Noname’s Ambivalent, Triumphant Comeback

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“If I could do this all the time, I would,” Fatimah Nyeema Warner, the thirty-one-year-old rapper who performs as Noname, said. She was standing backstage at Herbert Von King Park, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where she had just headlined a free summer concert. Light rain had stopped just in time for her to take the stage with her band, rattling off fiery lyrics in a calm and sometimes playful voice, bouncing gently in time to the beat. Warner comes from Chicago and now lives in Los Angeles, but the concert felt a bit like a family reunion—the crowd was convivial and largely Black, and the performers all seemed to be friends, or at least friendly. After her set, Warner was congratulated backstage by the event’s organizer, a Brooklyn rapper known as MIKE. “This was so beautiful,” he said, hugging her. It was the kind of day that made Warner’s trajectory seem straightforward, and maybe even inevitable, as if the stage were her natural home.

In fact, Warner’s career has been defined by a paradox: she is unusually good at rapping and unusually ambivalent about her rap career. In 2016, a few months after the release of her acclaimed début album, “Telefone,” she suggested on Facebook that it might be her final release. It wasn’t: a follow-up, “Room 25,” arrived two years later, and was greeted even more enthusiastically. She wasn’t making hit singles, but she was amassing a sizable following of attentive listeners—on that year’s Pazz & Jop poll, a survey published by the Village Voice, critics named “Room 25” their seventh-favorite album of the year. But, after months of touring, Warner sounded more disheartened than ever. “To be honest with you, my heart isn’t fully in it anymore,” she wrote on Twitter, and in the following years she shifted her focus from entertainment to activism. She launched a reading group, Noname Book Club, which spawned chapters in seventeen cities; members meet to discuss “radical” books, and to help send selected titles to incarcerated people. Warner spent years organizing and fund-raising for the club’s collectively run “hood library,” which opened in Los Angeles, in 2021. Later that year, she made a kind of semi-retirement announcement on Instagram: “most days i’m not sure if i’ll ever make music again.”

Rapping sounds a lot like talking, which means that rappers often have to think about whom they are talking to, and why. Some rappers handle this awkward question by ignoring it, but this approach has never suited Warner, who has thought a lot about the contrast between her lyrics, which often detail the joys and sorrows of Black life in America, and the white people she often sees from the stage. “Unfortunately I’m not going to keep performing for predominantly white crowds,” she tweeted, at one point—and, for a while, it seemed that meant she would not perform at all. But then, earlier this year, she began to reëmerge. It started with an appearance at an unlikely venue: Coachella, the California music festival, at which white people tend to be well represented. She did it, she told me recently, for the money, which made it possible for her to do the kind of free community concerts that she really likes. It was a compromise, and one that might not have seemed at all noteworthy, except for the fact that Warner has developed a reputation for criticizing precisely these types of compromises.

In Brooklyn, though, Warner seemed unusually relaxed, happy to be performing for people who felt (and, maybe, looked) like her people. At one point during the concert, Warner launched into an unreleased song, and then asked the band to stop so she could deliver the lyrics unaccompanied. (“We practiced it hella times, but it’s new, and I can’t really get it on top of the music yet,” she explained.) She’s known for delivering dense verses with a light touch, deftly shifting her pattern of emphasis as she shifts moods; she might sound as if she were telling you a secret, and then as if she were singing along to a song no one else can hear. The band stopped and she began to recite, watching the crowd closely:

Noname, glad you came, we could stand in the rain
Maintain a good life, we could fry plantain
Same day the air strikes strike down Iran
I ran into the house with a blunt in my hand
Let’s smoke, I don’t wanna see death no more—let’s fight
They got the devil hiding in plain sight

This track, called “namesake,” turned out to be an especially pointed addition to her catalogue. In the final verse, she mocks top-selling Black musicians for agreeing to perform at the Super Bowl, describing the N.F.L. as “propaganda for the military complex.” The crowd groaned appreciatively as they heard Warner’s sarcastic tribute: “Go, Rihanna, go! Watch the fighter jet fly high / War machine gets glamorized, we play the game to pass the time.” She mentioned Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Kendrick Lamar, too—she wasn’t trying to start any feuds, exactly, but she was hoping to provoke, as she told me a few weeks later. “I can sit here and talk about the industrial complex all day long,” she said. “But niggas don’t look up until I say ‘Rihanna.’ Which isn’t right, to use those things. But that’s what people pay attention to.”

It is a self-conscious track, building not to a grand indictment but to a wry acknowledgment: “Go, Noname, go! Coachella stage got sanitized / Said I wouldn’t perform for them—and somehow I still fell in line.” The track is the centerpiece of Noname’s long-awaited third album, “Sundial,” which arrived last week, and which heightens the contradictions that have propelled Warner’s career. The music is breezy and wistful, drawing listeners in, while the lyrics are unpredictable and sharp; the combination makes for an album as engrossing as anything anyone is likely to release this year. But Warner herself is still having second thoughts about her career, which is driven by two incompatible principles: a desire to be widely heard, and a desire to maintain control over who is listening, and how. Her first two albums were released independently, but, to fund the recording of this one, she signed a one-off deal with AWAL, a distribution company that is part of Sony Music. “I don’t even really know what my ticket sales are gonna be like, what my streams are gonna be like, with this new project—there’s a possibility it could flop,” she told me. And she still seemed to be thinking through her decision to take what is essentially a loan from a company that now stands to profit from her success. “I shouldn’t have done it—I do regret doing it,” she said. Then she reconsidered. “I’m happy that I did it, I shouldn’t say I regret it. But I wouldn’t do it again.”

On the South Side of Chicago, on the wall of a discount grocery store, there is a city-sponsored mural celebrating the local musical heritage. The top-left quadrant depicts a coterie of legends, including Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. And the bottom-right quadrant depicts a pair of hip-hop stars: one is Chance the Rapper, who built his career on upbeat and sometimes inspirational tracks, including a series of collaborations with the pop star Justin Bieber; the other is Noname, holding a microphone and smiling a bit less mischievously than she does in real life. (Noname and Chance are friends and collaborators. Her first widely heard verse was her contribution to “Acid Rap,” his 2013 breakthrough.) In the bottom-left corner is a motivational message: “Step to the mic & free yourself.” No doubt Warner isn’t the only musician on the mural who might contend that it’s not always so simple.

One day last week, Warner was peering at the mural from a triangular parking lot across the street, which she was planning to rent for an unusual promotional event: a free neighborhood block party, to celebrate the release of “Sundial.” She was wearing a long floral dress and well-worn yellow Chuck Taylors, and she was trying to imagine what the lot would look like when it was full of friends and fans. Warner had come for a preparatory walkthrough with the coördinator she had hired, who took a picture of Warner’s credit card in order to cover various deposits: they had to set up a stage and pay for security, and they were thinking about engaging the services of a local double-dutch team. “Where would the bounce house be?” Warner asked, and the coördinator gestured toward the middle of the lot, a safe distance from the broken glass at the edges. Just then they were interrupted by a ruckus from the street, where a woman in a car was disparaging a fellow-driver at a red light. “I don’t give a fuck where you live,” the woman snarled, through her car window. The coördinator exhaled. “You see why we need security?” she said.

Warner grew up first with her grandparents, farther south, and then with her mother, who lived not far from that parking lot, in Bronzeville, and who was known throughout the city as the proprietor of Afrocentric Bookstore, generally described as Chicago’s first bookstore owned by a Black woman. (It closed in 2008.) Warner grew up hearing old blues and gospel records—her grandfather was convinced that Bessie Smith was a family relative. As a girl, she watched old episodes of “Def Poetry Jam” on YouTube, and eventually found her way into the city’s performance-poetry scene, which taught her that writing was important, and also that she had enough charisma to captivate a room even when she hadn’t yet figured out her words.

In the world of hip-hop, “poet” can seem like an exalted title. (Jay-Z argues in his book, “Decoded,” that a good rapper must necessarily be a “good poet”; each, he says, must “make words do more work than they normally do.”) But Warner still flinches at being called a poet, because she detects in the term an insinuation that her sensibility is too literary to be unimpeachably hip-hop. On a recent episode of his Apple Music show, the radio personality Ebro Darden hailed Noname as a possible emerging hip-hop “superstar,” describing her as someone who “does, like, poetry.” Warner appreciated the acknowledgement, but remembers wondering, “Why won’t niggas just literally call me a rapper?” One answer might be that hip-hop, these days, refers not simply to rapping but to a sensibility, or more accurately a bundle of them, not all of which fit harmoniously together. One of Warner’s breakthrough performances, a 2017 installment of NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series, culminated in a hushed performance of one of her best-loved tracks, “Yesterday,” which eulogizes both her grandmother and an old friend from the hip-hop scene. On YouTube, the top comment is a teasing compliment: “She makes me want to drink tea and buy books that I won’t read.”

One of the many wonders of hip-hop is that the genre has remained so obstreperous despite both its long history (by some measures, this summer marks its fiftieth anniversary) and its broad success: rappers, even now, are often perceived as troublesome characters leading dangerous lives, and virtually every year adds at least one entry to the list of high-profile stars who have been killed. This puts someone like Warner in a perilous position, because she wants to be free to criticize the genre without being set apart from it, or in opposition to it. Her musical sensibility is decidedly old-fashioned: the nimble way she navigates chords and grooves evokes Erykah Badu, and makes her seem a world away from much contemporary hip-hop. (A listener who didn’t know the history might not even realize that Noname’s music belongs, at least nominally, to the same genre as the woozy or furious electronic creations of hitmakers like Lil Uzi Vert and Travis Scott.) She remembers hearing from listeners that “Telefone” was almost too easy to enjoy—people found it “pretty” and “happy-sounding,” descriptors that did not always feel like compliments. The year after “Telefone,” Warner moved to Los Angeles and got to work on “Room 25,” gravitating toward tracks that were a bit spikier, a bit less tuneful, and a bit more scattered. She had a newly grownup life (she had recently broken up with her first boyfriend), and the album captured her complicated reaction to changing surroundings.

Part of what surrounds Warner is social media, which has shaped her career more than she might want to admit. In the summer of 2019, she tweeted, “Capitalism isn’t evil,” adding, “Capitalism is a tool.” (Actually, she wrote “toll”—Twitter didn’t yet permit users to edit their tweets.) In her corner of the Twitter landscape, this was considered an indefensible statement. “The Internet basically destroyed me,” she says, and the intensity of the reaction convinced her that she didn’t understand capitalism as well as she thought she did. The Book Club was part of her response: she decided that she had a lot to learn, and she figured that maybe other people did, too. One of the first assignments was “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” by the Brazilian intellectual Paulo Freire, who saw reading and writing as a path to liberation. Within a few months, Warner had revised her view of capitalism sharply downward, and, by 2020, she was ready to declare, on the podcast of the Chicago publisher Haymarket Books, that neither of her first two albums had been “really radical.” She added, “ I can’t really say I know how to make radical art in this moment.”

By that point, anyway, she wasn’t making much music at all. She didn’t like the idea of white listeners treating her lyrics about Black joy and sorrow as mere entertainment, but neither did she like the idea of censoring herself for fear of being inappropriately entertaining. (One way to insure you’re not performing for white crowds: stop performing.) She was spending her days at the Book Club headquarters, and it often seemed as if she was spending her nights on Twitter, finding new allies and new enemies, not always in equal proportions. She earned the enmity of countless Beyoncé fans when she reposted an old picture of the activist Angela Davis, adding, “i wish angela got the love beyoncé gets.” And amid the protests over the killing of George Floyd, she criticized unnamed peers for not being more outspoken: “poor black folks all over the country are putting their bodies on the line in protest for our collective safety and y’all favorite top selling rappers not even willing to put a tweet up.”

One popular rapper who took notice was J. Cole, who responded with a long-winded track, “Snow on tha Bluff,” in which he addressed “a young lady out there” by praising her intellect (“she way smarter than me”) while criticizing her manner: “Just ’cause you woke and I’m not, that shit ain’t no reason to talk like you better than me.” Warner couldn’t resist responding with a track of her own, “Song 33,” an elegant and brutal dissection that was scarcely a minute long:

He really ’bout to write about me?
When the world is in smokes?
When it’s people in trees?
When George was begging for his mother, saying he couldn’t breathe?
You thought to write about me?

Warner later said she wasn’t happy about her role in what resembled a hip-hop feud, and she vowed to send any proceeds from the song to “various mutual-aid funds.” But she has not erased the song from her discography, and in fact she performed it in Brooklyn. “You ever got mad and been real petty and gone, ‘Let’s just write a rap?’ ” she asked the crowd. She sounded as if she still wasn’t quite sure she was proud of her response.

By the time of the concert in Brooklyn, Warner was embroiled in yet another online controversy. Two days before, she had announced that the lead single from her new album would be a track called “balloons,” featuring the militant rapper Jay Electronica, a supporter of the Nation of Islam who once rapped about doing battle with “the synagogue of Satan.” On Twitter, Warner responded to people who accused her of condoning antisemitism, accusing them of “selective outrage” and threatening to scrap the album altogether. There was something surreal about the disjunction between the rancor of the online debate and the fond, easygoing mood in that Brooklyn park. Doubtless some of the same people swaying along had also been following the Twitter dispute, and possibly even contributing to it. Warner told me that people in her life, including therapists, have urged her to spend less time arguing with strangers online, but she also figures that part of the point of becoming a celebrity is that she can encourage the sorts of conversations she wishes more people were having.

She is not the first person to discover, though, that a conversation on Twitter, now known as X, may not have much in common with the kinds of conversations that people tend to have when they are face to face. (She has taken to communicating through Instagram stories, which might stay online for only a few hours before disappearing.) In person, Warner seems more like the person you hear on the albums and less like the person you see on social media: just as perceptive but a bit more ambivalent about everything, and a lot more curious. One afternoon, walking around Bronzeville, we were talking about West African politics when a young man interrupted.

“No way!” he said. He wasn’t looking to argue—he was a fan, astonished to see her. “Are you Noname?”

She nodded. “Fatimah is my real name,” she said.

“Oh, that’s what you be singing in your songs,” he said. “I was always, like, ‘Who is Fatimah?’ ”

Warner smiled. “It’s me,” she said.

If Warner had released her third album in 2020, as she had originally planned, it probably would have been a chronicle of her political radicalization. Instead, turning away from music, she attempted to practice what she was increasingly preaching. “I tried to become something that I’m not—I tried to literally become an actual organizer,” she says. But, despite the success of the Book Club and its library, she became isolated and depressed; although she didn’t stop believing in revolution, she did stop believing that she was the right person to bring it about. “I do believe that, in terms of actually achieving any level of radical change, particularly through revolution, it’s going to necessitate all of us organizing,” she says. “Will I throw away my actual personal life, so my everyday struggle is just Black liberation? I can’t do it.” She had an insight that felt selfish but impossible to shake, and that surely would not surprise her fans: “I love making music.” After a few years spent devouring books, she is taking a break from intensive political study. “It got to the point where I couldn’t really tell where I was—like, what my true core personal beliefs were,” she says. And so “Sundial” evokes two conversions at once: Warner’s swift and confident embrace of Black radical politics, and her slower, more tentative reëmbrace of music as a vocation. “I don’t have a relationship, I don’t have kids. I don’t really have much in my personal life,” she says. “Music is really my bag right now.”

“Sundial” came together this spring, relatively quickly—Warner writes fast and works concisely, generating scarcely any outtakes or B-sides. It starts in the third person and then swerves: “Yo, she’s a shadow walker, moon stalker / Black author, librarian, contrarian / The state say we dead—we say we not.” Warner served as the executive producer, alongside Gaetan Judd, a British producer of partly Congolese descent who has worked with the Nigerian pop star Burna Boy. Judd found ways to incorporate the spry rhythms of Afrobeats, giving the album both an exuberant energy and a subtly pan-African message. Warner now says that her frustration at seeing white people in the audience was really a frustration that her music didn’t seem to be changing the world. (“It was me looking at the world and then expecting, because I have a few white rap fans, that they were gonna get out here and end settler colonialism in a snap,” she told me. “It’s not gonna happen.”) But she’s inspired by the idea that, in a global musical marketplace, Black American musicians might have more opportunities to build Black audiences in Africa and the Americas. For a song called “gospel?,” she recruited an underground rapper named billy woods, whom she considers hip-hop’s best lyricist; he contributed a verse about attending an independence celebration in Zimbabwe, where he spent part of his childhood. It is an uplifting evocation of revolutionary fervor—but also, given what came next in Zimbabwe, a rather ominous one.

The album ends, somewhat startlingly, with a verse from the veteran Chicago rapper Common, who was once a standard-bearer for politically minded hip-hop, and may now be better known to many listeners as an actor. (It is, perhaps, a gesture of deference: Warner gives one of her elders the last word.) But, in discussions online, the presence of Common drew far less attention than the darkly conspiratorial verse from Jay Electronica, in which he salutes Louis Farrakhan; refers to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish President of Ukraine, as a “joke”; and pictures “the imams, the rabbis, and the Pope” ranged against him. Warner has declined to defend or criticize these lyrics, which arrive at the end of a warm and wistful song about homesickness and hypocrisy.

Warner considers “Sundial” to be less personal than its predecessors, although listeners may disagree: a track called “toxic” singles out a cheating ex-boyfriend using the kind of memorably straightforward language favored by many of Warner’s less bookish peers (“Had a whole baby on me—fuck you, nigga”), while another track includes a winsome snippet of a conversation Warner once had with an Uber driver, who reminisces about his time in jail. The ongoing saga of Noname is, at least in part, a cautionary tale about the destabilizing power of social-media discourse, but the new album itself is good enough to draw in listeners with no interest in online disputation—you need not agree with Warner’s political priorities, or even care about them, in order to enjoy the sound of a great rapper trying to figure out what she really thinks.

Warner told me that, even now, she can’t help but feel as if the hip-hop industry is full of Black performers who are “tap-dancing” for the pleasure of white consumers, and the profit of white-owned companies. “I want rappers to make money, so that’s the conundrum,” she says. “That’s why I still tap-dance my damn self.” This fall, she is planning to go on her first tour in four years, laying out her hopes and misgivings for anyone who cares to buy a ticket. One afternoon, she was talking to me about the powerful appeal of mainstream validation. She said, “As Black artists, I’m just wondering, will we ever let that go?” But when “Sundial” earned a rave review and a “Best New Music” commendation from Pitchfork, she celebrated the review on Instagram, adding a defiant caption: “whether the mainstream music industry wants to acknowledge or not, i’m fucking here and i’m one of the best.” She might be a contrarian, but she’s not wrong. ♦


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