The soundtrack of Hanif Abdurraqib’s life

Unpacking toxic masculinity, the infusion of music with life, anxiety at work and a cheese-less pizza at Prairie Lights on January 20, 2020.

By Nichole Shaw, VERVE Magazine Editor in Chief

VERVE Magazine Editor in Chief Nichole Shaw speaking with poet, essayist and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib at Prairie Lights on January 20, 2020. Photo by Odessa Neeley.

The literary community crawled out of its cafes and bedroom corners last night to see visiting professor at the University of Iowa and bestseller Hanif Abdurraqib at his reading—at least it seemed that way. People sat on the steps of the café, in the aisles between rows of chairs, on countertops of bookcases and in the corners of the reading room. 

The ceiling fan in the corner of the room was spinning on high, squeaking with protest at the effort it took for its blades to spin. It acted as an interesting scene setter, because it made one think of a sweltering hot, sticky room with almost a hundred people packed in it, sitting on top of each other, sharing the same breath. Instead, there was a breeze floating above our shoulders as we giggled at the words of Hanif, gasped to express appreciation and shock and hummed to show collective sorrow. 

Hanif Abdurraqib stood in his position behind the podium at Prairie Lights in Iowa City. An author of four books with a fifth one on the way, Abdurraqib has made a name for himself in the world of poetry and creative nonfiction. His books—The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (2016), They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (2017), Go Ahead in the Rain (2019), A Fortune for Your Disaster (2019), and expected They Don’t Dance No Mo’ (2021), which Abdurraqib read excerpts from—showcase an appreciation for interjection of the Black vernacular and impulsive setting switches as the reader moves between a lived experience of Hanif and that of a musician or other artist. 

“There’s some poems in this book and some poems that I just like writing that manipulate preexisting song lyrics,” Abdurraqib said. “And the choice of those songs are often songs that I had emotional ties at the moment but not anymore. I don’t really have much investment in the current project of Kanye West. But…I am very thankful for what I was able to get from my love for Kanye West when I did love Kanye West.”

His juxtaposition of humor with anger, fear, sorrow and pain can be a beautifully transparent vessel into introspection of self in tandem with connection of a community. It required the audience to listen between the words, between the lines of spoken poetry to arrive at their own destination of understanding.

VERVE Magazine Editor in Chief Nichole Shaw’s signed books, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (left) and Go Ahead in the Rain (right).

He read from each of his books, starting with his poem “Prestige” and ending with sections from “On the performance of softness,” an essay from his expected book They Don’t Dance No Mo.’ While he read, Abdurraqib swayed from left to right, right from wrong, present to past as he invited the audience into the tender and intimate moments of his life, from his failed marriage, to his crush on a boy at school, to the complicated relationship of him and his brother.

When reading from his unreleased essay “On the performance of softness,” he bounced on the balls of his feet at moments, unpacking black masculinity and its frequent intersection with violence as a coping mechanism for showing male affection. It’s a practice Abdurraqib acknowledged as toxic and one he said he doesn’t engage in anymore since his high school years. As an audience member looking in, it was clear to see that violence served as something to shield himself from the judgment of the world and protect him from someone he loved but didn’t know how to show it after pervasive loss and trauma.

“I haven’t said I love you to anyone out loud since my mother died,” Abdurraqib read from the essay. “I have no language for affection. But I do know how to throw a fist the way my father taught me some years ago when he took my hand and his and curled my fingers gently into my palm. This is another type of romance I suppose the rules of engagement have handed down from a man who learned them from a man before him.”

As he read, his eyes stayed glued to the page, unless he was making a joke of some sort, either within the piece or interjecting it at present. His work delved into the liberal breed of “racism” that he has encountered almost everywhere, but offensively so in Connecticut. It’s a breed that cropped up in what author Robin DiAngelo unpacks with the term white fragility and understanding how that fragility leads to white people victimizing themselves and being unwilling or unable to acknowledge their own racism. People of color are still separate but not equal today in the disenfranchisement of their voting, disparate access to health care, lower median salary/wage comparable to their white coworkers, real estate discrimination and more.

After each time Abdurraqib read, he didn’t reflect on what was said. Rather, he allowed the reader to do that for himself in the silent cadences between his words before moving on to another chapter of his life and a new fold of pop culture.

“Editing is a sonic masterpiece,” Abdurraqib said.

He shows this devotion to sound in the way he carries himself. He wore a sweatshirt with the words “Through Being Cool” plastered across his chest, followed by smaller sans serif print underneath that said, “Saves the Day.” Through Being Cool is the second studio album by an American rock band called Saves The Day, which began in 1997. It’s this appreciation for music that Abdurraqib adorned on his chest that further reminded the audience how much music is intertwined with his art and literature.

As I leave you, the reader, I wanted to end on a personal note for how this reading impacted me. Hanif illuminated the possibility for me, as both a writer and a human being, to embrace the complexities of who we are and where we come from. Of that, his infusion of the Black vernacular, and Black English in general, into his work allowed me to feel seen. It is an intersection of the beautiful and painful ways my consciousness flows, sometimes in tandem with and at war with itself and the myriad of identities and cultures I’ve learned to accept as my own.

Leave a Comment