You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its tenacity. We would all love its will to reach for the sun. Well, we are the roses. This is the concrete. These are my damaged petals. Don’t ask me why. Ask me how. –Tupac Shakur, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete”
in the hood / everyone is driven to kill / by some kind of distinct / famine –Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, “On Hunger”
Hunger and famine — more precisely, the ever-present avoidance of them — are the ordering principles of Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s first collection of poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much. It’s what allows Willis-Abdurraqib to link the hustle and sometimes-darkness of life to the ascension and celebratory opulence of modern hip-hop. It’s the literal pursuit of life that animates the clichés of the game, the hustle, the crown, the throne and an economy of motion that speaks to the grit and grind of daily existence. It’s an allusion to something bigger, more vital — how we forge ourselves and our identities in the crucible of death and light while playing out roles we didn’t even know were played out.
If you have never been close to death, then this book is probably not for you. If you have, however, you will immediately recognize how each poem is a seemingly extraordinary expression of an idea/thought/experience/being that the entire cosmos coupled with the complete course of human history has conspired against. The celebration of each is in its very existence. It’s what Tupac called “the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete.”
The fight for black lives in America has recently caught a new cultural cache. However, as Michael Che incisively reminds us, the simple statement that Black Lives Matter — the key being matters — is the starting point for a negotiation. That the basic presumption of a black life mattering is controversial and therefore can be radicalized is not only the backdrop for TCAWM, but reinforces the importance of the original declaration. Without the fierce, booming assertion that Black Lives Matter, institutions and people in power would do what they can to erode the truth of it.
we did not hear a sound until danny’s blade fell out his pocket / and the bullets that followed / because I guess anything can be a gun if the darkness / surrounding it is hungry enough / or at least that’s what I’ve been told when / the bodies of black boys thrash against what / little life they have left tethering them to the earth / and isn’t that we’ve always been fed? ("All of the Black Boys Finally Stopped Packing Switchblades")
Emmit Till. Amadou Diallo. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Korryn Gaines. Philando Castille. It’s the worst, most unbearable kind of irony that that the lie that perpetuates oppression is offered as sustenance.
Through intensely personal reflection, TCAWM explores the growing-up-in-the-hood story that has come to suffuse and inform popular culture — especially hip-hop music. Hip-hop also serves as the soundscape to Willis-Abdurraqib’s coming of age. “The Year My Brother Stopped Listening to Hip-Hop” marks some of the most indelible moments of growing up with Biggie, A Tribe Called Quest, and Jay-Z. As a title like “Ode to Drake, Ending with Blood in a Field” indicates, though, Willis-Abdurraqib brings the juice. He returns substance and scrutiny back to what has become an all-too-often trite, bloodless genre.
These poems belong squarely to the tradition of spoken word and hip-hop. They inherit these genres’ reliance on the urgency of sonic force to play with and emphasize difficult subject matter. Not only does TCAWM engage with familiar topics to the genre — race, class, subjugation of the oppressed — but it’s constantly playing with form. A recurring poem, “Dispatches From the Black Barbershop, Tony’s Chair. [Year].” is an unedited transcript of a black barber talking about black barbershop things. During three cuts over the course of 19 years, Tony breathlessly glides over baby mamas, gun culture, incarceration, gentrification, and pride. It’s a poem written as a single run-on sentence (a device repeated throughout the book) without any punctuation to signify when one thought ends and another begins. The singular expression houses multiple thoughts and nodes of resonance akin to the way instances of slang and spoken word often contain multiple meanings. It balances the mundane intimacy of “tuck your lip so I can get this beard” with the understated grief of “I can’t give nobody a reason to wear my face on a tshirt.” The delicate balances of tone, language, and context make the case for the poetics of the spoken word — not as high-minded poetry but simply in the spontaneity and revelation of human conversation.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the white-led ivory tower of literary academia is the last gated community to accept a poetry of hip-hop poetics. Ivory towers preserve an intellectual isolation; whereas TCAWM is a teeming black body — contracting and expanding with every sinew, spilling over with sweat and blood, filling and emptying with breath: “i know if that i sweat enough i will be fed / or something will be built / but not bear my name when it is finished” ("All the White Boys on the East Side Loved Larry Bird".)
Already the titanium-white canon-keepers have begun the arduous process of being kicked and dragged into a more modern, accessible hip-hop vernacular, and TCAWM is oftentimes doing the twisting and pulling. In a way that appeals to both schools, the title poem “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much” gives the people what they want. As a crown of sonnets — which means the last line in the first sonnet-verse becomes the first line of the next, creating an echo effect — the poem places itself in a formal tradition with the likes of John Donne, Lady Mary Wroth, and more appropriately, Marilyn Nelson’s “A Wreath for Emmitt Till.”
Line by line, though, “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much” reads like the bars of a verse (even including ad libs) that could be on the next rap song you hear. It’s worth noting, the first four ad libs are simply the word, “black!” — yet another instance of affirmation and celebration by being. Each subsequent sonnet becomes more expansive in scope and context as if to breaking free from a tradition and self-restraint that, frankly, serves no one in the real world.
…isn’t this the story you were expecting? One
where I do not have to tell you that the hero is dead? I say a black boy’s name in a poem and the boy
already begins to disappear from head to toe. I come from a place where no one goes back to jail. we
choose what box we will rot in. I am lucky that mine has windows. Pays me a fair wage. Gives me a week
off to attend a funeral. I once saw Jason make 12 shots in a row / I have played enough of the game to
know when it doesn’t matter if you put up a hand / if you ask for mercy…”
The notion of progress is a slippery one. Willis-Abdurraqib is constantly reminding us that the relationship between hunger and famine is intergenerational. That this moment of hunger is only the latest instance in an eon of famine. “hey / boy / you know we ain’t / rupture this country’s spine and unearth all its gold for you people to cocoon / your teeth in it” ("Ode to Kanye West in Two Parts, Ending in a Chain of Mothers Rising from the River.") That the young black boy on the East Side of Columbus, Ohio who watches his friends getting killed is only inheriting centuries’ worth of institutional barriers and oppression. “now I got the whole hood grasping for this fly / got my kicks sinking / into the wet mud / got ancestors grabbing at my feet from their graves” ("XVI.")
Living a life, forming an identity, seeing beyond where you be at while under duress, facing starvation and any number of traumas is an impossible task. How do you square a country that elects Barack Obama and kills Tamir Rice? What kind of culture praises Beyonce but threatens to forget Trayvon? Even if you already knew they were coming for you, what do you do when they’re coming for your greats? “[Mike] Tyson is crawling around on the canvas like I’ve / seen a man crawl on the living room floor, praying for enough / change to keep a baby’s modest stomach // full for another night and maybe these two things are both a / survival of violence.” ("Windsor Terrace, 1990.") Perhaps it’s not all that different.
TCAWM is no breeze to read. Despite the fine-tuned lyricism and necessity of the subject matter, the book in its entirety will still pose a challenge for many readers — not unlike Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was challenging for many listeners. If you find TCAWM uncomfortable, it’s probably because it’s not made for you. If you’re reading this, it’s likely beyond your imagination to conceive of the intersection of identity politics and socioeconomic conditions that this particular coming-of-age story reflects. That doesn’t mean you should shy away from it, though, or that it’s any less worthy of praise. In fact, if it makes little intuitive sense at first blush, you should only further devote yourself to this read. TCAWM is a brave, stirring debut by a voice beyond his years who is leading a new class of poets that are changing the face of modern American poetry. But do prepare yourself. Drink plenty of water. Maybe bloody your knuckles and callous your palms beforehand. And when you think you’ve dug yourself deep enough, know that the well runs deeper.