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When Josephine Baker spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, she was in uniform, clad in her Free French regalia, and it was her life in France, her adopted home, to which she compared her experiences in the US: “You know, friends, that I do not lie to when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.” At the time, the American-born Baker — one of two women to speak at the March; the other was Daisy Bates — was only 57, though she’d been both an iconic performer and an agent of the French Resistance. Her words were reflective: “My life is behind me,” she said. “There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light that fire in you.”
It’s from this speech that the poet Hanif Abdurraqib draws the title of his newest book, A Little Devil in America, a series of profound and lyrical essays on Black performance and its inextricability from US history: “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America too,” Baker said. Her introspections, says Abdurraqib, were “immensely generous,” as was the humor of that particular consideration. Baker, “in everything I’ve seen,” he explains, “was a person who was funny.”
I’ve seen Abdurraqib, who is also an essayist and music journalist, read publicly twice: once in Miami, as part of an event by O, Miami and Foggy Windows , where he read poems about Marvin Gaye. In New York, at Basilica Soundscape 2018, he read “Defiance, Ohio is the Name of a Band,” while listeners sat on the floor in a circle, like the most intimate in-between moments at punk shows. I’ve long been moved by what feels, initially, like Abdurraqib’s romanticism; understood more deeply, it’s reverence, never without its criticisms and always delivered with affections: a music nerd’s obsessiveness with his totems, a poet’s meditations. The Columbus, Ohio-born (and -based) writer grew up surrounded by the music his family loved, and it’s through Black music and performance that A Little Devil in America takes shape, the chapters divided into movements, like a score, touching on matters like the Soul Train line and Merry Clayton’s outstanding vocals in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
I recently spoke with Abdurraqib about Object of Sound (his new podcast, in which he interviews musicians about broad and complex subjects), as well as A Little Devil in America, and the joy he felt writing it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hyperallergic: When we start researching and thinking deeply about certain subjects, some quotes tend to rotate in our heads like gyroscopes. Had you been thinking about Josephine Baker’s speech for a long time?
Hanif Abdurraqib: The speech was definitely in my head as I was working on the book. I think a lot about the disposability of Black artists as they age — specifically artists who are not men. I think about late-career Josephine Baker, who was immensely generous to be as reflective as she was during that speech — at times funny, but also at times really resistant to the idea that she was finished, or that she was done, or that she was in the grave already, so to speak. I really love and admire that speech. Of course, that quote was part of a longer sentence that was a little bit tongue-in-cheek. Josephine Baker — in everything I’ve seen, at least — was a person who was funny. I wanted to uplift and illuminate that humor, too. She’s someone who’s very important to me.
H: In your recent conversation with Devonté Hynes, you discussed how this book transformed from its previous incarnation — you’d initially set out to write about minstrelsy and appropriation, and you described being inspired by Toni Morrison’s belief in removing the specter of whiteness entirely. How did this book change? And what sort of research were you doing that helped shape it?
HA: The process was really visual for me. Essentially, I switched the book’s motive and messaging because I was trying to crawl my way toward something that felt exciting to pursue, instead of bogging myself down in the appropriation of Black performance and what has been usurped by the presence of whiteness. I became a lot more interested in what excitements I could bring myself toward — in celebration and in praise of the performances I had fallen in love with.
So, I watched a lot of videos. I watched hours and hours of archival Soul Train footage. I watched hours and hours of Josephine Baker videos. More than any other book, this was really visual for me — instead of sonic, or anything else. I watched a lot of movement, people in action, videos of people playing spades with each other, to feel closer to this understanding that the way I experience something — or the way that has something come to me in my life — is not entirely isolated. The way I have loved things is not entirely detached from the way that Black people are loving things as we speak. I didn’t want to just make this a historical monument about the way that Black people have performed.
H: In one movement, “On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance,” you discuss both Soul Train and Depression-era dance marathons. I was struck by how you describe putting trust in a partner, even for the moment: in Soul Train, in these dance marathons, in your own life. Love, trust, is such an anchor. How did you feel your way through the dance marathons into the reverence for Soul Train, for the care people show each other in these moments?
HA: Those dance marathons are horrific—so many of the worst American impulses intersecting at once. It’s hard for me to overly romanticize the project of the dance marathon, but I was fascinated by the photos. You see people collapsing into the arms of their partner, who’s holding them up as they sleep; the partners holding mirrors for them while they take care of themselves. And I was especially drawn to this because, as I came to understand it, those people were not all romantically linked. Some of them were just people who needed another person: for example, a woman who needed a man strong enough to lift her, but not so heavy that she couldn’t hold him up. The dance marathon is an examination of partnering, an examination of what lengths people go to — to quite physically prop each other up, or to make sacrifices to briefly illuminate their partner.
This jumped me to the Soul Train line, where, in that brief moment, the two paired dancers are kind of fighting for whatever little time they have on the screen. There are real generous sacrifices made through some of that choreography — a man will fall back or even slip out of the picture for a bit so that his partner can have a little more dancing space. Or there’s a sacrifice made through aesthetic or an outfit, to match each other. For me, it all comes back to love and longing and the things that we do when we’re in situations that require us to care for people.
H: Can you talk about the book’s arc — its separation into movements, like a score?
HA: A big thing with organizing and order is, for me, trying to figure out what I was defining within the movements. It’s a good thing for me to spend some time with it — read through it and understand where my obsessions are leading me. Sometimes these obsessions are just speaking for themselves, but you don’t really see that as I’m writing these things. It’s not like, “This is another piece that speaks to that piece”; it just happens on its own. So, for me, it’s good to piece these things out and ask myself: What clusters are being connected through these ideas? That was a process. Along with an editor of mine, Maya Millett, we defined the movements before all the pieces were done, or even in their final form. So, in a way, I was writing toward the idea of movements, this idea of a score.
H: If you’re willing to reminisce, could you tell me about the dance period you had in high school? You talked about it in the same movement: a literal hour in school in which music was played and you were all given time to dance.
HA: At the time, it didn’t feel weird. It was just what you did. But now, it’s so funny; when I tell people about it, everyone is like, “That is immensely odd.” And it was this thing that was happening at a high school lunch hour, which is, I think, not even noon yet.
H: Yeah, you’re having lunch in high school at, like, 11 in the morning.
HA: So not even before you cross over into the PM hours, this thing that suggests nighttime is happening. And then you need to go back to class, sweaty and mentally enlivened; your head is not in school. It’s this dance party in the middle of the day for 16- and 17-year-olds.
It was a really odd practice, but — I write about it in the book — it was kind of an unofficial initiative to keep people in the building. Once so many of us got cars, people would just leave for lunch and never come back. The idea was: if something happening during the lunch hour is so irresistible that you don’t want to miss it, then you’re going to stay. And if you stay, you can’t really escape once the post-lunch bell rings. So it led to this really odd, sort of beautiful interaction — it was kind of romantic, looking back at it. Especially because I didn’t go to a huge high school. My high school was big enough, but the people you were dancing with were likely in your next period class. It led to a romantic engagement with each other that felt not as fleeting as it could. It’s bizarre, but I’m thankful for it.
H: You include a quote by Toni Morrison before that movement/section, alongside one by Sun Ra: “If you are not a myth whose reality are you? If you are not a reality whose myth are you?” I want to know why you chose that one.
HA: That one, specifically, spoke most to that moment in the book, but I also think that Sun Ra, generally, was someone who guided this book. I love a Black person who makes a myth out of themselves, in a way, and who does so without an overwhelming concern for whether or not that myth will be believed. Sun Ra so intensely believed the myth of himself that he didn’t require anyone else to believe it. And to me, that is the most exciting part of the Sun Ra legacy: he was not invested in the quote-unquote believability or requirement — the American, particularly white requirement — to have proof of something.
H: I wanted to learn a little bit more about Object of Sound, your podcast; actually, the last episode I listened to was the Afrofuturism episode. What’s the origin story of Object of Sound?
HA: I had a desire to make a podcast that felt like a radio show; I had dreams of being a college radio DJ, which never came into fruition. I wanted to make a show that felt like it could live up to the type of performance of college radio—where I’m picking or playing songs, but also talking to musicians about some larger-scale things and not just saying, “So, tell me about your new album.” I wanted to make a show that was […] instead offering some curiosity about the larger creative processes or the larger creative concerns that surround a musician’s history and their work, about what excites them and brings them back to the work they do — which is how the Afrofuturism piece came to life, and how all the episodes have come to life.
H: I really loved the one about cover songs. There was a period in high school where I was essentially collecting every cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” that I could.
HA: Yeah, the covers episode was fun. The covers playlist was especially challenging, because there are just so many I love. It was hard to come to a real conclusion about what to include and what to leave out, so to speak. The hard thing is that I have limited room for the playlists — I have room for 8 or 9 songs. I always think, “This playlist could be 20 tracks long, but I’ve only got a few minutes.”
H: [Let’s go back to A Little Devil in America]; this book was slightly different than your others in many ways—how you put it together.
HA: Yeah. It has to be said that this book was also a much more joyful experience for me—which isn’t being dismissive of my other books. I felt so overrun with joy writing this book; it was interesting because, now, I feel like I’m coping with the fact that I have to let it go, and the fact that it’s no longer mine. It becomes the world’s. I have a lot of gratitude for that, but there’s also a bit of sadness.
H: What is the experience before the book’s release like? Is there an intimacy, even preciousness, in still being with it before so many eyes are on it?
HA: Yeah, right now it feels like the most exciting time for me, because I’m in the final stages of intimacy with the book before the world gets it. So I’m holding it closer, in some way. I feel like I am celebrating it fully, because I know that once it enters the world, I have no control over how it’s received or what people think about it. I have control over none of that, and I have to let it live in the world as it might live in the world.
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Penguin Random House, 2021), by Hanif Abdurraqib, debuts on Bookshop today, March 30.