Hanif Abdurraqib is known as a poet, an essayist and an esteemed critic whose ability to analyze, report on, and share his passions — from A Tribe Called Quest to the American notion of community and the magic of jukeboxes — has made him one of the most vital cultural voices of our time. He's now applied all his skills to the art of curation: Abdurraqib has organized the 2022 spring music series for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one designed to showcase, as the venue describes it, "performance that is visually dynamic, spans genres and generations, and makes use of the natural world."
The shows, which kick off this Friday with Tuareg guitar maestro Mdou Moctar and up-and-coming indie rocker Bartees Strange, features an eclectic, genre-pushing lineup that includes some of the most exciting new Black musicians working in the realms of rock, neo-soul and psych (Moses Sumney, Dev Hynes, L'Rain, Dawn Richards). Gospel and soul legend Mavis Staples is paired with singer-songwriter Amy Helm for one show; fiery British rapper Little Simz is paired with poet Nikki Giovanni for another. There's a world premiere of Omar Offendum's hip-hop musical Little Syria, and there's an anniversary screening of Juice to top things off. (You can get all ticket info here.)
We spoke this week with Abdurraqib about how his relationship with live performance changed during the pandemic, why he wanted to curate his own festival and how he chose the pairings. He was eager to talk about his excitement over the return of live music.
"It's one of those situations where I am living a dream," he said. "It feels like a lot of people just get to come along with me and live that dream. I'm also just excited for the somewhat communal nature of live music, and what live music can do for an audience who comes together to witness it."
What has your relationship been like with live music during the pandemic? Have you gone to shows much, have you watched many livestreams? No... it's interesting, because I keep doing the kind of run up to a live show where I'll get tickets, and I'll be very excited. And then the day comes, and I get a little anxious about going. And so I haven't been to very many live shows at all, I've been to maybe three in the past two years.
Some of that is because I think my relationship with live music had been changing even before the pandemic. I spent a big portion of my life where I went to multiple shows a week. In my late teens, early, mid 20s, there were weeks where I would go to four or five shows a week, all around the Midwest. So I was kind of organically hitting a point of more selectiveness with my live-music experience, and so even before the pandemic, I was kind of only going to shows I really, really wanted to be at, and the pandemic cemented that for me in a lot of ways. And a real pleasure, I think — and maybe this is getting ahead of myself — but a real pleasure for me with BAM was that I got to curate a set of shows as though they were just the shows that I would want to see. And that was really thrilling, because I had to ask myself: well, what would get me out of the house?
I empathize with that a lot — I've also been gun-shy about going to shows during the pandemic, and it was a major part of my social life. And similarly, it's made me rethink, well, what are the things I really want out of going to a live experience? I don't know what it's like for you, but I like to play the game where I look at the festival lineups whenever they're released, whether it's Coachella or Lollapalooza or Governors Ball, and I'm lucky if there's one day I want to go to. When I got the lineup for this, it kind of blew my mind, because this is the rare festival where I wanted to see almost every single artist. L'Rain, Mavis Staples, Moses Sumney, Mdou Moctar and Bartees Strange, Little Simz and Nikki Giovanni! It's an eclectic group of genre-resistant artists that you've assembled. Was there any theme in your mind approaching these particular artists? Well, I was chasing that. I was chasing both artists who operated freely along the genre landscape, but I was also chasing these really unique and exciting pairings that I believed I couldn't see anywhere else. Like, okay, we got Little Simz onboard, and we were just kicking things around, and the idea of bringing in Nikki Giovanni — that seemed like an impossible gift. Something that I would only dream up: I would dream of seeing Little Simz and Nikki Giovanni together. [They're] both I think incredible storytellers, both singular writers and deliverers of language, and [I wanted] to offer a space where folks can take in both of them at once.
So I was chasing those pairings: not necessarily folks who are in direct conversation with each other, but folks who I believe were rich writers and storytellers who, combined with another rich writer and storyteller, could build out an arc of an evening that felt like a single experience. I wanted to ground people in something, because I think so much of the experience of the pandemic for me, being away from live music, I felt less grounded in what I love about live music, which is being an active participant in a story being built right in front of me.
With some of these pairings, were you literally introducing them to each other for the first time? Yeah, and Adam Shore, who worked with me on this, did a lot of that lifting in terms of going out to people and suggesting the pairs and making sure they worked. But I think all of the artists have been so open and excited about sharing the stage with the people they're sharing the stages with. And it just wasn't difficult. The difficulty was only in schedule wrangling, that kind of thing, where it's like, everyone's going back out on tour, so dates are tricky. But in terms of people being excited to play music at BAM, that part was easy. And the results of that so far, the show on Friday is near sold out there, [Dev] Hynes is pretty much sold out, and Moses Sumney I think is entirely sold out. And that is incredible. As we get closer to these shows, they will begin to sell out more and more. And that's really thrilling, because there was some anxiety I had, [because] I assume that everyone was where I was, where there's anxiety about actually coming to a thing, and being present at a thing. But it does seem like we are at a place where people are feeling open to an experience like this. And I'm glad that I get to play a small role in that.
I reported last week about venues during this transitional period, and it sounds to me that with a lot of places, people are making their decisions the day of, whether or not they're going to go out. So a lot of venues were saying advanced ticket sales were slow, but then they were having hundreds of people showing up at the door. So it was a really promising sign that things are changing right now. Oh yeah. I'm on the same shit, you know, I'm no different. I live in Columbus, Ohio, there's a show happening next Monday night, and I'm going to be here. And I've been on the ticket page off and on for weeks — like, aw man, do I get the tickets, do I show up and get the tickets? So I have that same impulse; that is where I'm at, so I can relate to that. And I wanted to create a series of shows that felt undeniable, where I could tell people: look, you can show up day of, but it might not work [laughs], you might not be able to get tickets.
And I have appreciated the response so far, while still being very empathetic to the reality that... there's an uncertainty to the world of live music still. And the one thing that I think has propelled me through the ongoing pandemic is this mantra: I hope this can happen the way that I've dreamed it. And that goes for everything. Because early on in the pandemic, I tried to make plans too large to be interrupted — but there were no plans too large to be interrupted. So this is like everything else, where I find myself saying: well, I've done the best I can, I'm very excited, and I hope that this can live in the way I've intended it to. And so far, it seems like that will be possible, which is exciting.
When you spoke to the artists, did you give them free rein over what they wanted to present, or did you give them any sort of structure? No, I told them the whole idea of this was giving artists access to BAM's stage and resources. And simply saying, I will be here to offer what I can in terms of any questions you have. But really, the stage and space is yours to dream up what you want to dream up. And a lot of folks took to that really generously, like Moses suddenly has built a whole show around a broader idea of what he wants his work to do. I have told myself that I want to be as surprised as everyone else, so I haven't even really asked what Moses is going to be doing as much as I've kind of been just eager to see it unfold.
And that's really exciting. The dream was to say to people: you have the resources and stage at BAM to make an experience, any experience that you would like. And we've gotten really lucky, I think, in the amount of people who have just really leapt at that, and people who wanted to use it to try new things. I'm really excited that so many people are excited about using it to try new things and play new songs and all of that.
The other event that sort of sticks out is the showing and discussion of Juice. How did that fit in? We wanted to utilize the kind of film space, and we wanted to talk about film. Adam and I have been putting our heads together about this, with the era of Black film particularly that I grew up with in the early '90s. Films that I maybe understood and enjoyed peripherally because I was too young to go to the theaters, even, so Boyz N The Hood, New Jack City, Set It Off, these kinds of films that were having anniversaries or revivals. Juice was at the top of our list, and there was an opportunity, we both thought, to make the experience both visual and musical, because these films relied so heavily on stunning soundtracks. And there was some excitement there in the options that we had to talk about Juice in a way that made it also a musical event and not just a film event.
Is that going to be the only event where you are going to be actively taking part in it? Yes. Before the shows I'm going to do a quick intro and then shuffle off-stage as quickly as possible. But that is the only one where I am going to be kind of at the center of a discussion.
What is your relationship with BAM like? Were you an active patron before this? I know you did a live event with them earlier last year. Yeah, I did a thing with Wesley Morris which was a virtual book [talk], and that was a real wonderful thing. I had been to BAM before this, but I live in Columbus. I'm in New York a lot, but often in New York [it was] when I was traveling, for work or for readings, and [I would] get in and get out. But I've been to BAM, I had loved being at BAM. I love the space. They were so generous and kind in giving me free rein and saying, here's a budget, and here's the spaces that you need, and your imagination will do the rest. That has been a really pleasurable experience. I'm really thankful for it.
After doing this, does it inspire you to want to do more sorts of curation in the future? Would you ever want to program your own festival over the course of a weekend, as opposed to spread out like this? Oh gosh, yes, if I could. That would be a dream. I didn't want to make this a festival. I was excited to make this a spread-out thing in part because I wanted to give people who are maybe a little anxious about going to shows a chance to feel more comfortable, [to] perhaps pick and choose the ones they get to go to. I think I also found myself still a little bit anxious about...I'm not as confident in the festival format, I never have been. I think I'm just not as confident in a one-day or two-day festival format as a way to consume music and also allow for festival-goers to be good to each other, to be frank. I wanted to spread this out.
But in terms of curation in the future, that would be a dream. If this is it, if this is like the last thing I get to do in this realm, I will be satisfied because I'm really proud of this and I'm really excited about this. And I think that the team at BAM, Adam Shore and [artistic director] David Binder and the whole team, they were so great in letting me learn as I went, and kind of poke my way around and figure it out. So I'm very happy with this experience, and if this is it, then this is it. But it would be a dream to keep doing this somewhere. I think that the excitement over the shows in the early response has shown that I feel like I'm at least somewhat capable of creating something, or being a part of creating something, that folks are excited about.
As I said, I certainly was very excited when I was reading through the lineup. I haven't even asked you about Mavis Staples, an incredible singer and presence who has in recent years really taken on a lot of very fascinating collaborations of her own with the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Ry Cooder and Ben Harper. What was it like approaching someone like that? She's in a different realm than a lot of the newer artists that make up the rest of the lineup. I also wanted this to be a multi-generational experience too. I wanted it to not just be artists of a certain era, of a certain appeal; I wanted to broaden the generational influence within the selected artists. And we're able to do that in some ways in the same event, like with Nikki Giovanni and Little Simz. I had for a long time really wanted to write a profile on Mavis Staples, because I believe her to be such a living legend. I wanted to uplift her whenever I could, and it just didn't work out. And this was an opportunity, I thought, to give her a stage and to allow her to have control over a show on her own, and let her dream up anything that she wanted.
I'm excited for all of it. A lot of these folks I've never seen in person, and some of them I have seen in person and have been just eager to see again. It's one of those situations where I am living a dream. It feels like a lot of people just get to come along with me and live that dream. I'm also just excited for the somewhat communal nature of live music and what live music can do for an audience who comes together to witness it. I'm really pleased that this is happening. And I couldn't have asked for a better support system than the one I got a BAM. And I'm glad they believed in me and I'm just so excited about getting underway on Friday and going from there
Are you gonna fly in and out of Ohio for each show? Are you going to stay in New York for part of it? Yeah, I'm planning right now to come in for all of them, very excited to come in for all of them. That is the plan. And this weekend I'm coming in for the show, and I'm also staying to do an event for On Air fest. I'm very excited, I haven't been back in New York in a long time.