Poet, Essayist and Cultural Critic Hanif Abdurraqib
Hanif Abdurraqib once tried being a musician.
It didn’t last long.
In 2004, the Ohio native was the keyboardist in what he calls a “pop-punky hardcore kind of band.” Their name was Citywide Fog Machine.
“We didn’t have much success at all,” Abdurraqib recalls. “We made it through about half a show and then a couple of our members quit mid-show.”
Abdurraqib is now a critically acclaimed and best-selling poet, critic and essayist. But, short-lived punk band be damned, music remains a crucial ingredient in his work.
You’ll find eclectic references in his often personal, frequently witty poems. One is titled “At The House Party Where We Found Out Whitney Houston Was Dead.” Another is called “Ode To Jay-Z, Ending In The Rattle Of A Fiend’s Teeth.” Then there’s “In Defense Of That Winter Where I Listened To The First Taking Back Sunday Album Every Day.”
His latest book, “Go Ahead in the Rain,” is devoted to one group he’s been enamored with for much of his life: A Tribe Called Quest, the groundbreaking 1990s hip-hop act that mixed jazz with socially conscious lyrics.
Abdurraqib will read passages from it — and his upcoming works — when he takes his nationwide speaking tour to Long Branch on Thursday, March 7, for Monmouth University’s Visiting Writers Series. The free event begins at 4:30 p.m. at Wilson Auditorium.
“Go Ahead” isn’t merely a history lesson on Tribe. Abdurraqib says it’s also an ode to fandom, tracing how the quartet was critical to key moments in his life.
“I did not want to write a straightforward biography,” he explains of the book, which reached the Top 10 of the New York Times’ nonfiction paperback bestsellers list after it was released earlier this month. “I didn’t want to present myself as an authority.”
“I kind of wanted to examine what it is to love a group for a long time and the many ways love for music can flow into a long and varied life.”
Yes, the book chronicles Tribe’s early years, the sometimes tumultuous relationship between leaders Phife Dog and Q-Tip, the group’s lauded reunion a few years ago, and Phife’s death at age 45 in 2016.
Profile photo of poet Abdurraqib as he reads aloud
But Abdurraqib also remembers how he took up the trumpet to connect with his jazz-loving father and how Tribe’s music was just jazzy enough to win the approval of his parents, while other rap records were not allowed in the house.
Abdurraqib explains that he and his friends were attracted to Tribe’s love of the weird and whimsical.
“Like Phife Dawg, we were small and of dark skin, and we knew that our wit could be weaponized in tense moments,” he writes.
Abdurraqib grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and started his writing career as a critic. But he soon faced criticism of his own: that his work was “too poetic” and “too circular,” he recalls.
“It circled the point instead of honing in on the point,” Abdurraqib says. “So I decided: Why not just try poetry? I could find a way to marry the two genres until they became one genre.”
“I’m interested in the emotions that poetic language can evoke, and I’m interested in the way that those emotions can lead to a larger path for understanding the greater topic at hand.”
Abdurraqib released his first full-length poetry collection, “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much,” in 2016. A year later, his first collection of essays, “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,” came out. It was named a book of the year by Buzzfeed, Esquire, NPR, Pitchfork and more.
His poems include references to everything from Journey to Fallout Boy, from Miley Cyrus’ “Party In The U.S.A.” to Drake. Among his criticism and essays: One piece examining which Disney characters are most like certain hip-hop stars, and a vivid, emotional New York Times piece recounting the first time he was stopped by police.
Abdurraqib says he’s inspired by listening to music or watching something in popular culture. “I’m kind of always looking for the story underneath the story,” he explains.
To this day, he still lives in Columbus, Ohio’s capital city. “I hope to be here for as long as I can be,” Abdurraqib says.
Unlike many artists, he hasn’t relocated to New York or Los Angeles. And, that, he says helps inform his writing.
“I feel like I see the world outside of my own world best when I’m immersed in the familiarity of home,” Abdurraqib says. “I think I can be more critical of spaces when I don’t have an allegiance to them. And it’s easier for me to focus and not get caught up in kind of the side things that go on in the life of writing.”
He has a rule about topics he finds difficult to write about. “When I do find myself stuck there, the thing I often find myself asking is: Am I the person I want to read on this?” Abdurraqib explains. “I think if I’m struggling, it is perhaps someone could write it better than I could.”
He doesn’t compose his poems with pen and paper. He types. And when he’s not on the road, squeezing in writing time on airplanes and in hotel rooms, he prefers to work in his home office.
“My handwriting is very bad,” Abdurraqib says. “It’s so bad sometimes I don’t even understand what I’ve written. And also, I’m a heavy researcher, and in my office I have several monitors at once. It allows me the kind of freedom to roam and be a bit more whimsical with the things I’m looking up.”
His website says he likes to ask people to list their Top 5 albums. What are his?
“Oh, they change all the time,” Abdurraqib says. “All the time.”
Today, he’s whittled his list down to three records. One is “London Calling” by The Clash.
“It’s probably always gonna be up there,” Abdurraqib says.
Two is “Strictly Business” by 1980s hip-hop duo EPFD. And No. 3 has Jersey roots: “The Wild, The Innocent, And The E Street Shuffle,” the sophomore record by Bruce Springsteen.
That or “Nebraska” is his favorite Bruce record, he says.
“It’s definitely somebody who’s figuring out how to become the writer that he eventually became,” Abdurraqib notes.
His next book is a poetry collection called “A Fortune For Your Disaster,” due out in November. After that, he’ll release a book called “They Don’t Dance No Mo,” which is “a bunch of meditations on the history of black performance in America.”
So what about playing music himself? Will his brief stint in Citywide Fog Machine remain his final foray into performance?
“I do like the idea of maybe one day when I’m older, I’ll try to do it again,” Abdurraqib says.