“Fans have to have an ability to be wrong,” Hanif Abdurraqib says, referring to himself. “To not understand, and be comfortable not understanding.” Abdurraqib, a poet and essayist based in Columbus, Ohio, has published two full-length collections (one of poetry, another of essays), but his latest book—Go Ahead in the Rain, out this month—is somewhere in between. It’s a detailed history of the collaboration that led to the rap group A Tribe Called Quest (and the musical atmosphere of the early 1990s), interspersed with love letters to his subject and scenes from Abdurraqib’s own coming of age into black musical traditions.
Go Ahead in the Rain is an unconventional work of criticism, both because of the level of autobiographical detail and the author’s open devotion to his subject. But retreating to a critical distance would constitute a betrayal of the depth of feeling that Abdurraqib has for Tribe. While the book urges fans to learn how to be comfortable not understanding their favorite artists, Abdurraqib thinks the fans themselves are worth a second glance—what are their cultural contexts, their experiences, their intents?—and makes an implicit argument for a criticism that works toward connection. At the heart of Go Ahead in the Rain are questions about ourselves; it asks how and why we love artists, and what we can do with that love.
Nawal Arjini: What made you so interested in the interpersonal dynamics of A Tribe Called Quest, and what does thinking about them this way—as a group of people instead of celebrities or icons or even artists—afford that more typical critical standpoints don’t?
Hanif Abdurraqib: I talk a lot about Tribe as older siblings, because that’s how I imagined them. My parents are from New York, and I always had this mythology around it. Tribe offered me a way to feel like I had a window into their particular brand of New York. Tribe was so unique in how they archived and built a landscape around where they were from. So many artists, to me, are people I feel close to, feel I owe a debt to. I understand that I’m not best friends with A Tribe Called Quest—but fostering that closeness also helps me, as a critic, hold artists accountable for the ideas that they pushed.
NA: There are some moments in the book where you come close to a critique of Tribe, especially of their later albums, but that closeness seems to hold you back—whereas there’s a more removed viewpoint of critics who are able to simply say, “This album was not good.” Is that kind of criticism at odds with the value that comes from that familial connection?
HA: I have a lot of interest in building an affection that allows for a comfortable critical distance. I’m still a critic; I’m here to be critical even, or especially, of the things I love—because if I’m not, I’m not doing my job. But I think the fairest way to critique someone is out of love, or out of the feeling that you were let down in some way. So much of music criticism, particularly recently, has gotten saddled with the idea that it’s all negative: If someone criticizes something, it’s out of anger, or bitterness, or jealousy. But I don’t have time to write critiques of things that I don’t actually love, right? Critique, for me, has to be an act of love—or else it’s a waste of time. And so I have to figure out a way to honor artists I care about while still understanding that my job isn’t necessarily to bow to them. That sometimes gets a bit shakier.
NA: Would you talk more about the all-or-nothing critical atmosphere you’re writing against? Where does it come from, and how does it manifest itself?
HA: Any artist who’s been in the spotlight for more than, like, five to seven years is inevitably going to put out an album that’s not as highly regarded as their other albums. The work of the critic and the fan is to reckon with their own expectations: to be honest about what it is to love a group or feel affection for an artist in all of their evolutions—even the evolutions that aren’t necessarily for you. The critical approach has to move out of the binary of “Is this good or bad?” and into “Is this working versus not working? For whom is this working, if not for me? Can I find value in this?” Those questions are more interesting to me.
NA: In the book, you emphasize a politics of love—one that’s earnest and about community. Yet there’s also a more cynical vision of America, seen in the work of Paul Beatty, for example, or in Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video—like racism is something too absurd and ingrained to be treated with hope or represented through realism. Do you see a division between the ways of reacting to American racism?
HA: I don’t think they’re opposing. I’m too cynical—a lot of the criticism of my writing, or of my personality, is that I too publicly wrestle with my cynicism.
NA: Really? I think you come across as very hopeful.
HA: I think that I can come to some form of hope after… well, not so much anymore. I think I’ve become more cynical in the past year.
I do think that at the core of both traditions, there’s something working in opposition to the American narrative. And my hope is that there’s more space for anger in all of these things. What I loved about Thank You for Your Service [A Tribe Called Quest’s most recent album] is that it was angry. That album came out the week of the election, but it’s not like they came up with that shit in three days—2016 was fucking wild. In the summer, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered back to back, the Pulse mass shooting happened, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were starting to bubble up—you know what I mean? My cynicism will really jump out, but the American political industry was once again showing how heinous it could be. I did not know any other reaction by the end of that year but anger, and so I felt very relieved by a Tribe album that was comfortably angry. I don’t think those two poles are at odds, but at the center of it is: These things aren’t coming out of thin air—they’re coming out of people driven to create by some visceral emotion. I’m not saying it’s always anger, but I think that for some, it is either anger or hopelessness or despair—or a rabid desire to see themselves and their people through a lens that is not the traditional American lens.
NA: What kinds of political responsibilities do you think fans have?
HA: I get asked all the time about the exhausting question of separating the art from the artist, which I get so bored with. At the end of the day, what people are actually asking for is absolution for the things they love: “I don’t want to let go of this thing—what are your thoughts on that?” Or, “I’ve been witness to some artist I love’s horrible interior—how can I carry on without having this moment taken from me?” Nostalgia can train a person to imagine that their brightest and most beautiful moments only have a single soundtrack.
So I think the political responsibility of the fan is to challenge that memory—challenge the desire for nostalgia and, in doing that, challenge the soundtracks that have latched onto this nostalgia. I’m challenging myself always to see how I can move outside these rigid ideas of memory, and affection for the music tied to that memory—because so often that’s what fucks people up.
I really think that the political responsibility of fans is to love themselves more than they love their icons. To love themselves even more than they love their memories, and to love the evolution of all those things in harmony: the evolution of themselves, the evolution of their memory, and the evolution of the artist—for better or worse. I think when there’s a harmonious tangent, there’s a better structure for accountability.
NA: What would that accountability look like?
HA: In some ways, Kanye West is the best example—because he’s already earned being a genius, and people imagine that he never has to re-earn that. Because he once moved the culture forward, people imagine he might never set the culture back. It’s not accurate, and it’s not fair to him. Sure, it’s unfair to fans—it’s unfair to people who are delusionally following the cult of personality. But it’s not fair to him, in his evolution as an artist. It’s not fair to anyone to not have an accountability structure. I’m not saying people need to stop listening to Kanye, but I’m fascinated with understanding why people continue to buy into him. I don’t know why the culture is still circling his movements. There’s nothing appealing or exciting there for me.
NA: Some sort of trust between the fan and the artist is also betrayed when artists are increasingly controlled by market forces and filtered through producers—often black artists filtered through an increasing number of white intermediaries on their way to an increasingly white audience. How does that affect the politics of fandom? How can you trust what you hear and what you like?
HA: I have a hard time with that, because I think identity serves as a kind of rallying point. With R. Kelly and Kanye, there’s a lot of black men saying, “Well, I don’t want to take opportunities away from a black man.” But these men are not creating independently, and they’re not solely creating for black audiences—in some ways, they’re marketing for white consumption, and it’s important not to lose sight of that. Many of us find ourselves seeming like we’re fighting for the interests of the artist, but we’re really fighting for the interests of the economy, or in the interest of performative personality.
I often think: How does a black artist maneuver wholly independently in a capitalist society founded on white supremacy? How does that happen? I don’t have an answer. I don’t know if there’s full liberation from that—but I do know there are ways to utilize that system that might help your people get a little more free.
NA: Is it different for black artists now than it was in the ’90s?
HA: With each passing year, the idea of “black cool” becomes more commodified, and therefore more worthwhile to nonblack audiences, and therefore worth more money—but not always for the benefit of black creators. I was walking in Target, and I saw sweatshirts or mugs or some shit that had “On Fleek” written on them. And I was like: “Yo, is [Vine star] Peaches Monroe getting that money?” I would guarantee probably not.
I know I’m going to sound like the old man shaking his stick at the Internet, but quite simply: The Internet has changed all that shit. Black creators have a direct line to the audience, but also to people who can commodify and alter the meanings of the things we create. Black trendsetting has always been a major part of America’s commercial machinery. Tribe played a role in that in the ’90s, without question. But I use the Peaches Monroe example to show how quickly something can be turned around and sold. I think it’s different now because there are younger, more thoughtful, and more curated black creators who are creating touchable content—but anything touchable can be taken.
Scarcity is another reason people are so willing to hold on to artists who are violent. Because if you’re like, “When will I get to love another artist like this again?,” I’m like, “Uh, chill out, motherfucker—there’s a lot.” Secondly, the folks who grew up with Tribe, like me, and those who found themselves thirsty for the steady stream of black creativity that Tribe was relentlessly chasing after in their heyday—those folks are now creators as well. Those folks are the Ryan Cooglers or the Ava DuVernays; those folks are also tastemakers. So it feels like the arc of the black creative universe is trending upwards. I have found myself no longer concerned about if it will have a downward turn. I think, five to seven years ago, I was like: “Oh, no—we’re going to have a black burst of creativity and then a recession.” But now, thankfully, we have more artists and more thinkers piling onto what’s already there.