENUGOPAL: Mary Wilson of the Supremes - I mean, like, this superstar.
ABDURRAQIB: Yeah, who we unfortunately lost this year.
VENUGOPAL: And she was, I guess, part of this lovely interaction with Don Cornelius which, I guess, brought out a side of him that most - many people may not have ever seen before that. We actually pulled up the clip, so let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Dance with Don.
MARY WILSON: Dance with Don - that's a new thing. OK, Don, can I dance with you?
DON CORNELIUS: Oh, yeah, you can dance with me.
CORNELIUS: But not on television.
WILSON: Not on television, huh?
WILSON: OK. It's a date.
ABDURRAQIB: You know, Mary Wilson is kind of needling him a bit. She keeps kind of - you know, dance with me, dance with me, Don, dance with me. And he's a little uneasy at first. He's kind of flirtatious, and he's like, oh, I'll dance with you any time, you know, in his Don Cornelius voice.
VENUGOPAL: Yeah (laughter).
ABDURRAQIB: But then she kind of kept going, and he's like, oh, she's not going to let go. And so you could see him kind of gesture to maybe a producer, and he's like, no, no, no, stop this (laughter). But she keeps going. And finally, he looks over at the crowd and very casually says, do you think I could get in that "Soul Train" line and cut up a bit? And everyone goes wild. Like, people lose their minds.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")
CORNELIUS: You think I could come up that "Soul Train" line?
CORNELIUS: All right, here we go with The J.B.'s - Fred Wesley and The J.B.'s and "Doing It To Death."
FRED WESLEY: How you feeling, brother? You feeling good? How you feel, fella?
WESLEY: (Singing) We're gonna have a funky good time. We're gonna have a funky good time. We're gonna have a funky good time.
ABDURRAQIB: He really attempts to do this ill-advised split. And I don't know - and it's funny because there's no real buildup to it. And so you don't really know what compelled him to attempt to do the splits. But almost out of nowhere, he attempts a split, and it just is a disaster.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")
WESLEY: (Singing) All right. Gotta take you high.
ABDURRAQIB: (Laughter). Probably, I mean, in some ways, one, it looked like he had never really tried it. It looked like a move that he had, like, maybe tried in his home alone but not in public. Two, he was also just tall, you know? And yet I think he was so overwhelmed by just feeling excitement the second time he went through the line, he couldn't help himself. And it's this moment - like, to see Don Cornelius, who is eternally cool and eternally - like, eternally unshaken, to see him do something not perfect and not smoothly is such a great thing, you know? It - for me, it, like, brings him back down to Earth just a little bit.
GROSS: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal recorded with critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib. Abdurraqib's new book is called "A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise Of Black Performance." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BERNARD PURDIE'S "KEEP ON SHINING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the conversation our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal recorded with poet and culture critic Hanif Abdurraqib. His new book is called "A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise Of Black Performance." When they left off, they were talking about Mary Wilson of The Supremes. She died earlier this year.
VENUGOPAL: So Mary Wilson is gone. Whitney Houston is gone. Michael Jackson is gone. You have a lot of Black performers who you're celebrating in this book but often against the backdrop of loss. And at one point, you write, (reading) It dawns on me now that the funeral, particularly the Black funeral, is a way to celebrate what a person's life meant and to do it as if they're still here.
Why the Black funeral in particular?
ABDURRAQIB: Well, it was a Black funeral where I learned that death - and I want to specify, for me, like, the Black Christian funeral. You know, I grew - I was raised Muslim. And so to be at an Islamic funeral is a different vibe entirely for me. But to be at funerals in Black churches, I was very quickly reminded of the celebration of death as something pleasureful, the kind of joy that comes with celebrating a shared life with someone who is no longer present and letting that spill on for hours and hours. And even after those hours, they're finding some more hours to celebrate.
And just the tone of Black funerals I've been to - I mean, don't get me wrong, there are somber moments, but those somber moments are kind of up against the backdrop of immense gratitude. I learned a lot about death and how to maneuver my way through death by thinking of gratitude and the gratitude I've learned at the feet of Black mourners.
VENUGOPAL: Are there are certain Black performers whose deaths have hit you especially hard?
ABDURRAQIB: Oh, I mean, countless. You know, Aretha Franklin was really hard for me. You know, Little Richard last year was really difficult for me, even though - and Little Richard and Aretha are people who lived long lives. You know, Toni Morrison, who, you know, that hit me the hardest. When Toni Morrison passed, you know, I'm an Ohioan, of course. And so Toni Morrison means a great deal to me. But when she passed, I was teaching a summer workshop at Howard University, a place she was present at and loved. And to be there and share a moment with some other Black writers was really beautiful.
If we're going to talk about mourning and the effectiveness of mourning in a way that doesn't center only grief, you know, we read our favorite passages. And we told stories about when we first encountered Ms. Morrison's books. And all of these kind of things, to me, set a blueprint for grief that takes me at least outside of just the orbit, the circular orbit of sadness and nothing else. It gives me some touchstones to turn some other lights on, which I always need.
VENUGOPAL: The book is about Black performance and also about how Black how - specific Black performers have had to reconcile expectations from Black audiences with so-called mainstream or white expectations. I'm thinking of an episode you recount with Whitney Houston and what you characterize as her fraught relationship with Black audiences at a particular moment in the late 1980s and the way in which she was marketed by her label for maximum crossover appeal as the ideal Black pop diva. And you bring up the first single from her second album, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." Let's take a listen for a second.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY")
WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Woo (ph). Hey, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah. I want to dance. Clock strikes upon the hour, and the sun begins to fade. Still enough time to figure out how to chase my blues away. I've done all right up till now. It's the light of day that shows me how. And when the night falls, loneliness calls. Oh, I want to dance with somebody. I want to feel the heat with somebody. Yeah, I want to dance with somebody, with somebody who loves me.
VENUGOPAL: For you, this song represents a particular sort of like moment in terms of her evolving identity as a Black performer, huh?
ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. I mean, I you - know, that was - one, you know, Whitney's second album was actually my favorite album. But, you know, I think that that was kind of maybe the height of an era where, you know, there was some skepticism about Whitney. She opened up the Grammys the same year she got booed at the Soul Train Awards, you know, to return to Soul Train. And in the course of Soul Train Awards, we're talking a largely Black audience. And, you know, she then got booed more robustly the year after at the Soul Train Awards. And so there were people, I think, who perhaps felt that she was not - for them, you know, and I don't think - I think it's not very nuanced to frame it in terms of, quote-unquote, "Black enough" or "not Black enough."
I think it is more true that perhaps people felt that Whitney just wasn't their artist because of the way that she was being marketed intentionally. And I do think, you know, there was some softening on that in the '90s, particularly I think after "I'm Your Baby Tonight" came out. I even remember that kind of - I remember that I was a kid, but I remember that discourse like in my neighborhood. I remember people gravitating. I grew up in a pretty Black neighborhood. I remember people gravitating more towards Whitney in the "I'm Your Baby Tonight" kind of era.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer, Arun Venugopal, recorded with culture critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib about his new book, "A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise Of Black Performance." We'll hear more of their interview after a break. And Kevin Whitehead will review a lost album by composer and pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel inspired by the life of the third Black woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with award-winning poet and culture critic Hanif Abdurraqib. His essays have been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Pitchfork. His new book, "A Little Devil In America," celebrates Black performers, both known and unknown. He spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Arun Venugopal. When we left off, they were talking about Whitney Houston and the mixed response she received from Black audiences, in part because of how she was marketed as a pop artist.
VENUGOPAL: There were all these moments where Clive Davis, who had taken her essentially under his wing, would basically send back anything that sounded too Black for his tastes. Basically, he would reject it if it - and essentially, this was part of what certain audiences - certain Black audiences were responding to.
ABDURRAQIB: Yeah, because - I mean, what we're also really saying is that Whitney could not be, you know, this idea - and this happens still now with Black record executives as well, not just white ones, you know - thinking about audience in a way that does not give full credit to the complexities and multitudinous nature of Black listeners, because what that assumed was that Whitney could not be herself and be beloved by a wide audience. And that, I think, sells all audiences short. But it sells a Black audience short when the meter for that is measured by something, quote-unquote, "sounding too Black."
VENUGOPAL: There is this really interesting moment that you talk about - that you write about when she is accepting the award at the Soul Train Awards, the Sammy Davis Jr. Award for Entertainer of the Year. And she kind of implicates the audience in this problem of being told or of having been reminded that she's not, you know, for lack of a better phrase, not Black enough or that they - that she's not one of theirs. Tell us about this kind of, like, moment where she's sort of kind of implicating them or chastising them, if you will, in a very subtle way from the stage.
ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. It's - you know, the speech is really interesting because this moment is pretty brief in the speech. But to me, it was the loudest part of the speech where she's - you know, she wins the Sammy Davis Jr. Award, and she goes in to talking about Sammy Davis Jr. And there's a moment where she says that, you know, Sammy Davis Jr. just did not only have to endure humiliation and insults at the hands of white America, but also at the hands of his own people. And when she says his own people, she kind of lingers for a bit and scans the crowd, you know, enough to say, I remember - not long enough to kind of make anyone feel any kind of way, but long enough to say, I remember what happened. And then she moves on.
But in that moment - that moment to me is so stark because I can't imagine what it would be like to, you know, come up only a few years later and accept this massive, massive award at an awards show that was actively rejecting your presence just a few years ago. And I imagine that takes some humility, but also some boldness and some greatness and some real heart.
VENUGOPAL: There's a passage in your book where you touch upon the tragedy of her life, but in an attempt to make a much broader point. Could you read that passage?
ABDURRAQIB: (Reading) I don't want to talk about the drugs anymore. I don't want to immortalize the hotel room or the marriage or all the things Whitney could not be saved from. I want to talk about Whitney in 1988, finding her way into the arms of a Black dancer onstage at the Grammy Awards. I want to talk about Whitney getting booed and then booed and then cheered. But I mostly want to remember when Whitney stopped herself from crying when she arrived at the understanding that no matter how much our people love us, they cannot protect us from all the pain that comes with living. I want to remember Whitney holding an award with Sammy Davis Jr.'s name on it - Sammy Davis Jr., who was gifted beyond belief but who was a crossover star, in part because it was known that he wouldn't fight back because his relationship with the Rat Pack was fueled by his white friends being able to take the piss out of him without throwing a first - Dean and Frank cracking jokes about his Blackness the way white people at the bar wished they could, a constant reminder that he was there, but only because they let him. At the Sands in '63, Frank tells Sammy he's got to keep smiling because he's a Black man in a black suit in a dark nightclub and at least his teeth were white. So Sammy smiled his way through an era of knives.
I want to remember the Whitney Houston who, on the other side of her politeness, got to uplift Sammy in memory. Whitney who maybe had had enough of whatever limits existed within both the white imagination and the Black one and had fashioned herself into a singular star. Briefly beyond the reach of any sound born from any mouth.
VENUGOPAL: You seem to have had a pretty omnivorous cultural appetite, even from a fairly young age. Is that something that started as a kid? Did it start at home?
ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. You know, I'm the youngest of four, and I was fortunate to have a family who was - like, from my parents and older siblings who were all very interested in various aspects of culture. Music, of course, was a big thing - but you know, to grow up in a house of really exuberant sports fans and to grow up in a house of really energetic readers who, you know, prioritize reading and to grow up in a house where kind of - I didn't ever have to see anyone's interests shot down or treated as foolish. You know? I think that is a thing that really fostered a good and healthy engagement with pop culture and cultural products for me was that, you know, I just didn't - my interests were not treated as foolish, and I didn't have to witness many people's interests be treated as foolish. And there's something really freeing about seeing that at a young age.
VENUGOPAL: What were your parents exposing you to culturally when you were a kid?
ABDURRAQIB: We - I mean, mostly music. My family - you know, it was a musical household in that music was always playing, and there were also players of instruments who lived in the house. I was among them briefly, but not very good. I tried to play trumpet and was not very good at it and also notoriously did not like practicing, which, you know, it turns out if you would like to get good at anything, you should practice.
ABDURRAQIB: But I wanted to play trumpet because I thought Miles Davis was cool. And I thought Miles Davis was cool because my dad had Miles Davis records, you know. And so that's the kind of cultural thing I feel like I was exposed to most was looking through the records my parents had or hearing them singing along to them in their cars or in the kitchen, you know, hearing the music - you know, my dad playing songs as he pulled up in the driveway, you know. My mom loved Celia Cruz, Miriam Makeba. I remember hearing Miriam Makeba a lot, Nina Simone. One of my first musical memories is hearing - and I don't know - this sticks out because I remember vividly being horrified by the song. I was too young to really understand it - was hearing Nina Simone's version of "Pirate Jenny" and being very haunted by it. And I don't remember who was playing it where. I just - it might not have even been in my house. It might have been in a relative's house. But I'm pretty sure it was in my house. And that's one of my first musical memories. But I was taught to take music seriously because the people I grew up around and loved were people who used music to make it through their days. And that was a really important thing for me.
VENUGOPAL: And some of your education, you say, took place on the school bus, when you kind of had to arm yourself with different cassettes depending on where in the bus you're sitting and next to whom, depending on if they're - if they were listening to punk or hip-hop or pop. And you had this one line, you said, there were no Black people who clowned me or any of my pals for listening to so-called alternative music, I guess like Nirvana or whatnot. But when you say it, I get the impression that you almost have to say it to those who might think otherwise. Do you think that this is the impression the world seems to have, that, you know, you're a Black kid on a bus who has a very particular narrow kind of musical appetite?
ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. Well, I think that there's this narrative that sometimes gets pushed - and I don't want to disparage anyone else's lived experience - but where you get Black people who talk about how they were made fun of growing up because they listened to Weezer or whatever. And that just wasn't my experience, you know? I think a big part of the reason why I am so open to understanding that Black people contain multitudes is because, you know, the people who introduced me to punk were Black folks. The people who introduced me to alternative music were Black folks. My older siblings were listening to, you know, alternative music and metal and all of these things.
And so I didn't have a framework for anything other than that Black people would introduce me to all manner of songs. And in the schools I went to, that was kind of a similar thing, where, of course, you know, without question, there were the kids who only loved hip-hop and the kids who only loved other genres. But everyone that I rolled with was so curious about hearing more from wherever they could find it. You know, mixtape, mix CD era, a lot of people were willing to be surprised, you know, to have one song bleed into another song that is nothing like the song that came before it.
VENUGOPAL: Hanif Abdurraqib, thank you for joining us.
ABDURRAQIB: Thank you so much for having me. It was a real pleasure to talk.
GROSS: Hanif Abdurraqib is the author of the new book "A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise Of Black Performance." He hosts the podcast "Object Of Sound." He spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Arun Venugopal, who's a host and senior producer at WNYC in New York.
After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a rediscovered album that was considered lost by the late pianist and composer Hasaan Ibn Ali. His first album was with the Max Roach Trio. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.