Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Hanif Abdurraqib is a prominent music critic, essayist, and poet renowned for his unique perspective on popular music and its connections to the broader cultural landscape. Through several essay collections and poetry books –  along with articles for The New York Times, The Fader, and Pitchfork – he’s emerged as an incisive voice on race, identity, and social justice in contemporary America.

Abdurraqib’s acclaimed 2017 collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, evolved from his earlier journalistic work and offers a deeply personal exploration of self-identity and the enduring injustices inflicted on Black individuals by law enforcement and society. In Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, he dissects the three-decade legacy of the influential hip-hop group, interweaving his affection for their music with socio-political contexts that shaped both his upbringing and the group’s trajectory.

With his latest work, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, Abdurraqib delves into pivotal moments and key figures in Black entertainment history – from music and dance to comedy and television – shedding light on their impact and the broader themes of Black identity and resilience. With evocative storytelling and critical analysis, the book pays homage to the power of Black artistry and its enduring legacy in shaping the cultural landscape.

Sharing some of his favorite books with high-end streetwear brand Ssense, Abdurraqib included work by trailblazing music critic Lester Bangs alongside Friday Night Lights and Zora Neale Hurston’s classic portrait of Black womanhood in the interwar South. Explore his recommendations below, and complement with the bookshelves of Danez Smith and Questlove.

Hanif Abdurraqib’s Reading List

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs (also rec’d by David Byrne)

“When I first started reading rap criticism, so much of it was bending towards explanation, when meant that it was catering towards people who didn’t understand the culture. I learned to write against explanation by reading music writers like Bangs. He wrote about Van Morrison and The Clash as if I should know them already. Reading his dissections of music felt like sitting down at a table mid-conversation, and letting someone’s passion build a mythology around their muse.” -HA

Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell

“There are Black writers who, at some point in their career, have taken a story (or stories) of Black death and attempted to make sense of the injustice attached to the grief or frustration. Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine worked wonders for me as a young reader (about 14 years old when I read it) because of how delicately it treats death… This was the first book I saw that allowed death to echo – to really show how it weaves into the lives left behind.” -HA

Cruelty by Ai

“Cruelty is a book of poems written entirely in persona, with the speaker taking on the voices of various characters engaged in cruel acts towards another person. I’m invested in the idea of persona work, only if the speaker grants the character some layering, or a type of mercy.” -HA

The High King by Lloyd Alexander

“It’s a very ‘boys playing with swords’ narrative, but I fell for it hard… It was the first book I recall not wanting to end. That’s a feeling I get a lot now, but the first path I had towards that feeling was this book.” -HA

Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger

“Racism, classism, worship of sport above all can become so commonplace that a town doesn’t understand what flaws sit in the mythology of football and apple pie Americana. I became so fascinated by Bissinger’s portrayal of Odessa, Texas, that I drove two days to it myself, two years after I read the book… I think that is what good reporting does: it tells you of a place that you have to set your feet on, just to be sure it’s real.” -HA

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (also rec’d by Alice Walker, Florence WelchHoward ZinnIbram X. KendiJanet MockPhoebe RobinsonTarana Burke, Yara Shahidi & Zadie Smith)

“I love that Hurston refused to grant Blackness a single lens. Their Eyes does its best to complicate the primary colors of emotion, and so joy is given equal ground as grief and hope is given equal ground as trauma. But beyond all of that, Janie Crawford is speaking to the reader through Hurston, with language that a Black reader might find a home in. I absolutely did.” -HA

Hoops by Walter Dean Myers

“Walter Dean Myers was the first Black world builder I fell in love with. His work is lyrical and has a tight grasp on narrative flourishes, across several stories. But I always felt like his greatest asset was his ability to take a character and make that character come to life in a way that felt like it could be adjacent to somewhere or someone in your life.” -HA

I’m So Fine by Khadijah Queen

“This is a book of poems, but the poems read more like small scenes, or vignettes. They all revolve around the author’s interactions with men – some famous and some not – growing up in Los Angeles. The book is written without any punctuation, save for its usage of ampersands… It’s a tracing of masculinity and the power it assumes across a long and exhaustive timeline.” -HA

(via Ssense; photo by Kate Sweeney)

Looking for an Amazon alternative? Support local, independent booksellers by shopping Hanif Abdurraqib’s reading list – and hundreds of other celebrity book recommendations – through Radical Reads’ Bookshop page.

Categories: Writers