Hanif Abdurraqib. (Photo: Megan Leigh Barnard)
Hanif Abdurraqib. (Photo: Megan Leigh Barnard)

For Hanif Abdurraqib, Language Is an Instrument

The poet, author, and cultural critic discusses how he selects and arranges words to create a spellbinding symphony of sounds.
By Brittany Dennison
February 24, 2022
7 minute read

Poet, author, and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib is a seasoned conductor of language. His writing—a blend of autobiography, social history, and pop-culture commentary—often looks at the world through the lens of music, and takes a variety of forms. He hosts the podcast Object of Sound, which unpacks how popular songs shape society; and runs the website 68to05, where he publishes essays and playlists of favorite albums recorded between 1968 and 2005. His 2019 book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest explores the 30-year history of the hip-hop group and how its jazz-infused sounds and socially conscious lyrics influenced 1990s rap. A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Random House), out next month in paperback, collects Abdurraqib’s thoughts on pivotal moments in pop culture—including 19th-century minstrel dancer William Henry Lane, who performed for white audience in blackface, and Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl halftime show—that provide a singular survey of Blackness and celebrate Black identity.

Part of what makes his intimate, approachable writing so compelling is the musicality of his language. He perfects his craft by reading his work out loud, his preferred method of delivery. “Hearing the words come out of my mouth is important, because I need to know if there’s a better path that might serve what my voice is capable of,” he says. “I imagine that language is the instrument, and voice is just the tool of amplification. That forces me to think about language and the particular individual ability that I have to amplify it effectively.” We recently spoke to Abdurraqib about how music, poetry, and storytelling intersect, and the benefits of being a good listener.

All of your projects center around listening. What draws you to this particular sense?

I’m amazed by the fact that we all hear things differently. Listening is an individualized act, even when it’s done in community. And it’s individualized through eras: Something I heard last year is going to have a different impact on me today. I’m very invested in a long arc of listening, and how that can mirror the long arc of living, and what it can tell us about life.

Tell me about the sounds that you try to create with your writing.

I write with the intention of it being read out loud—at least, for me to read it out loud. I came up in the poetry slam and performance poetry scene, and so much of my early practice involved reading my work out loud. I wasn’t writing for the page at all.

I think about poems as musical arrangements. There are points of language that are percussive, that feel like wind instruments when they’re combined. As a poet, I try my best to create something that feels symphonic when read out loud, and that maybe will translate to formal things, like line breaks and enjambment.

I don’t like the sound of my voice. But in the editing practice, it’s important for me to read the first draft of my poems out loud, because I think there’s something revelatory in hearing your own voice read your own work. In that playback, it’s easy to find things like, “Oh, this word doesn’t work next to this word sonically.” Or maybe a word doesn’t sound as comfortable coming out of my mouth as another word that might. The language should be pleasing.

As limited as the English language can be, there are some things that can happen when you pair some words next to others. There’s some real musicality that can be created through the stitching together a sound and language, and getting to take part of that in the poem feels like a really broad playground.

How does this musicality play out beyond phrases, in the cadence of sentences and paragraphs?

A paragraph is like a guitar and a sentence is like a string. Each string has to be tuned just right, but it also has to serve the full body of instruments.

On a sentence level, I’m always thinking about how many pops of sound I can put into a sentence without sacrificing meaning, which is why some of my sentences are so long. It’s like, you hit a groove in an instrumental solo and you want to keep going; you want to keep wrapping your hands around that groove. That’s kind of where I am at, and have been, as a sentence-writer—forever trying to chase after a sound, no matter how long it takes.

Is everything you write meant to be read aloud?

My central pursuit is that of beautiful language. I write everything as though it’s going to be read out loud, because it is. I read A Little Devil in America with the same energy as when I read from my books of poems, because the language demands it. Writing in a language that demands to be read out loud cuts out any other understanding of genre. So I’m not beholden to genre. I’m beholden to sound.

Appreciating that sound requires focused listening. What do you think makes a good listener?

Part of good, active listening is sacrificing yourself and whatever ego you might bring to listening in service of asking better questions about what you can take from something that you might not initially love. Or about what you can find in something that might push you beyond your initial expectations. There’s a part of listening that is a holy practice of sacrifice. Not a painful sacrifice, but a joyful one, made to hear something that is unexpected. There are opportunities for that all around—not just in music, but in conversation and in the movements of the world.

When I was younger, I lived on a street with sirens. I loved the way that sound bent as it got more distant. Or when cars drove by, playing loud music out their speakers, the sound became this screwed-up, slowed-down noise as it echoed backward. There’s a lot of wonder in that for me, and the “why” of sound. Why is sound doing what it’s doing? Understanding that requires giving myself over to the many possibilities that listening can afford, beyond what’s on the surface. That’s what makes a good listener. Sometimes I don’t have the patience for it. But when I do, it has served me well.