WI14: Looking at Our Cultural Moment with Hanif Abdurraqib

Over the past three years, Hanif Abdurraqib has earned a reputation for his poetry and cultural criticism. His first book, 2016’s The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (Button Poetry), a poetry collection about being young and black in America, was nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His next book, 2017’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio), a collection of essays that earned a starred review from PW, offers a fresh take on music criticism, blending it with articulate, polished critiques of our cultural moment, particularly as it relates to race and the state.

Now Abdurraqib is poised to publish Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (Univ. of Texas, Feb.), a book-length essay about the seminal rap group. He also has a book due out in 2020 from Random House, titled They Don’t Dance No Mo’, about the history of black performance in the United States.

“A big reason I write is rooted in the idea of building relationships,” says Abdurraqib, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. “That is really what is happening at a base level at indie bookstores, so it stirs me to be addressing that community.”

Go Ahead in the Rain is a literary hybrid: part academic monograph on the group and its music, part pocket history of hip-hop, part memoir, and part epistolary elegy. It is a book that conveys the wonder of being a fan and the visceral impact of experiencing the feeling of having oneself reflected back in music and pop culture. This experience is one Abdurraqib hopes will translate to booksellers and, by extension, to readers. “People should know that there is a part of their childhood and history in this book, even if they don’t know the music,” he says. “This book is about finding oneself through the confusion of growing up, living on this spinning rock, and still not having answers.”

Though Go Ahead in the Rain touches on our divisive, cacophonous political scene, it doesn’t seek to explain it. “This moment is not something a writer of color should be tasked with making sense of,” Abdurraqib says. “For some folks, this moment isn’t a moment, but a lifetime.”

Abdurraqib, who worked in the music section of a Borders bookstore in Columbus in 2007 and 2008, says that his literary education began at independents. “Columbus is a really great place for indie bookstores,” he says. “The first bookstore I fell in love with was the Book Loft, which has a bunch of sprawling rooms to get lost in and discover things. And Acorn Books, which recently closed, was another I truly loved a great deal.”

Having spent much of 2018 on a speaking tour across the U.S., Abdurraqib says that his stops at independent bookstores have been some of the highlights of his schedule. “I’ve been blessed to be supported by so many bookstores across the U.S.,” he says. “Chicago is close to home and has so many great bookstores. Seminary Co-op is one that has been especially good to me.” He also praises Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, Housing Works in Manhattan, Milkweed Books in Minneapolis, and The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kans. One of the reasons he enjoys bookstore appearances so much, he says, is because “people are not often there for your work, but because they love the store and are interested in the growth of the bookstore. That passion for books and literature, or even just for bookstores, is great to see.”

Abdurraqib will give an afternoon keynote on Wednesday, January 23, 3:25–4:25 p.m., in Kiva Auditorium, Upper West ACC.

A version of this article appeared in the 01/14/2019 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Looking at Our Cultural Moment with Hanif Abdurraqib

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