Servant of Pod Hanif Abdurraqib Episode 21
Sat, 11/28 3:40PM • 25:38
people, laughter, legacy, album, music, artist, darby, world, thought, crash, john lennon, feel, creating, owe, life, year, fan, story, kinney, voice
Ruby Crystal, Nick Quah, Hanif Abdurraqib
Hanif Abdurraqib 00:01
I'm the youngest of four and I came up in a house where I did not have... What being the youngest of four means, among many other things, is that you so rarely have control over the music that gets played in a car, in a house, right? [Laughter] And then by the time that I was driving myself around, there was no one in the house for me to drive around. And so... [Laughter] And that creates a kind of joyful isolation of music fandom that begs this kind of myth that you are the only person loving the music you love in the way you love it.
Nick Quah 00:33
This is poet, essayist, and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib.
Hanif Abdurraqib 00:39
Part of what I really have loved about the past couple years is that I get to put that myth to bed. I get to go out into the world and have someone be like, "I read this thing you wrote about this band, and I experienced it in that way too." Or something that has really bugged me out over the past couple years, people being like, "Yo, you wrote about this show; I was at that show!" You know? [Laughter] And I'm not talking about arena shows, right? I'm talking about like...
Nick Quah 01:02
Hanif Abdurraqib 01:03
...Shows where there were like 100 people, 50 people in the room. And that has been so fulfilling.
Nick Quah 01:09
And now Hanif has a new way of building communion with people who follow his work as the host of the latest season of KCRW's Lost Notes, which he fully curated. The show centers around great untold stories from the music industry, and this season focuses on a single year: 1980. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: "How To Love Critically," with Hanif Abdurraqib. Now, let me just say right off the bat, I love this season of Lost Notes. It's gorgeous. But I'll admit, I had some reservations going into the series. 1980 doesn't really stand out--to me, at least--like a year with a clear hook that embodied a cultural shift.
Hanif Abdurraqib 02:09
So I landed on 1980 for a couple reasons--one, because, I think of course, we're celebrating the 40th anniversary of a lot of the musical happenings, or all the musical happenings in that year. But because I also thought 1980 presented a real opportunity to examine the way music happens. And it doesn't just happen in a vacuum. There are a series of conditions that lead to the way that music is created and consumed. And I felt like 1980 had a real strong rash of stories that leaned into that idea.
Nick Quah 02:40
What were the major themes that you were sort of thinking about when you settled on 1980 and also started looking through stories?
Hanif Abdurraqib 02:46
I thought that it would be largely a series about grief, and loss, and rebuilding, and reinvention. And I suppose in some ways, it still is, but the first idea we had was the John Lennon/Darby Crash story just because for me that was so unique, and so heartbreaking, in some ways.
Hanif Abdurraqib 03:08
Darby Crash died on December 7, 1980. By the time the news of his death began to circulate, it was well into December 8th. While Mark David Chapman paced outside of John Lennon's apartment with a record, Darby Crash is being pulled, lifeless, from a house. While word was spreading around the L.A. punk scene about Crash's death, Lennon was signing his name on his eventual killer's record. While radio stations in Los Angeles began to start their marathon of Germs songs, John Lennon lay dying in New York, at the doorway to his apartment. News and radio stations broke away to deliver what must have seemed like a larger, more urgent heartbreak.
Hanif Abdurraqib 03:57
But then, you know, some other things--as I began to kind of go down this road--some other things materialized, like the Hugh Masekela/Miriam Makeba story, them going back to Lesotho in 1980, December 1980, to play what was effectively a homecoming concert; and Grace Jones making the first of her Compass Point albums, those things kind of organically fit into what I was trying to do. And it helped to not make an entire series about grief, and loss, and tragedy, and to offer something beyond that. It felt compelling too, to kind of tell some stories of how people reinvented themselves, or how a quest for infamy--like someone like Darby Crash--how a quest for infamy can be derailed by a greater loss, and thinking a little bit too about legacy. You know, I think that I spend a lot of time thinking about an artist's legacy, and how difficult it is to have full control over that.
Nick Quah 04:54
Yeah, that was the thing that really stood out to me. For me, that Darby Crash/John Lennon story is one of the starkest examples of just how tricky legacies can be. Darby Crash, the former lead singer of the punk band Germs, takes his own life because he thought he would achieve cultural immortality. And then it happens just a day before Lennon was shot and killed in New York City, which completely overshadows Darby's story in the media. So, Darby had this plan of how he would be remembered, and there's just no way you can plan for that. And this goes for music artists create too, right? Like, you hope that people are on the same page as you but you can't be certain.
Hanif Abdurraqib 05:34
Well, you know, the whole thing is that you can't control the way the music is received when it enters the world, right? And you can't control the way that you are perceived as the creator of the music, once the music is in the world. And so it always and forever strikes me as this really fascinating thing, that someone like Darby Crash wanted to determine his own legacy, and he thought his death would do that for him. His inability to be alive and move through the world anymore would present an opportunity for his legacy to be defined by his absence. But even that plan was flawed. But I also think about The Secret Life of Plants, Stevie Wonder thought he was doing something that no one else could have thought to do, you know? He was creating a soundscape for a movie he was incapable of visually watching.
Ruby Crystal 06:25
Research conducted in the Soviet Union leads scientists to believe that plants may think. Attached to delicate electronic instruments, a cabbage plant registers annoyance to the exhaling of tobacco smoke on its leaf surfaces.
Hanif Abdurraqib 06:42
Enamored with the idea, Wonder had the film's producer Michael Braun describe each image in the film to him. This allowed Wonder to take the task of creating the film score, translating the descriptions into sound. The Secret Life of Plants album is compositionally as ambitious as anything else Wonder had attempted. The moods of some songs shift rapidly, from sparse and airy acoustics to large sweeping synthesizer arrangements. Other songs shift in glacial movements in an attempt to mirror the slow growth cycle of a plant.
Hanif Abdurraqib 07:29
And it's an achievement, but when it entered the world, it did not get treated that way. And so part of one's legacy, I think, is not only how do you create, but how do you react to a world that might not always be as excited about your creations as you are?
Nick Quah 07:44
So when we talk about legacy, we are often also talking about death. So for example, like John Lennon's last album, Double Fantasy.
Hanif Abdurraqib 07:52
There's that thing in the Darby Crash/John Lennon episode where I talked about--which is something I didn't know that this happened to the extent that it did--where Double Fantasy reviews come out when John Lennon was still alive, and they were pretty lukewarm. I mean, even saying they're lukewarm might be generous, they were pretty bad. [Laughter] And then after John Lennon passed, those reviews got pulled and new ones got dropped in. You know, new, more glowing ones got dropped in. And that felt really complicated to me. I don't know if the best way to honor someone is to not be honest about how we feel about their creative output, even in the immediacy after their loss. Especially someone as titanic as John Lennon, who undoubtedly had and has a body of work that is imperfect, but still pretty packed with more brilliance than, I think, some of his peers. And so that made me start to think, too, about what does the critic owe the dead? What does the fan of music owe the dead, if anything? And I think we owe them the same honest affection--key word, honest--honest reflection that we would give when they were alive. I think if you genuinely love an artist, and have loved an artist for a long time, you have maybe even unintentionally prepared for a world without them in it. I can't count the amount of years that I had thought about how hard it would be to lose Little Richard. And that doesn't mean that I had pre-written Little Richard's eulogy, but it means that when someone dies, for me, it's easy to unlock that box where I had kind of stored all that pre-determined grief, and all that pre-determined celebration, and all that pre-determined memory and history. And sometimes that's complicated in the stories of most of the musicians who die. It's never smooth. It's never easy.
Nick Quah 09:38
Hanif Abdurraqib 09:39
If you have a real genuine connection with a musician, it stands to reason to me that you have perhaps already prepared to mourn them as they get up in age, as you live alongside them and they increase in age.
Nick Quah 09:51
So when you're doing a piece like this that looks backwards are you, to some extent, mourning that time? Or like you're mourning that version of the artist?
Hanif Abdurraqib 10:00
I think somewhat. I mean, I think you can mourn a version of what an artist was and still make space in your mind/heart for what an artist is capable of being. I was thinking about that last Leonard Cohen album and how much I loved it, and how my affection for it existed, in part, because I had made space for what Leonard Cohen was still capable of being at that point in his life. The last Bowie album. I mean, these are people who made records on the way out, intentionally or unintentionally, and those records resonate, because with any luck, there is still space for the world to not only see those artists as they were, but offer a space for them to be who they are. A Tribe Called Quest is another one who made a late-career comeback album and it really resonated, I think in part, because people were open to receiving the growth of that artist. They hadn't cut off... Their imagination hadn't cut that artist off at what their highest point had been, and I think we really, if we're lucky, we really owe that to our artists.
Nick Quah 10:59
Do you think that the concept of a legacy has changed in the 21st century, as opposed to like, the 70s, 80s, 90s when we weren't living in this overly-connected media world?
Hanif Abdurraqib 11:10
Yeah, I mean, I also think that people just have shorter memories, kind of, around musicians. [Laughter] I think, in particular, musicians and athletes, but I think it's because we see so many different versions of them in our lifetimes. And we see it in a way that feels more touchable, because of how the internet is. And I know he's a bit of a hot-button topic, and I don't know how much actually want to get into him as a person, but I think about how many times, like, how many different Kanye West's have I seen in my lifetime?
Nick Quah 11:42
Hanif Abdurraqib 11:43
And that's someone who had, you know... Like a lot of people got first familiar with, like 20 years ago? And 20 years is not that long of a time, you know? And in that 20 years, he has shaped and reshaped himself, and so his legacy has become different things, and the way that people cling to his legacy has become different. And he is not even 45 years old, and so...
Nick Quah 12:06
That's crazy to just wrap my head around that fact.
Hanif Abdurraqib 12:09
Yeah, yeah. You know, I mean, like he...
Nick Quah 12:11
Hanif Abdurraqib 12:12
When I talk about legacy, I talk about widening an ability to understand that the things we love are not always going to go down easy, but that doesn't mean that we have to love them less.
Nick Quah 12:24
So to what extent do you think about your legacy, as a person who puts things out into the world?
Hanif Abdurraqib 12:29
I don't. [Laughter] I mean I don't know that I do. I think that if I'm lucky... This is a good question, and one that caught me off-guard admittedly, because I don't think about my own legacy that much. [Laughter] You know, if I'm lucky, I hope that I'll be thought of as someone who tried to corral my excitements and deliver them in a way that maybe offered some excitement to other people, or to perhaps be remembered as a conduit for secondhand excitement, but more than that, I'm just someone who loves music. I'm a fan of music, and I think that so much of my writing life has been dedicated to tearing down the hierarchy between "critic on high," dictating to the masses, and the masses, right? I think that what most excites me is idea that I'm just a fan who is existing alongside other fans, and with any luck, we can kind of walk hand-in-hand towards some revelations about things we love, or things we don't know we love yet.
Nick Quah 13:34
So that's the thing about your work that I'm so drawn to, is that you're not just such a, like, a good fan, or a listener, or an audience member. It's like you're really good at loving something. And I guess I have no idea how to phrase this question other than to ask like, how do you love something the way that you do?
Hanif Abdurraqib 13:52
It's interesting, because I do hear this about myself, my work, a lot. And I think that, you know, without getting too deep into like, a therapy session here. I think that I fail... I fail, and have failed, in love and in great many ways in my life. And so it isn't lost on me that I think what I am doing... I'm, in some ways, loving the easy thing, or I'm loving something that does not feel insurmountable or movable to me. Because I understand that love as fleeting in a way that is not going to be as painful as some of the other ways that love has been fleeting in my life. And so I think if I am good at loving things, it's because I want to keep things close while I can, and while I still feel good about them.
Nick Quah 14:43
Hanif Abdurraqib 14:44
I'm not saying that I believe in music as disposable, obviously. I'm not saying I believe in music as something I can throw away. What I'm trying to get at is that the music I love the most is music that has altered my life, has altered the lives of people around me, and music that has been the bridge to my loving the world better than I could without it, and so I want to keep that close. But I have to do an understanding of "the bridge has already been built." And I'm thankful for the bridge.
Nick Quah 15:12
Coming up: what do artists owe their fans? I think one reason I respond really strongly to your work is how you generally approach music and culture as a fan, rather than as someone who's more removed from the work. I can empathize with that, but it it makes me think about how nowadays there are so many types of fandoms, and there's also been the rise of "stans," like, really intense superfans. In your mind, what is the difference between a fan and a stan?
Hanif Abdurraqib 15:50
As someone who's not really a stan of much myself, I do think that being a stan, you're on the front lines, it appears, at least from a distance, in a way that can reduce nuance and clarity, but also can be fulfilling. I'll say this: I get that there are ways that, particularly online, stan culture can be toxic and not necessarily fulfilling for everyone. But, man, I also just like... So many of the folks who are immersed in it are young folks who are excited about an artist or a band, and who are reaching for connection with other young folks through the music they love. And there's something about that on its face that feels really beautiful to me. It feels really not entirely unlike things that I did when I was younger, I just didn't have the same type of platforms that a lot of younger fans have now. In some ways, I admire that; I still feel very connected to that. I came up in these hardcore scenes, these punk scenes, where you are defined in part by your connection--half to the music, but half to the people. And so I don't ever want to let that go, and I don't ever want to discourage that.
Nick Quah 17:01
Yeah, no, I mean, I think I asked that question largely because I am a little bit envious sometimes of people who can feel that way still. And part of it is age maybe, but also part of it is like, I think maybe some of life experiences are such that I can no longer really fully 100% believe in anything anymore. You know, there's a little bit of self-protection that happens with somebody who's skeptical of stan culture in some sort of way. Being able to love critically, I feel like is the hardest component of this.
Hanif Abdurraqib 17:28
It's like, I don't know how else to do it, because I don't know if I can live a life, or in a world, where I demand accountability out of myself, out of the people I love, out of my internal communities, and then put on only rose-colored glasses to look at the things I have affection for, you know? And sometimes... The last Sleater-Kinney album is a really great starting point for me to consider this, right? So the last Sleater-Kinney album--I love Sleater-Kinney. I feel like that is a defining, you know... Sleater-Kinney, for me, is one of the five greatest bands of all time. And the last Sleater-Kinney album just wasn't hittin' for me. And I think my first instinct was like, "Oh, I'm so disappointed. And I'm so whatever, whatever." But then I was like, you know, I think a real way to look at this critically and generously is to say, one: first off, in my lifetime, I've gotten more great Sleater-Kinney albums than anyone could ask for from any band they love, you know what I mean? But what does a band like Sleater-Kinney owe? They don't really owe me their stagnation, you know? If it's a question of, "This band is growing, and growing in a direction that I can no longer chart with them on," at least the band's growing, you know? No band owes any of us this kind of stagnant nature. I mean, no one was demanding that out of Prince, you know? Even as people were hand-wringing over Prince's many evolutions, there was still **** on those Prince albums that none of his peers could pull off. And so that's kind of how I think about critical generosity, which doesn't mean I have to love everything--I can come down firmly on the side of "this isn't for me." But if I love a band, and have loved the band for a while, or artist for a while, it allows me to kind of broaden the generosity I'm able to give them.
Nick Quah 19:19
So do you think an artist or a cultural figure ever owes something to their audience?
Hanif Abdurraqib 19:24
You know, a thing that I always have to think through is that I am both someone who is a critic and an art maker. And I used to be one of those people, you know--I would say around like, even as recent as 2016-ish--I was one of those people who was like, "When is this artist gonna put on another album?" You know, it'd be like two years, I'd be like, "Where's the next album?" That kind of thing. [Laughter] And that's cool and all, until people start asking you when your next book comes out, you know, like, it's cool until... [Laughter] You know, you put out a book in 2018, and then 2019 rolls around and people are like, "When is your next book coming out? Your next book is not out yet." You know what I mean? [Laughter]
Nick Quah 19:55
Yeah, "Why are you working on podcasts instead of your book?" [Laughter]
Hanif Abdurraqib 19:57
Yeah, you know, and then it's like, "Oh, this isn't... this is hittin' different now." [Laughter] And so I think it's really helped me kind of extend the same grace that I look for, as a person who creates things, to the people I love who are creating things, and to honor process. And so with that in mind, I never think that an artist owes anyone anything--the public, at least. When I start thinking about it like that, it allows me to be so grateful that we get anything, you know?
Nick Quah 20:34
I'm curious, how did you find writing for a podcast, writing for the ear, different from writing poetry or prose?
Hanif Abdurraqib 20:42
For me poetry is a sonic... Writing is a sonic practice. And if we're lucky, we're... If I'm lucky, and I get in a good groove, then I am writing for the ear always, or I'm writing with an understanding that the language is a vehicle through which music can be carried. That felt a little challenging, perhaps, as the pieces got longer, you know, I mean, bears mentioning that the format of Lost Notes: 1980 was going to be that we had people kind of dropping in and doing interviews, and kind of this like thing where I was not the sole voice in most of them, but COVID happened here in March, when we were just getting down to recording, and so recording studios closed, and it was kind of like, "Well, guess you're just writing these kind of audio essays now." [Laughter] This isn't a format I'm normally operating in, and so... And I don't particularly like the sound of my own voice, and so... Maybe I shouldn't tell... Say this publicly, but I will: in the draft stages, when they were sending the feedback, where it was like, "Okay, listen to this episode," I would only to listen to little bits of it, and then I would just send emails back like, "Sounds good!" [Laughter] Because I'm not trying to hear my own voice. So honestly, I have...
Nick Quah 21:55
Well, I'm surprised to hear you say that you hate the sound of your own voice, and as a person who hates the sound of my own voice, I say this because you do a lot of poetry readings, you do a lot of readings in general, that I think... Wouldn't that kind of lead in to you hearing your voice a lot more often?
Hanif Abdurraqib 21:55
Yeah, but I don't ever hear my voice the way other people hear my voice, you know what I'm saying? [Laughter]
Nick Quah 22:07
Yeah, that's a good point right there. [Laughter]
Hanif Abdurraqib 22:12
In our heads, we all sound cool, or we all sound... I do hear my own voice often. But I hear it through the filter of my own confidence, perhaps.
Nick Quah 22:21
So all the episodes of Lost Notes: 1980 are out now, and I'm assuming that you're already working on a bunch of other things at the moment. What's next for you? What are you working on now?
Hanif Abdurraqib 22:32
My next book is called A Little Devil in America, and it comes out in March, and it's pretty much wrapped. So for the people asking where my next book is, that's it. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 22:41
That's your book of essays, right?
Hanif Abdurraqib 22:42
Yeah. It's a book of essays in celebration of various modes of Black performance. And I'm currently working on SIXTYEIGHT2OHFIVE, which is this music archival website that I created, and I'm bringing it to life as best as possible.
Nick Quah 22:57
Yeah, tell me more about SIXTYEIGHT2OHFIVE, because it seems very cool, but very ambitious.
Hanif Abdurraqib 23:03
It's too ambitious. But yeah, I mean, it's an ambitious project that I really believe in, and it's, in some ways, a community project, because I'm not doing any writing of my own on the site, other people are doing the writing, and I'm kind of getting to shepherd the writing into the world. But it's also a site where you can scroll through very long playlists, and look at old magazine covers, and watch old performances on YouTube for every year from 1968 to 2005. I am doing a big project that I can't yet talk about, but hopefully I'll talk about it soon. And honestly, fam, I'm like, you know what's wild is this is the first year in a long time where I haven't been spending most of the year working on a book at all. You know, Little Devil was kind of done when the year started--I've had to tweak it a bit, but it's mostly done. And I set out the beginning of this year to be like, this is the year where I am going to spend some time doing projects that are fun to me, and then just relaxing. And I think I fulfilled the first half of that with SIXTYEIGHT2OHFIVE, and Lost Notes, and some of this other stuff. I do need to find time... So the big project I'm working on now is a project of nothing, the project of emptiness, the project of an empty calendar. I'm gonna be at home, I'm gonna bake, I'm gonna play video games, play some piano--I got a piano in the house now so I'm gonna play around on piano a little bit--and kind of just stay in bed.
Nick Quah 24:23
Yeah, man, that sounds really good. [Laughter]
Hanif Abdurraqib 24:24
I know. Let's hope I get there. That's... [Laughter]
Nick Quah 24:27
Yeah, I'm rooting for you, man, I hope you get your new thing. [Laughter]
Hanif Abdurraqib 24:31
Our fingers are crossed. It's so close, yet so far away.
Nick Quah 24:35
Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Hanif Abdurraqib 24:37
No, this was a real joy, Nick, I appreciate it.
Nick Quah 24:53
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.