How to Be Critical of the Things You Love

Fans have to have an ability to be wrong,” Hanif Abdurraqib says, referring to himself. “To not understand, and be comfortable not understanding.” Abdurraqib, a poet and essayist based in Columbus, Ohio, has published two full-length collections (one of poetry, another of essays), but his latest book—Go Ahead in the Rain, out this month—is somewhere in between. It’s a detailed history of the collaboration that led to the rap group A Tribe Called Quest (and the musical atmosphere of the early 1990s), interspersed with love letters to his subject and scenes from Abdurraqib’s own coming of age into black musical traditions.

Go Ahead in the Rain is an unconventional work of criticism, both because of the level of autobiographical detail and the author’s open devotion to his subject. But retreating to a critical distance would constitute a betrayal of the depth of feeling that Abdurraqib has for Tribe. While the book urges fans to learn how to be comfortable not understanding their favorite artists, Abdurraqib thinks the fans themselves are worth a second glance—what are their cultural contexts, their experiences, their intents?—and makes an implicit argument for a criticism that works toward connection. At the heart of Go Ahead in the Rain are questions about ourselves; it asks how and why we love artists, and what we can do with that love.

—Nawal Arjini

Nawal Arjini: What made you so interested in the interpersonal dynamics of A Tribe Called Quest, and what does thinking about them this way—as a group of people instead of celebrities or icons or even artists—afford that more typical critical standpoints don’t?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I talk a lot about Tribe as older siblings, because that’s how I imagined them. My parents are from New York, and I always had this mythology around it. Tribe offered me a way to feel like I had a window into their particular brand of New York. Tribe was so unique in how they archived and built a landscape around where they were from. So many artists, to me, are people I feel close to, feel I owe a debt to. I understand that I’m not best friends with A Tribe Called Quest—but fostering that closeness also helps me, as a critic, hold artists accountable for the ideas that they pushed.

NA: There are some moments in the book where you come close to a critique of Tribe, especially of their later albums, but that closeness seems to hold you back—whereas there’s a more removed viewpoint of critics who are able to simply say, “This album was not good.” Is that kind of criticism at odds with the value that comes from that familial connection?

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