Although I loved Hanif Abdurraqib’s last book, 2017’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, and have long been a fan of A Tribe Called Quest, I didn’t rush to grab a copy of his latest book about Tribe, entitled Go Ahead in the Rain, when it was released back in February. If that seems illogical, I get it. It probably is, but I couldn’t help it: I wanted to wait to read the book in the summer because Tribe is indelibly linked in my mind to those months. I first came across their third album Midnight Marauders during a summer home from college and listened to it obsessively — at backyard barbecues, in oppressive humidity, on long aimless drives with the windows down, after particularly exhausting shifts at the special needs school where I worked.
Not that the details of these memories were crystal clear back in February. I just thought of Tribe as “summer music,” so I figured a book about the music might make for good summer reading. The memories didn’t come rushing back until I finally read Abdurraqib’s excellent book, which deals as much with his own personal history of discovering and following Tribe as it does with the group’s biography and the larger African-American experience. From a lesser writer, that might be a recipe for a solipsistic mess. But this is a style that Abdurraqib has been developing in both his criticism and his poetry, especially in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. What impressed me so much in that book was the way that he could begin with a relatively straightforward subject and then gradually take the reader in unexpected directions. A review of Springsteen’s River tour morphed into a portrait of the stadium’s custodial staff and a eulogy for Michael Brown; a piece on Carly Rae Jepsen was about her onstage joy but more so about the offstage joy of all those in attendance.
Similarly, Go Ahead in the Rain is ostensibly a book about A Tribe Called Quest, but at its core it’s a meditation on how we use music to connect us to the past, especially with people from the past who are no longer in the present. It’s about paying homage to deceased member Phife Dawg, but it’s also about the dead in a general sense: about the author’s mother, Leonard Cohen, Otis Redding, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling.
In “Jazz (We’ve Got),” Tribe’s Q-Tip famously said that “the job of resurrectors is to wake up the dead,” and that seems to be a guiding principle for Abdurraqib. While Q-Tip might have been referring to Tribe’s mission of bringing jazz and the storied legacy of black music to younger audiences, Abdurraqib catalogs how that line might also refer to music’s unique ability to make the dead feel miraculously alive. In describing Phife Dawg’s final recordings on 2016’s We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, Abdurraqib writes that the verses are “a late reminder of what drew so many of us to Phife in the first place. A reminder that is more potent now, of course, but one that echoes long after the music ends.” Throughout these 200 some pages, Abdurraqib demonstrates how music itself can be that long echo, or a form of time travel, as a means of ensuring that the dead are never entirely gone so much as you have the songs to take you back to them.
Along the way, I was consistently reminded that Abdurraqib is as much a poet as he is a critic. The writing throughout this book is so sharp that I found myself reading and then immediately re-reading lines, amazed at their beauty and precision. As a result, readers who aren’t fans of Tribe (what’s wrong with you?!) will still find much to appreciate here. While a more typical biography might focus on the intricacies of Q-Tip’s ingenious production process, or devote more time to the cultural significance of Tribe’s Afrocentrism for the 1990s, Go Ahead in the Rain’s tangential, hybrid form is a more accurate representation of the way memories attached to music often feel: non-linear, disjointed, but altogether emotionally vivid.
Abdurraqib’s stories led me back to my own, back to the finer (if not mundane) details of that summer when I first stumbled upon Midnight Marauders, and of the people I knew back then but no longer do. If you read this, and turn up the music loud enough, I’m guessing the same will happen for you.-Kevin M. Kearney
Find Kevin M. Kearney at www.kevinmkearney.com