April 22, 2019

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Race, politics and music musings middling

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/1/2018 (457 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This is a maddeningly uneven collection of some 40 essays, many of which an editor should have culled or curated before the book was printed.

Hanif Abdurraqib is a black poet and critic in his 30s who hails from Columbus, Ohio. This is his second book; his first was a 2016 poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.

Most of the essays in this collection are about music, or start with observations about music, and then veer off into musings about race, racial prejudice, racial violence, mass shootings, law enforcement and even the American criminal justice system.

He’s been compared to the dean of American rock music critics, Greil Marcus. The comparison fails. Marcus writes essays about rock music, but while his essays are about music, they’re also about much, much more.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/1/2018 (457 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This is a maddeningly uneven collection of some 40 essays, many of which an editor should have culled or curated before the book was printed.

Hanif Abdurraqib is a black poet and critic in his 30s who hails from Columbus, Ohio. This is his second book; his first was a 2016 poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.

Most of the essays in this collection are about music, or start with observations about music, and then veer off into musings about race, racial prejudice, racial violence, mass shootings, law enforcement and even the American criminal justice system.

He’s been compared to the dean of American rock music critics, Greil Marcus. The comparison fails. Marcus writes essays about rock music, but while his essays are about music, they’re also about much, much more.

Abdurraqib, like Marcus, tries to bridge music and culture and politics. But he lacks Marcus’s intellectual chops and breadth of learning to do it consistently well. For every substantial piece of analysis in this collection, there’s three or four that spiral off into uninspired, self-absorbed memoir, usually about him and some famous or obscure hardcore punk band.

Abdurraqib is enamoured of the almighty "I," writing almost exclusively in the first person. You can write forcefully, express opinions and make an argument without constantly drawing attention to yourself. It worked nicely for Mark Twain, George Orwell, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens.

He also tends to gimmickry. The essay Defiance, Ohio is the Name of a Band runs over 1,000 words, all written as one sentence. His abandoning punctuation leaves the reader struggling to navigate his massive run-on sentence, until it finally culminates in a confusing non-sequitur.

There are a some good pieces here. A Night in Bruce Springsteen’s America stands out. It’s about liking the Boss’s music but, as a black man, still being alienated from its core message, because the music is viewed through "different eyes on the world."

Carly Rae Jepsen Loves You Back, about the odd spell a white pop singer’s concert performance weaves for a black guy raised on punk and rap, is notable. Abdurraqib sees Jepsen as an antidote "to our precious American anguish." He brings a fresh perspective to her music, even as he forgets she’s not American, but Canadian.

One of the finer essays, It Rained in Ohio On the Night Allen Iverson Hit Michael Jordan with a Crossover, isn’t about music at all, but basketball. It’s a subjective but novel take on young punk and proto star Allen Iverson’s head-on challenge of then-demigod Michael Jordan on a basketball court.

But too much of the collection is self-indulgent, parts of it ungrammatical, and all of it marked by a young writer too eager to insert himself into the narrative of whatever he’s writing about.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

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