Noname Discusses Social Activism Through Hip-Hop

January 23, 2020

Noname, a 28-year-old rapper and activist from Chicago, participated in a discussion moderated by Zandria Robinson, an associate professor of African American studies, on Jan. 15 in Copley Formal Lounge.  Hosted by the Georgetown University Lecture Fund, “Existing in Multitudes: Noname” provided students with a personal and poignant experience to reflect on race, gender, and inequality through a young performer’s creativity.

The discussion featured an analysis of Noname’s music, an exploration of her book club, and a Q&A with students in the audience. Noname gave her thoughts on different aspects of her songs and background, specifically how her relationship with books has facilitated her understanding of both community and self. Underlying each snippet of conversation, however, was her unapologetic confidence, vulnerability, and pride in being a black woman performer. 

The first portion of the discussion centered around Noname’s upbringing in Chicago with her mother, who owned a bookstore, and her father, who owned a book distribution company. Noname worked for these businesses, interacting with community members who stopped and shopped at the store. “The way I thought about books was community based,”  Noname said, which helped her create a “deep sense of home in Chicago.” 

These experiences inspired her to start Noname’s Book Club, where community members are invited to read her pick of the month. The organization also hosts discussions at book stores and venues around the country, and Noname’s vision is “to be in every city, globally.” The book club, as she perceives it, is a democratic and “anonymous community” to discuss pertinent issues and excellent literature. Recent books have included Sabrina and Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine and The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon.

Noname has always worked from her heart, particularly when starting her career in writing poetry and music. Starting as a spoken word artist in the Def Poetry Jam and other competitions in Chicago, she said she struggled early with judges ascribing numbers her personal lyrics. “I prefer my music to just exist for people to interact with it how they want to,” Noname said. 

Noname credited her parents for her independence and self-determination, which has both helped her career and harmed it. Her parents and grandparents pushed her to create her own fruitful and independent career. “Being independent makes me feel sane,” Noname said. Though she claims staying independent was the most crucial decision in her career, she has had difficulty working with other artists at times. “When is it ok to take help? That is what I have struggled with,” Noname said. 

Whether offering or accepting help, Noname dedicates much of her time and work to the communities around her, but sometimes feels like it has failed her in different ways. The amount of thought and effort she emphasizes in her music sometimes is not always understood by her audience. Discussing her frustration with predominantly white crowds and confused critics, Noname said, “We are not really taught how to engage with hip-hop.” 

For example, the lyricist referenced the anger she felt in her song “Casket Pretty” from her debut mixtape Telefone. The song engages with issues of police and gun violence. However, many listeners and reviewers missed the anger and retribution in her words and music, instead focusing on the “bubbly” sadness. 

Nkechi Nwokorie (NHS ’20) related to Noname’s feeling of frustration. Often on Georgetown’s campus she felt that the community failed her after she has “put it all out there.” When organizing events or trying to foster community, lack of attendance and participation has left her ideas “taken and distorted.” However, Nwokorie did feel as if Noname was a creator with a positive influence on this problem, speaking publicly about these issues. “She’s an artist who actually says something,” Nwokorie said. 

Other students had similar opinions on Noname’s influence today. Dajourn Anuku (COL ’22) said she “uses her face and identity” to speak on issues that affect black and lower-income communities. “She speaks up on issues both inside the music and outside the music,” Anuku said. This social awareness has become a cornerstone of her unique style, and she has turned into a voice for others affected by poverty, racism, and violence. 

Throughout all of her lyrics, Noname’s socially conscious rap requires a vulnerability that she emphasizes is important for all artists to embrace in their work. The 28-year-old incorporates her emotions, experiences, and identity into every line of rap and poetry she writes. “This is how I feel, this is how I love.”

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[…] is absolutely right. The work Noname has done is on-the-ground activist work that you can read about here. Further, I am so delighted that Chance choose to defend Noname in this way: specifically […]