Poet Hanif Abdurraqib spoke to NME about curating the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Spring 2022 Music Series to “build a world around the vastness of black performance.”
Through several books, including Go in the Rain: Notes on Quests from a Tribe Called and A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, the National Book Award finalist and MacArthur “Genius Grant” The recipient has built a career focused on extending “understanding of the myriad and global nature of black performance.”
With the intention of showcasing black musicality, celebrating the return of in-person community experiences, and “expanding my imagination of what a live music concert can be,” the essayist and critic curated the first foray of America’s oldest performing arts center in live music since the onset of the COVID pandemic.
The intimate and creative shows, which kicked off February 25 and will run through June 11, featured a hand-picked selection of artists by Abdurraqib, including Moses Sumney, Bartees Strange, Devonté Hynes and L’Rain, with performances by Mavis Staples, and the premiere of Omar Offendum’s hip-hop musical, Little Syria which will take place later this month, and a show starring Nikki Giovanni scheduled for June.
“It’s interesting to be in a position where you can do anything, because my initial response was, ‘Well, I don’t want to do anything,'” Abdurraqib said. NME. When BAM reached out and said, “We’ll give you Howard Gilman Opera House and that budget and the rest is up to you,” he found the proposal exciting — but also intimidating — because, “That kind of freedom comes with the expectation that you won’t mess it up.
However, once he “took that freedom and offered it to the artists”, he wanted to see them perform by asking them, “What would you do if you had the time and the space to build something creative and challenge yourself without the constraints of a typical tour? schedule or a tour setlist? » he was able to shake himself « without anguish ».
For Abdurraqib, putting on the series of shows was his “wildest dream”, and he wanted to “live up to the enormity of that dream” once BAM gave him the opportunity to make it a reality.
“I remember the first show, I was so nervous,” he recalled the February 25 performance, which featured Mdou Moctar and Bartees Strange. “He was sold out, but part of me was still like, are people going to come to this? I also hadn’t seen a show of this magnitude in a long time and slowly reintroduced myself to live music.
During the show, he decided to stand to the side of the stage for Strange’s “wonderful” set, before heading to the dressing rooms for the rest of the show.
“I kind of looked down on the whole crowd and there was a point where they started playing the album acoustic and then went electric and he asked people to stand up,” said- he said, noting how this moment in the series stood out. to him. “It wasn’t a request or an order, but people were so eager to move, stand and dance in the aisles.”
The author also told us that each evening had been a “unique” experience, adding that for Moses Sumney’s two-hour performance “Blackalachia in Brooklyn” on March 30, which saw him play music amid the screenings of his live concert film, audiences “sat in awe and awe of what was happening.”
April 4, Devonte Hynes [AKA Blood Orange] did something he had “never done before”, according to Abdurraqib. During a night of solo and collaborative performances by Third Coast Percussion, pianist Adam Tendler and the Brooklyn String Orchestra, Hynes relied entirely on instrumentals, without adding lyrics or even lyrics to his songs. Between each selection, the audience burst into applause. Hynes also applauded the participants to thank them.
“These reactions from the public were a real pleasure for me to witness,” Abdurraqib told us. “I always hoped that these shows would act as an exchange between the artists and the public.”
He continued, “I believe live music or any kind of live performance is an active exchange. Not just a place where people take from the performer or the performer takes from the audience. We all have a duty within this exchange, even if the exchange is transported and impressed by this transport.
For singer-songwriter L’Rain, who took the stage before Sumney’s performance, performing at BAM with artists she admires was “something so amazing that I never thought I’d include a show like this on my dream list”. She added: “That would have seemed too out of reach.”
Last year, the Brooklyn-born artist (née Tara Cheek) released her second album “Fatigue” where she experimented with ambient noise and leaned into lush orchestration among her muffled vocals.
“I never would have thought that this weird music, some of which I composed in my literal bed, could make sense on such an epic and historic stage,” said the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. NME.
For Cheeks, the “show, in particular, felt like such a beautiful full-loop moment,” for its music and a city that comes alive.
“In general, the live L’Rain show is intense,” Cheek told us. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve absorbed the city’s energy over the past few years and released it all at once. It’s like my music is a vehicle for all the anxiety, frustration and fear, but also hope and a sense of togetherness, all at the same time.
When asked about working with Abdurraqib, L’Rain said she looked up to him because “Sometimes it feels like there are a lot of people in the music industry who don’t don’t really like music” but that “talking to Hanif, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that he comes to music, first and foremost, from a place of love and deep study.
According to Abdurraqib, this deep love and study led him to host a show that answered the question, “What can I witness that will surprise me?”
“I’ve been to so many shows in my life,” the music critic said. “Honestly, even before the pandemic, my enthusiasm for going to shows dwindled. Not because people aren’t doing amazing live shows, but there was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I was going to six shows a week.
He added: “I am now at a point where I would like to see someone willing to take a risk. How can someone do something that pushes them beyond a place of comfort? Not in a disturbing way, but in a way that pierces the other side. I believe live performance is an exchange, so we all pierce that side together.
The series of organized concerts continues from May 19 to June 11 with the musical Little Syria by Omar Offendum, followed by a performance by Mavis Staples joined by Amy Helm on May 20 and a performance by Nikki Giovanni on June 11 . You can see the ticket more details and ticket information here.