An Interview with
The Amistad Staff
Much like A Tribe Called Quest, Hanif Abdurraqib defies expectation. In Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, he writes, "It's hard to innovate the new when thousands of voices are still singing along to the old." Despite this challenge Hanif, like Tribe, has managed to use his lyrical flow to touch and change his readers. Whether it's critiquing dance performance, examining pop culture representations of black stereotypes, or sharing his own vulnerabilities, Hanif finds fresh ways to create unique and memorable art.
To better understand Hanif Abdurraqib's journey from his childhood in Ohio to his recent MacArthur Fellowship, The Amistad staff dissected the work. We found a poet and critic with a clear outlook on politics, social issues, and music all of which sang in harmony with The Amistad's mission statement. We found Hanif's distinct voice often makes the familiar out-of-tune in the best possible way; he forces his work to sink in deep. We also loved that Hanif does not conform to Eurocentric standards. Put simply, he speaks to us. The relationship he creates with his audience is one of a kind and profoundly immeasurable. For these reasons, we're honored to include Hanif Abdurraqib as part of The Amistad's tribe.
Thanks for interviewing with The Amistad. We’re curious—as someone so devoted to music—what was the last song you listened to?
I listened to the song "Daydreamer" by Nathan Bajar off of his new EP Joyride -- it's a real delight of a tune.
You’ve investigated many topics in your writing. Is there a theme or space that feels too vulnerable for you to explore?
There are many, I'm sure, but I think they feel that way because I haven't yet reached a necessary/needed point of healing or understanding, and so I can't rush into writing the things that I haven't yet made emotional sense of. I'm big on kind of charting a path where I can, and then following the path.
As someone who often identifies themselves as a romantic, what do moments of the surreal offer? We’re especially thinking about the pledge, turn, and prestige of How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This.
Most commonly, I believe these moments offer a reader, or an audience, or a beloved a chance to see something that is faintly present grow more present with each passing moment. It's that understanding of what is real and what isn't, or what can be taken away. That's the axis that both love and magic turn on.
In A Little Devil in America you write, “I have claimed the fantasy of kinship with so many of you, my dear cousins from another life.” How have these fictive relationships shaped your perspective of the Black experience?
It allows me to revel in our multitudes while also building upon a lineage that exists -- even imagining myself into a lineage adds a firmness to my understanding of what it is to be part of a lineage, what it feels to be responsible to people beyond myself, which is also an act of care.
Let’s talk about responsibility. Do Black artists have a responsibility to address Black history and ancestry?
I can never speak for Black artists, broadly, and wouldn't ever really put myself in a position to do so. I think it's important for me to spend time in history and ancestry, particularly because I know that there have been so many half-truths and half-histories told to me, still being told to Black folks in this country (and globally,) and so there's something about the pursuit of, uncovering of, or revisiting of our history that fascinates and excites me. It opens up a better, more palatable world.
You explore Black archetypes, stereotypes, and clichés in "This One Goes to the Magical Negro." Ultimately, you decide that Black characters in film and TV very often come across as ancillary and incomplete, yet studios are constantly trying to 'diversify' their content. Where do you see Black characters functioning beyond a commodity in popular culture? Or are falsehoods like the Magical Negro too imbedded in American storytelling?
I think the Magical Negro will always be a trope embedded in American storytelling because the American imagination clings to its limitations in a way that no diversity or representation can wrestle it away from.
Of all of your contributions which do you feel best adds to the Black diaspora?
I hope they all do, collectively. I think of a writing life, or a writing career, as something that allows a writer to build upon their interests, obsessions, and investments. With that in mind, I hope all of my work can kind of link hands and play some role in contributing to our folks.
Your writing educates non-Black Americans. What do you think it will take for non-Black Americans to deepen interest in systematically changing the plight of their Black and brown neighbors?
It might educate those folks, but I actually don't think much about them when I'm writing, and I definitely don't think about the outcome of their engagement with my writing -- I wish I had a better answer here, but I don't know if my getting entangled in speculating on non-Black folks and their desires is something I'm all that interested in. It kind of keeps me away from the communal work and interests I hold.
Much has been made of Black joy recently. What makes and keeps you joyful?
I like that the sun keeps coming back, even after whole seasons cover it up.
Now, before we go, we’re wondering what album we should check out next?
Syd's new album, Broken Hearts Club, has really knocked me out in the best way.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in Muzzle, Vinyl, PEN American, and various other journals. His essays and music criticism have been published in The FADER, Pitchfork, The New Yorker, and TheNew York Times. His first full length poetry collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released in June 2016 from Button Poetry. It was named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize, and was nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. With Big Lucks, he released a limited edition chapbook, Vintage Sadness, in summer 2017 (you cannot get it anymore and he is very sorry.) His first collection of essays, TheyCan't Kill UsUntil TheyKill Us, was released in winter 2017 by Two Dollar Radio and was named a book of the year by Buzzfeed, Esquire, NPR, Oprah Magazine, Paste, CBC, The Los Angeles Review, Pitchfork, and The Chicago Tribune, among others. He released GoAheadInTheRain:NotesToATribe Called Quest with University of Texas press in February 2019. The book became a New York Times Bestseller, was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize, and was longlisted for the National Book Award. His second collection of poems, A Fortune For Your Disaster, was released in 2019 by Tin House, and won the 2020 Lenore Marshall Prize. In 2021, he released the book ALittleDevil InAmerica with Random House, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the The PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. The book won the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and the Gordon Burn Prize.Hanif is a graduate of Beechcroft High School.