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Hanif Abdurraqib on His Podcast “Object of Sound”

Better Futures Playlists

Feb 02, 2021 Hanif Abdurraqib
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What would you put on a playlist right now for your future self—would it be songs of dread or songs of joy? What makes a great cover song—can you giving your best rendition of Amy Winehouse covering The Zutons, while you’re in the shower, be considered a good cover? Why is now the perfect time to envision Black liberation through the lens of Afrofuturism? And what does it mean when artists such as the late MF Doom or Orville Peck wear masks? Tackling some of the more interesting questions at the intersection of music, myth-making, culture and often time, race—Hanif Abdurraqib, the poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Ohio, fills a void with Object of Sound, his new podcast from Sonos.

Each episode is presented with a clear theme around a pertinent question, which Abdurraqib puts forth for discussion to a guest or three—they might be artists grappling with these specific themes in their work, or other cultural commentators best suited to prompt insight. From his home in Columbus, Abdurraqib explains: “I’m more often than not, reaching laterally and not reaching up towards an elder to impart some wisdom on me about song, but…towards other music fans, particularly in my age range who are listening to things differently than I’m listening to them.”

On the episode “What makes a great cover song?” Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy—whose songs have been covered by many artists, as well as himself being a fan of doing covers by his favorite artists—sings the praises of the amateur who “can get to the brokenness of songs he writes” in an inspired and often, more honest way. He admits fan-renditions of 70 of his songs for a recent Bandcamp compilation called Just For Fans—aimed at raising funds for small venues—had moved him to tears.

To further prove this point, we hear a clip of Sam, Tweedy’s youngest son, perform John Denver’s “Annie’s Song (You Feel Up My Senses)” as part of The Tweedy Show—their family, Instagram live event. Like many artists, they’ve been doing these shows regularly since lockdown began. Sam’s unseasoned, trembling vocals imbue the already emotional song with much resonance, especially given our current circumstance. It’s made more poignant when Tweedy reveals that his son had to stop on other attempts to sing it because he was overcome with emotion; it’s a touching moment. But the whole episode is filled with curious gems like host and guest discussing Rainy Day, a rare 1984 covers album featuring songs from The Velvet Underground and Big Star performed by Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) and David Toback (Opal, Mazzy Star), among others.

Tweedy mentions that he believes 50 per cent of the creative process to make something he’s written meaningful and beautiful belongs to the listener; be it the simple act of listening to a Wilco song brought to life with our own memories or actually attempting a cover. So that shower serenade could well be a winner.

After the interview segment, Abdurraqib introduces his handpicked playlist with songs that coalesce around the theme. This one includes a Tweedy cover of “Simple Twist of Fate” (Bob Dylan), The White Stripes doing “Jolene”(Dolly Parton), Tori Amos’ clumsy but charming take on “All Through The Night” (Cyndi Lauper), and Norah Jones’ cover of Wilco’s “Jesus Etc,.”

Abdurraqib then closes with a personal story of how Frightened Rabbit’s 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight helped him personally through a difficult year of immense loss. When the band’s frontman Scott Hutchinson died after going missing in 2018, Abdurraqib tried to reconnect with their music but found it emotionally challenging. In the end, it was a tribute album of cover songs called Tiny Changes that served as his lifeline back to the artist.

Object of Sound’s format is simple but effective. And a playlist generated only to serve its author’s whim, without complicating it with a radio station’s commercial interests or what’s hot on the national charts—allows for a purer experience when it comes to unearthing forgotten treasures, or more recent music that might have been overlooked.

Abdurraqib’s last podcast, 2020’s Lost Notes was at the top of every best of-list. However, there were episodes that felt like we were waiting for some crucial part of a story, to still be revealed. But it never was. Other times, talking heads were introduced but failed to shed any new light. The format left something to be desired. Perhaps the pandemic’s impact can’t be understated here.

For his part, heading into Object of Sound, Abdurraqib wanted to hear somebody’s else’s voice or point of view rather than his own. He explains: “I knew that I wanted to make playlists—short burst of songs that I could arrange and talk about. And I knew that coming off of Lost Notes that I didn’t want to just talk about music, I wanted to talk to people about music. I get really weary and worn out by my own voice, and my own writing, and my own tone, and the way that I shape things in my writing. And I think there is something revelatory in kind of pursuing a set of questions and zooming in on a specific theme as a collaborative effort with other people who are also thinking about these things.”

In his discussions with Sonos—the company recently launched new radio shows with Thom Yorke, Brittany Howard, and Third Man Records—it became obvious that their podcast would have to incorporate an interview format. Abdurraqib explains that he didn’t want to center his ideas but rather, his curiosities, when conversing with others. And he’s almost gleeful about playing the role of a radio host. “The playlist part of this for me is what really drives this home,” he says. “And I wanted it to feel a little like hosting a radio show. You know I’ve always wanted to host a radio show and never gotten to.”

The show is also prescriptive and healing. Abdurraqib offers prompts like “go listen to as many covers as you can find of your favorite song on YouTube and see how the emotional interpretation changes with each version.” It’s a worthwhile activity that costs nothing more than an internet connection, is easily done as we adhere to social distancing rules, and a delight to wile away the hours as you get sucked into endless rabbit holes.

In an age where Spotify and YouTube are endlessly generating AI-driven playlists, what sets Abdurraqib’s playlists apart?

“I am most interested in the playlist as a type of narrative project or even a literary project,” he replies. “There’s something there I think about having a set of songs, arranged by a person telling you a story that they want you to hear.”

And the stories he wants you to hear, often centers the Black experience which if nothing else, is timely. Urgent even.

“There Are Black People in the Future” was a billboard by artist Alisha B. Wormsley that sat atop a Pittsburgh building in 2018—as commentary on the area’s gentrification and displacement of Black communities. Abdurraqib employs the story of what happened to the billboard as an entry point into an episode on Afro Futurism. His guests are Sudan Archives, as well as Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham, the co-editors of Black Futures—an art book chronicling contemporary Black culture and what they believe it means “to be Black and alive” in this moment.

The term Afrofuturism was coined in 1993 by white author Mark Dery and is defined as a cultural aesthetic and a philosophy of science and history, exploring the intersection of the African diaspora and technology.

The history of slavery in America and the hardships it inflicted on African Americans—stretching from its beginnings right up to the Civil Rights movement—gave birth to the blues, soul, gospel, and jazz. That these forms of creative expression would became the bedrock of American music is a moot point. This need for imagined worlds that promised them better futures manifested in what we now call Afrofuturism; in the works of experimental jazz musicians such as Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane, and the sci-fi novels of Octavia Butler. This lineage is reflected today, in the music of Janelle Monáe, Jamila Woods, and Sudan Archives.

Abdurraqib asks each of his guests what the term means to them. Sudan Archives answer was simply “the fact that we can talk together over Zoom.” At its essence Afrofuturism is a way of staking a claim to the future as Wormsley’s billboard intended. But people complained and the work was taken down.

“The billboard…was removed because there were people who found its messaging alarming or jarring which that in and of itself was fascinating to me,” explains Abdurraqib. “What people were saying is that the language was a problem or the assertion was a problem which is more an indictment of those people’s imaginations and interior motives than anything else. But because I was thinking through the ways that it might be alarming for some to come to terms with that, there are Black people in the future—that it made sense to…consider how long that message has been in circulation among Black art makers. Even if not as explicit as that billboard atop that building in Pittsburg but the imagination of Black art makers and the work that Black art makers have taken to.”

In the “Playlists for our Future Selves” episode, guest Moses Sumney expands on this—discussing the different modes of creativity he employs and the fact that there isn’t the language for it. Sumney’s two-part album Grae explored liminal spaces between identity, race, gender, and genres—in all their complexities. In his strife to resist labels, we reached for broader more all-encompassing labels, labeling him nonetheless.

They shed further light on issues of Black identity in America, how Black art makers like Sumney code switch but also achieve synthesis in their genre-bending, barrier-breaking music. But there are unintended consequences: Sumney has always loved R&B but didn’t feel he had the freedom to create music in that space. This is because we are quick to pigeon hole Black performers as R&B artists, often without paying attention to the full breath of their work. And Sumney is that rare and prodigious talent. He says of that conundrum something to the effect that “in defense of being my expansive self, I am diminishing myself.”

As Black art makers themselves, Sumney and Abdurraqib are similarly invested in black, white, and grey spaces. Being the only Black body in a white space is not a feeling foreign to either of them. Towards the end of the interview Abdurraqib admits that they have strayed off topic. For this listener, while the resulting conversation did not provide solutions to the questions they raised, it was thought provoking. It prompted a deeper listen of the playlist, which followed, particularly “City On Lock” by The City Girls and “A Fabricated Life” by Nothing.

In the Afrofuturism episode Abdurraqib talks about the turmoil of last summer and how he felt that Black people were still building a world that for them is not yet visible. Object of Sound holds a mirror to that world and the music that has shaped and continues to shape it today, and whether seen or unseen, credited or not, Black voices have been at the nexus of both music and culture. For now, in partaking in these open conversations and shared playlists, in some small way perhaps we might inch closer to that more inclusive future.

However, Abdurraqib is never heavy-handed in his approach. Instead, he says: “I didn’t want to be instructive. I didn’t want to tell people what to listen to but I kind of wanted to tap on this idea that if we’re listening together, with any luck we’ll come to various conclusions about what we’re hearing—and that’s really beneficial.”

And in his essays when he writes that music saved his life we know that it’s not hyperbole. It’s hope and a lived experience that informs that the method works. “I’m a deeply cynical person and I’m working on that but I think music is something that can, if I’m lucky, snap me out of my cynicism if only briefly and propel me towards something better,” he explains. “I need someone else’s lens on the world in my worst moments to bring me to a better place.”

Hanif Abduraqib’s next book, A Little Devil In America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, is out March 30.



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