Hanif Abdurraqib seems to be everywhere these days—online and in bookstores with his new collection of essays; articles in The New York Times Magazine; on his podcast, Object of Sound; on social media; and on his music website, 68to05.com.
And, for the 2021–2022 school year, you’ll find him at Butler University, where he will serve as the Booth Tarkington Writer-in-Residence, teaching both graduate students in the MFA program and undergraduate English students. He’ll also present his work as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series.
“I was at Butler in 2019 and loved the program,” says Abdurraqib, 37, who taught a poetry workshop. “I love the kind of writers the program focuses on and caters to, and I really believe in the vision and the work of everyone running the program. It’s a very writers-first program; it focuses on the writers. And there’s a real curiosity and eagerness in the students that I have not found anywhere else.”
Over the past five years, Abdurraqib has made a huge name for himself in literary circles as a poet, essayist, music critic, and cultural critic. The Washington Post called his book They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us “a definitive meditation on contemporary Black dying” and described his writing by saying “paragraphs open with piercing salvos, with sentences that move with hammering force and finish with finesse and flourish.”
But before that, he was a kid in Columbus, Ohio, the youngest of four, being shaped by his siblings and his hometown. His siblings exposed him to all kinds of music (among his favorites are The Clash, Sleater-Kinney, X-Ray Specs, A Tribe Called Quest, The New York Dolls and Little Richard), and he absorbed it all.
His hometown taught him warmth—“the way the people are with each other, the way people interact with each other, the generosity that people show toward each other has allowed me to look at the world with the type of gentleness that I desperately need.”
He started his writing career as a music critic, working for anyone who would pay him, and developed the ability to write passionately about what he heard.
“I learned to express excitement for the way music makes me feel and for the way music allows me to access and see the world differently than I do,” he says. “I think I approach my investment in music with a sense of wonder, and I want to take that approach always.”
In 2011, Abdurraqib fell in with the Columbus poetry crowd. “I felt for the first time that I was accessing work that was interesting and exciting to me and that I could touch on my own and do on my own,” he says.
His first book of poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, came out in 2016, and by 2017 he could put the word “writer” as his occupation on his 1040 form. His book They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us came out that year, followed by Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest and A Fortune for Your Disaster in 2019, and on March 30, 2021, A Little Devil in America.
The new book is about the many modes of Black performance throughout U.S. history, Abdurraqib says.
“It feels like I wrote a book that feels celebratory,” he says just before the book launch. “It was so fun to write, and I’m excited that it’s coming out in the world, but I’m a little sad that I had to let it go because I had such a good time writing it.”
Abdurraqib describes himself as “curious, always seeking and excited about the potential for what can be. That defines me and defines my work, too. I’m always seeking and attempting to find my way toward something that makes sense—not necessarily on a search for answers but in a search to better understand the kind of happy predicaments that I stumble into.”
One of those is teaching. Abdurraqib taught briefly at the University of Iowa last year until COVID-19 hit. Then he moved back to Columbus. Meanwhile, Butler was looking for its fourth Booth Tarkington Writer-in-Residence (Michael Dahlie, who later joined the faculty, Alix Lambert, and Justin Taylor were the first three) and reached out to Abdurraqib.
“Right now, Hanif is a rock star of literature, and my suspicion is that in the next year or two, he’s going to get even bigger,” English Professor Dan Barden says. “So we’re grateful that he enjoys being part of our community.”
As a professor, Abdurraqib says, he’ll be interested in breaking down the hierarchy between educator and student and seeing what everyone can teach to one another.
“It’s important for me to stress that we’re going to have to push each other to be good, and it’s not just going to be me telling people what to do or what to write,” he says. “Hopefully, we’re going to be more thoughtful than that. That is my hope for being at Butler for the second time around.”