Rock and Roll Book Club: Hanif Abdurraqib's 'A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance'

Hanif Abdurraqib book 'A Little Devil in America' on keyboard.
Hanif Abdurraqib's 'A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

One of the moments Hanif Abdurraqib stops to examine in his new book A Little Devil in America took place during the 1981 inaugural celebration of Ronald Reagan. Actor Ben Vereen, a celebrity thanks to his Emmy-nominated performance in Roots, decided to stage a tribute to Bert Williams: an African American vaudeville artist who'd performed in blackface. When Vereen came out in blackface himself, "wide-eyed," writes Abdurraqib, "his face somewhere at the intersection of sadness and horror," the newly sworn-in president had a good laugh.

Reagan, whose 1943 film This is the Army featured one musical number performed by segregated Black soldiers and a separate number by white soldiers doing minstrelsy in blackface, seemingly didn't think to consider that Vereen might have been challenging or confronting his audience. To Reagan, it was seemingly just a good old fashioned minstrel show, and he might have taken Vereen's presence on the inaugural stage as just another indication of how he was uniting America around his blithe vision of hope.

A Little Devil points to the true complexities of that moment, and of many more: like the moment Whitney Houston opened the 1988 Grammys with a performance of "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," despite the fact that she couldn't really dance, very successfully courting a white audience with material that would get booed later that year at the Soul Train Music Awards by a crowd angry at Houston's seeming complicity with a music industry that was positioning her as (in Abdurraqib's words) "an exceptional Black person, who transcended race itself."

Abdurraqib also takes us into the studio with Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton, recording her harrowing vocal part ("Rape! Murder!") on "Gimme Shelter." Clayton dragged herself out of bed, pregnant, to record the part; "after a playback," writes Abdurraqib, "Mick Jagger asked her if she wanted to do just one more and really give it everything she had." The Stones would later perform the song at Altamont, where a Black man named Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed by a Hells Angel who was acquitted by an all-white jury.

Clayton's performance, a triumph inextricably comingled with tragedy, is the kind of touchpoint that Abdurraqib approaches with appreciation and empathy. A collection of essays both intimate and sweeping, A Little Devil doesn't offer a thesis as such, but asks readers to pause and reflect on artists like Clayton: to appreciate them in a way that goes beyond the kind of glib praise or reductive bathos that observers, most particularly white observers, have been wont to dispense when writing about Black performance.

The book isn't exclusively about music — it's also about dance, and sport, and poetry — but music is a touchstone the author keeps returning to. He writes about mourning his mother and finding sustenance in the love he shared with his brother, even if the two weren't able to express themselves as openly as the Wu-Tang Clan, "the first men I knew who weren't afraid to love each other loudly and publicly."

Abdurraqib wishes for a movie where Don Shirley, the pianist whose relationship with his white chauffeur is dramatized in Green Book (the author and his friends walked out), isn't manipulated "to serve the American thirst for easy resolution. If only all movies about Black people struggling against the machinery of this country were, instead, movies about Black people living."

He writes rapturously of Amazing Grace, the long-shelved Aretha Franklin gospel concert film, but he notes that he respects Franklin's decision to block its release during her lifetime: aside from the sound synchronization issues that bedeviled producers until the development of digital technology, there was the fact that Franklin wasn't happy with the proposed revenue split. "Aretha wanted a large share of the profits that the film was slated to gain, and that was fair," writes Abdurraqib. "She was the basis for whatever success the film might have."

A Little Devil isn't just about icons like Franklin and Shirley, though: it's also an achingly personal reminisce by the author, who opens each of the book's five sections with a prose poem about his own relationship to music, movement, and community. Raised Muslim in Columbus, Ohio, where he returned to live as an adult ("being from this place had become inextricably linked to my identity, and so I push myself to love it"), Abdurraqib rose to prominence among music critics with the collection They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, then hit the bestseller list with his complex tribute Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest. A Little Devil in America is his widest-ranging collection yet, and yet also his most focused in the way he circles again and again around the theme of Black performance in all its layers.

The book's title comes from Josephine Baker, who said, "I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too." Abdurraqib's tribute to that artist is a chapter titled "The Josephine Baker Monument Can Never Be Large Enough," wondering in awe at the entertainer "who left America before it could persuade her to fall in love with it." The cover illustration depicts a Black couple dancing the Lindy Hop; it corresponds to an opening chapter that muses on African Americans' absence from histories of '20s dance marathons ("what is endurance to a people who have already endured?") and salutes Don Cornelius, who created Soul Train to showcase Black excellence.

That program, of course, was famous for its dance lines — a tradition Cornelius oversaw, but rarely participated in. Abdurraqib writes glowingly of his favorite moment on Soul Train, the moment when the host himself acquiesced to Mary Wilson's tug and shook a leg. When a Supreme asks you to dance, even the ultracool Cornelius knew, you don't say no.

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

May 13: Billie Eilish by Billie Eilish

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