Music weaves through all aspects of life for poet-critic Hanif Abdurraqib

Reading: Hanif Abdurraqib

Prairie Lights — Thursday, Jan. 30 at 7 p.m.

Hanif Abdurraqib will read at Prairie Lights on Thursday, Jan. 30. — Marcus Jackson

Music critic, poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib has made a career writing about music in both a critical and poetic way. The two aspects that aren’t often mixed, but Abdurraqib has seen renowned successes with his four books. He’ll be reading from them at Prairie Lights on Thursday, Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. A reception will follow.

Abdurraqib’s third book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (2019) has received praise from both critics and music fans alike. It was long-listed for the 2019 National Book Award in Nonfiction, and earlier this month, it was announced as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism.

Thankful as Abdurraqib is for the formal praise, he says, since Go Ahead in the Rain was released last year, readers’ reactions to the book have been the most rewarding.

“I wrote the book hoping that music fans would be able to find a window to their past memories and moments,” Abdurraqib said.

The book has even received a positive reaction from A Tribe Called Quest member Q-Tip.

The ways Abdurraqib interacts with music and integrates it into his life have been the topic of much of his writing since he wrote for a punk rock zine when he was in college.

“Writing for zines were kind of important because you were like a reporter, and you were reporting the state of your zine to the rest of the world,” Abdurraqib said. “That was something that really appealed to me.”

Abdurraqib moved on to freelance writing, reviewing albums and live concerts, but he would often get pushback from his editors due to the way he articulated his experiences. That feedback led him down the path of poetry.

“A lot of editors said my style of writing was too poetic and not really working well with straightforward criticism — which was fair, level criticism [for my writing] at the time,” Abdurraqib said. “So I felt that if my work is going to be called poetic, I should start finding my way through what poetry could be like.”

Abdurraqib has gone on to publish two collections of poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (2016) and A Fortune For Your Disaster (2019). But Abdurraqib’s unique way of writing both politically and personally about music also led him into many critical essays.

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Abdurraqib’s book They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (2017) is a collection of personal music essays, in which readers will find commentary on a massive range of artists such as Fall Out Boy, Marvin Gaye and The Weeknd. But these musicians and groups are often used as a backdrop for the larger questions Abdurraqib is addressing. These essays cover themes of heartbreak, loss and grief, as well as police brutality and race in music fanbases. The Chicago Tribune described the book as “a collection of death-defying protest songs for the Black Lives Matter era.”

“I never want to center as much as I want to use myself as a lens or a guide to move through the better question,” Abdurraqib said. “I’m always juggling multiple ideas or concepts of feels towards any particular artist or musician, and I think I’m often trying to pursue a path of writing about a way that makes sense, so those pairings just sort of happen organically.”

The organic pairings that happen in his essays are the same as when he first starts the writing process, Abdurraqib said.

“For me it’s the same. I don’t really sit down and predetermine the genre that I’m working in before I sit down and write; I sort of let the genre arrive,” Abdurraqib said.

Abdurraqib traces his love for music to his upbringing in Columbus, Ohio, where he was the youngest of four children.

“I think if you’re a younger sibling, and you have siblings who are invested in music, then I think you’re in real luck,” Abdurraqib said. “My earliest years of being a music fan was sort of spent being a sponge, just absorbing what everyone was listening to and trying it out to find my own taste.”

This month, Abdurraqib was named a 2020 United States Artist Fellow, with numerous artists across a wide variety of disciplines, including other literary luminaries such as Edwidge Danticat and Sarah Broom. He hopes to leverage that role to turn the support back to his hometown.

Music has been intrinsic to Abdurraqib’s life from childhood now into his adulthood, and despite decades in between, he still finds love in the medium.

“I was a music critic before I was a poet, but more than that I was a music fan before I was a writer,” Abdurraqib said. “Music is kind of the map that got me everywhere else.”