The poet, essayist, and critic Hanif Abdurraqib is one of the world’s most singular writers on music and culture, known for combining sharp and pervasive insight with detailed and touching sketches of personal experience and emotion. The author of two poetry collections, the 2017 essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, and 2019’s Go Ahead In the Rain: Notes on A Tribe Called Quest, Abdurraqib publishes his fifth book A Little Devil In America: In Praise of Black Performance on the 30th of March.
A truly prismatic survey of Black performance and performers in America, from the travelling magician Ellen Armstrong to the solid gold voice of Whitney Houston, via the beloved Soul Train line, A Little Devil in America shimmers with an unforgettable blend of the personal and the historical, and offers a new standard within the possibilities of combining the two. I recently spoke with Abdurraqib about the book, and you can read that Q&A, alongside an extract from A Little Devil In America, below.
On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance
from ‘A Little Devil In America: In Praise of Black Performance’ by Hanif Abdurraqib, published in the UK by Allen Lane for Penguin on March 30th
Safe to say none of the other Muslim kids on the eastside of Columbus got MTV or BET in their cribs & we do at my crib sometimes like after Pops got a promotion or after Grandma moved in & kept a Bible on her nightstand & had to watch the channel where her game shows ran 24/7 & so it is also safe to say that I was the only one in the Islamic Center on Broad Street who got to stay up & watch the shows on MTV that came on after my parents cut out the lights & went up to bed & it was only me & the warmth of an old television’s glow & the DJs spinning C+C Music Factory for people in baggy & colorful getups & bouncing on a strobe-light-drenched floor & so it is safe to say that I only danced along the slick surface of my basement floor with the moon out & all the lights in the house out & the television playing hits & this wasn’t exactly practicing dance moves as much as it was learning the different directions my limbs could flail in & there is no church like the church of unchained arms being thrown in every direction in the silence of a sleeping home & speaking of church to be Muslim is to pray in silence sometimes even though the call to prayer is one of the sweetest songs that can hang in the air & there is no praise & there is no stomping in the aisles & there is no holy spirit to carry the blame for all manner of passing out or shouting or the body’s pulsing convulsions & I do not want a spirit to enter me but I do want a girlfriend or at least a kiss from a girl at the Islamic Center where we go on Friday afternoons in the summers for Jummah prayer & kick our shoes on the carpet & slip into the hallway where the boys & girls would congregate briefly before being separated for prayer & it is absolutely safe to say that with my socks on the marbled tile of the Islamic Center on Broad Street I felt overcome by something we will call holy I suppose for the sake of not upsetting the divine order &this was the mid-’90s & so no one was really doing the moonwalk anymore & even when they did no one was doing it right & there is only one Michael & I am not that nigga & still with the girls at the Islamic Center standing in line for the water fountain I thought Now is the time & I was decidedly not in the dark of my basement anymore where I knew the floors & I understood every corner of the architecture & I slid back on the top of my toes & no one even turned their eyes toward me & so no one could tell me about the stairs I was sliding toward& so no one saw my brief moment of rhythm before it unraveled & just like that I was in a pile of discarded shoes & it is safest to say that there was no girlfriend for me that summer or the summer after & the cable at my house got cut off the year my mother died.
VICE: Hi Hanif. The extract from A Little Devil In America that you’ve kindly allowed us to publish focuses on your experience of watching music video channels when you were growing up. Can you talk a little bit about that time in your life, and what watching music on TV did for you in your formative appreciation of music and performance?
Hanif Abdurraquib: I was specifically excited about music videos, when I could find them, because I was someone who listened to music in a lot of quiet, intimate spaces, headphones on. And I would most often find myself imagining the visual world the song lived in, just, like, in my brain, having to build that world out. But when I started to see music videos, particularly rap music videos – I also loved pop videos – and when I began to see the way that these music videos were animated, and when I began to see the people moving, not just their photos on their own album cover, that kind of changed the way I thought about what music could be capable of, and how music could live.
It didn't at all dull my imagination. My imagination stayed really robust in terms of the way I listened to songs, even now – I mean, especially now, because I haven't seen live music particularly in such a long time. And because the music video is a little bit less prominent than it was, or perhaps it's more? The music video is more prominent, because I can watch any music video I want, anytime I want on YouTube. But in some ways that kind of takes away the excitement of what I loved about a music video show. My family, my brothers and I used to record music videos off the TV on VHS tapes, and there was something really cool, much like recording off the radio, where you had to just wait and hope that the video you're waiting for came on. I think the pursuit of the visual enlivened the actual visual.
You’re no stranger to writing about music history in a way that is intertwined with your own voice and your own point of view. I wonder what the process of honing that skill has been like, and also how you struck a balance in terms of combining the personal and the historical in this new work?
Some of it is just real awe at the ways that so many historical moments connect to the personal moment for me. And taking that awe and saying ‘Well, I'm sure that I'm not the only one who has this as a personal touchstone.’ In so much of my personal injections into the work, I'm also kind of like knocking on the door of, ‘does anyone else feel this?’ Or not even asking, just being like, ‘surely someone else feels this?’ or ‘surely someone else is experiencing this in a certain way, even if our emotional landscapes aren't the same?’ And so much of my personal influences, and weaving them into the piece, is trying to work with an idea of mostly being amazed at the fact that there is something in history that has pulled me closer to an understanding of self.
Was there anything that you learned when you were researching the book that was new to you? Or that resonated with you the most?
All the Soul Train stuff, truly. There's something about the Soul Train line up that was so incredible, because of the way that people were present in it commonly and would return and repeat. And so you would see someone on an episode in like March of 1979, in the Soul Train line, and be really enamoured by them. And then in a September 1979 episode, you see them again, and it's like, ‘Whoa!’ It feels like they become, in a way, like ancestors or beloveds that you're returning to. So the Soul Train stuff is very, very exciting to me. I still have the hard drive, and as much as I should maybe move off of watching Soul Train stuff all the time, I'm still watching Soul Train stuff all the time.
Also, though it feels like she only has like a small role in the book, the magician, Ellen Armstrong – I was so fascinated by researching her, and even just like going back to the basics of ‘how many Black women magicians can I find? Who were some of the early Black women magicians?’ These kind of things. Ellen Armstrong was just immensely captivating for me.
One of the things that obviously runs throughout the whole book is the concept of the multiple meanings of the word “performance.” You're talking about actors, musicians, magicians, dancers, but you're also talking about everyday life and the performance of being Black in our world, and I wonder, like, how you approached all of those different meanings and how you feel that they converged for you while writing the book and also in the finished result?
It was a very internal thing. Because I found myself asking myself, ‘How have you performed? Be honest.’ I thought about times I’d stepped outside of myself in an attempt to make myself in any way larger, or to make myself in any way more of something, and then broke that down. I ran into a wall, because I think the word performative has such a negative connotation. But I wanted to detach myself from that and kind of say, well, there are ways I perform that are not entirely for the satisfaction of other people. There are ways that I perform that propel me through a day that I don't know if I could get through otherwise. There are ways I perform that serve very specific interests that bring me closer to the people I love. And that is also a type of performance. And the type of performance that deserves to be honoured as any other performance would. And so I think first asking myself the question of, ‘how have I performed?’ and ‘how have I felt ashamed of performing?’ And then kind of trying to crawl my way out of what that shame felt like and seemed like to me.
Did that sort of introspection bring you closer in any way to sort of understanding the “capital P” performances that you talk about in the book, and the people who are performers that you talk about? Do you feel like the personal informed the historical there?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's an extension of grace, right? If I remove the shame that I feel around certain types of performance, then I can allow myself a type of grace when approaching performances of others. And that's important to me. If I want to talk about how Black people contain multitudes beyond what America is capable of seeing them as, then I need to offer that same generosity to not only myself, but to the long history of Black people who have performed in many ways that have felt both comfortable and pleasurable to me, in ways that I'm a little bit more curious about.
One thing that I did want to touch on is something that is repeated throughout the book is the loss of icons, in the Black community – specifically, musicians like Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin. You talk about your memories of how those people were remembered, and the performance of that remembrance in various ways. I wondered if you could speak a little bit about why they felt like important parts of this narrative?
I think that I'm very interested in the way that people respond to loss. And the way that loss in grief can be really fluorescent, when celebrated. And I think I'm almost required to continually seek this out, because I'm someone who's experienced a lot of loss in my life. And so I am always, always, always kind of searching for a way to make sense of the funeral or the celebratory dance of letting someone go. Because I think that I'm so amazed, so curious, about the times that I have struggled to let people go. I wanted to make peace with that struggle, and understand that there is a way to celebrate someone as they're fading away, or as they've already faded.
Finally, I wondered how you went about choosing specific moments and performances to sort of encapsulate your points about various icons. So for example, your discussion of Whitney Houston at the 1988 Grammys. How did you go about choosing the things that you wanted to include to say what you wanted to say?
This is not a spectacular answer, but it's real. I was just pursuing my excitements. I think that what I wanted to say often did not exist before I stumbled upon the things I needed to see. So in talking about Whitney Houston, I had the idea of what I wanted to say based off of that performance I found, and finding that performance was just really thrilling for me and sent me down that rabbit hole. So much of this book was me sniffing and searching, and bringing myself closer to allowing the things I was witnessing to bring me closer to revelations about what I was feeling or thinking. Instead of feeling and thinking something and then seeking out anything visual to confirm my feelings or thoughts, it was much easier for me, and much more comforting, to allow myself to be guided by what I was witnessing. And that stripped me of the impulse to be an intellectual authority, and instead allows me to kind of be only an authority on my own emotions. Which was a lot more free.
A Little Devil In America: In Praise of Black Performance is published on 30th March 2021.