The difficulty in discussing Hanif Abdurraqib’s work lies in the fact that I cannot describe his artistic mission as eloquently as he can. He is the type of writer that I think everybody strives to be: ambitious but not pretentious, emotional but objective, disarming but doesn’t leave too much of himself on the page, etc. He writes about the “emotional impulse” behind works of art, stemming from his obsession with certain cultural phenomena (i.e. anything and everything from music, basketball, sneakers and his dog Wendy).
I fell in love with his work by chance. I was scrolling through my almost infinite list of to-be-read books on Goodreads when I stopped on an intriguing cover. Striking with a wolf in a tracksuit and gold chain, the cover read “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.” It was Abdurraqib’s second book. It’s a collection of essays and poems that cover virtually everything from the virtues of Carly Rae Jepsen’s music to “Boyz n the Hood” to the fear of getting pulled over to Fall Out Boy’s early years in Chicago. As a music reviewer, it completely changed how I think about writing pieces for The Observer. As a white person, it completely opened my eyes to the everyday experiences of Black people. As a person in general, it also brought me on a beautiful journey regarding community, art and love. In short, I couldn’t put it down.
So, when a friend in the English department told me Abdurraqib was doing a reading at Notre Dame, I marked my calendar a month early and told all my friends. I couldn’t shut up about it. When the day finally came, I was a few minutes late (in my excitement, I had written down the wrong location) and had a terrible cough but I would not be deterred from seeing one of my favorite authors.
At first, I did not see Abdurraqib until I spotted him hiding behind his chair. As assistant professor in English Sara Marcus introduced him to the audience, he was nervously staring up at the ceiling and mumbling to himself. He later clarified that this is a mindfulness practice he does before performing, asserting that if he can “hold the anxiety in the palm of [his] hand, then [he] can turn it off.”
Despite his performance anxiety, everybody in the audience was glad for him to be there. The crowd was virtually impossible to disappoint. Since Abdurraqib has built up enough goodwill with his published work, everybody just felt lucky to be in his presence. It’s a total joy to see him perform his poetry live. You can totally see he got his career started with Button Poetry, a publishing company that has a history in spoken word. His voice is gentle, rising and falling like waves of the ocean, all the pauses are in exactly the right places. You get the sense that he has done this many times before, and, he has.
Last Thursday night, he read four pieces: two from his most recent book “The Little Devil In America” and two from his upcoming work “There’s Always This Year.” The crowd favorite was Abdurraqib’s commentary on Whitney Huston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” performance at the 1988 Grammy Awards. Lines like “a font that can best be described as Miami Vice Cursive” and bad dancing is “one of those lies that is easy to tell ourselves, because we are often not on the receiving end of the disaster” had me and my neighbors laughing out loud. The piece on Whitney Huston is not meant to razz her though. Ultimately, it was about finding somebody to dance with. It was about devotion.
Abdurraqib’s work often turns on its head. In “There’s Always This Year,” Abdurraqib has a very heavy poem about “No Scrubs” by TLC and a poem “about flexing” that actually is about not wanting to leave the place you grew up. He balances a lot of complex emotions in a way that lifts you up, instead of tearing you down. You come away from his art feeling something more, something we can all learn from.
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