Noname's new track, ‘Song 32,’ is just for her fans. In Document's Spring/Summer 2019 issue, she and Lakeith Stanfield talk dodging and chasing the spotlight.
Hear “Song 32” released today here.
Noname and Lakeith Stanfield approach fame with skepticism. Last year brought significant success to both artists: Noname’s album Room 25 was met with critical acclaim (Rolling Stone dubbed her “one of the best rappers alive”), and Stanfield received universal praise for his starring roles in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Donald Glover’s Atlanta. Both 27, the two are fundamentally aware of the power structures underpinning their respective industries. For Stanfield, this understanding manifests in his critical view of what he calls “the Hollywood shuffle,” while Noname simply remains independent, electing to invest her own money in her projects rather than surrender her music or creative control to a white-male-dominated enterprise.
In “Prayer Song,” Noname raps: If you wanna help me then kiss me and fuck me later / Gentrify all my people, there’s emptiness on the table. The words demonstrate her deftness at translating the deeply personal into sharp social critique—with fluidity gained from cutting her teeth in the Chicago slam poetry scene. But the anonymity she expresses with her stage name (she was born Fatimah Warner) is reflected in her ambivalence to the spotlight. Though hers was one of last year’s most heralded albums, gracing best-of lists in Pitchfork, The Atlantic, and Complex, she has done relatively little press and is quiet on social media. As of March 2019, she has posted only 18 photos to Instagram. The effect, in her case, is the clear communication of her priorities: She’s uninterested in performing authenticity when she can live it.
Before his acting career took off, Stanfield rapped in MOORS, a duo with music producer Hrishikesh “HH” Hirway. Like Noname, Stanfield’s lyrics took an unflinching look inward as he faced past tragedies. He met Hirway while filming Short Term 12, the 2013 indie that featured his breakout performance. And since the release of their last EP in 2014, Stanfield has been featured in some of the film industry’s most culturally relevant movies (Straight Outta Compton, Snowden, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out). He’s become a regular profile subject, and when he met Noname at The Garland hotel bar in North Hollywood for this conversation, he brought a notepad of questions.
But those quickly proved unnecessary. As the pair immediately tackled the nature of art, their conversation oscillated between the profound and the silly, diving into the politics of trauma and the importance of creative agency. The notepad remained untouched.
Part I. Origins
Lakeith Stanfield—You’re from Chicago, right? What is it like? What’s the music scene like?
Noname—The music scene is very vibrant and it’s influenced by other artistic mediums. I was initially doing poetry—poetry slams and readings and things like that—and me getting started in making music was solely based on being in spaces with musicians.
Lakeith—Do you remember what it felt like the first time you stepped onstage and did some slam poetry?
Noname—I guess I had the typical nerves. When I was in high school, a lot of my poetry was based on someone else’s ideal. I think in some ways it was easier. Because now my work is all about me and my personal experience.
Lakeith—That’s what I like about your work: Some of these things, you gotta be courageous to talk about. I was inspired listening to it.
Noname—Do you feel like you need to be as vulnerable as you possibly can in your art for the sake of your own catharsis? Or do you think that good art has to be representative of truth?
Lakeith—I think that depends. Art is so complex and nebulous. Sometimes you just put a nail in a board and hang that shit up and all of a sudden everybody wants to be a part of it.
At some point, you gotta throw the dice up and surrender. What artists, poets, musicians, and actors do you like right now?
Noname—Hanif Abdurraqib is a writer. He’s almost like a pundit. Tierra Whack is a musician, she’s incredible.
Lakeith—Love her. The cover art for your mixtape Telefone kind of reminded me of some of the aesthetics that I saw in some of her visuals. It was really a fucking powerful piece of cover art, but it wasn’t until I got into the music that I realized the significance. What did it mean for you?
Noname—For that project I wanted to illustrate the juxtaposition between light and dark, to have this youthful-looking girl, but to have this skull sitting on top of her head, because that’s what I feel like the music sounds like. Usually, my music, the production is really pretty-sounding, but I’m saying really fucked-up, sad shit.
“I don’t want my music to be owned by white entities—that’s mainly why I’m independent. I just don’t think we need it if you’re able to mobilize a fan base through grassroots, just playing shows, and social media.”
Part II. Vulnerability
Noname—Which project were you the most joyful to be a part of?
Lakeith—That’s hard to say. It was probably [Ava DuVernay’s film] Selma, the Martin Luther King Jr. story. I played Jimmie Lee Jackson; he got killed by police officers. I grew up in San Bernardino, in Victorville, north of here. And I came from an experience where one of my friends was being held at gunpoint in the dirt, squirming. He threw up all over himself, and then the officers handcuffed him, and they pepper-sprayed him. My little sister was standing there—she was six or seven at the time. She got hit with the spray; I got hit with the spray; my mom was there and she got hit with the spray. She was crying and shit. That was a very traumatizing thing for her to have to experience. We were always dealing with shit, especially me because I got a little bit of a mouth on me. They don’t like when you know shit and you talk. I’ve had guns pointed at me. I’ve been the recipient of a lot of bullshit. [So Selma] was a powerful one for me, and I really felt like I was serving a bigger service being a part of that movie.
Noname—Have things changed for you now that you’re newly experiencing fatherhood?
Lakeith—The death and rebirth cycle is such an interesting thing and has been something we all think about a lot. That’s something I think plagues most humans at least to some extent, at some point in their life, and it’s affected me so much. There was one song you did that was, it has, like, a baby’s voice.
Noname—“Bye Bye Baby.”
Lakeith—I must have cried 15 times today just thinking about that song. I couldn’t even play it again a second time.
Noname—It’s really sad.
Lakeith—It’s really sad, but it’s tragically beautiful. I’m kind of getting emotional thinking about it now, because it was so profound. That’s a lot of what’s talked about on that record: losing friends and the dangers of Chicago. People don’t really have an appreciation for how it feels to be close to that kind of violence all the time. Do you feel that sense of danger?
Noname—If I’m walking in a neighborhood that I’m not familiar with, I’m just a little more alert and my eyes are peeled and I’m aware. But I’m also not from the neighborhoods that were the most violent. I am from the south side of Chicago, and I never felt as unsafe as the media makes Chicago out to be. I’ve been here the past two years. I’ve been trying to adjust to L.A.
Lakeith—You like it?
Noname—I’m not really in it. I’m in this neighborhood called Jefferson Park.
Lakeith—You’re not in the Hollywood shuffle.
Noname—No, I’m kind of like a hermit. I’m very in the crib, and maybe I’ll go to The Comedy Store and hang out with some of my friends. But I’m not really in the L.A. world.
Lakeith—You ain’t missing shit. If you know a garbage can, you know Hollywood.
Noname—Oh, come on.
Noname—That’s how you really feel?
Lakeith—It’s fucking disgusting out here.
“It’s not natural for a human to be so idolized and have obscene amounts of money. I don’t ever want to sign a label! I don’t ever want to get closer to fame or that kind of money!”
Part III. Creation
Noname—I’m independent. I don’t even have label-mates. It’s just me. I’m able to make a lot of money, at least enough to sustain myself and help my family.
Lakeith—Was that a conscious decision to take the independent route?
Noname—Yeah. I don’t want my music to be owned by white entities—that’s mainly why I’m independent. I just don’t think we need it if you’re able to mobilize a fan base through grassroots, just playing shows, and social media.
Lakeith—What does your green room look like? You got just a bunch of water? You got some turn up?
Noname—There’s water, and there’s liquor, because my band—they drink and shit. And sometimes I do drink. I mean…I definitely drink.
Lakeith—You don’t smoke, though.
Noname—I’m smoking again. Definitely smoking and drinking. I brought my pen with me just in case. I didn’t know what the vibe was gonna be.
Lakeith—Smoking that good!
Lakeith—I used to smoke heavy.
Lakeith—I did. I think it was just at some point that shit got too strong for me.
Noname—Well, out here, it’s crazy.
Lakeith—Yeah! I hit something this one time, and I don’t know if it was laced, but with that shit I saw 30,000 versions of every person I saw. I was like, ‘God, come get me.’ It was crazy. And then I did it one more time, when I played Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton. I was just trying to get ready for the role. I was like, ‘Okay, Snoop would be high. Let me get high.’ Stupid fucking idea. I don’t think I hit one mark.
Noname—Like method acting. Would you do acting training?
Lakeith—I tried it. But by the time I went back for training, I was such a known actor that it wouldn’t work because all the kids in there were, like, distracted by my presence. The teacher is a fan and so it’s weird.
Noname—I never had an opportunity to work with, like, a huge artist. Sometimes, when people get more famous, their albums become riddled with industry features. As if that makes the music better—just because those people are more famous.
Lakeith—I feel like Kanye is the king of that. Just being right next to…whoever’s the new shit. He’ll just be right there!
Noname—I feel like his ability to just find uniqueness, that hasn’t happened in a while, you know?
Lakeith—Yeah, I mean one of my favorite things from Kanye was that ‘scoop diddy poop.’ That shit was fire.
Noname—Did you like his last album?
Lakeith—What was it called? I don’t think I heard it.
Noname—Ye? Was it called Ye?
Lakeith—I don’t think I heard that one.
Noname—Do you listen to a lot of rap albums?
Lakeith—No, I don’t really consume that much music really.
Lakeith—No, I don’t really consume much of anything—music, or movies, or anything.
Noname—Are you reading?
Lakeith—Reading and meditating. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
Lakeith—Procreating, every now and again. I’m just not much of a content person. I find most movies now bore me a little bit.
Lakeith—Yeah, same thing with music.
Noname—It’s not because it’s boring, it’s just because it’s not good. It’s so sad. Music and movies right now. It takes me an hour to find anything to stream because I’m just looking for a story that’s either not a white person or a storyline I’ve seen already. And there’s nothing. Half the time I’m scrolling through a bunch of titles of black films and it’s primarily a lot of the same type of shit. But I get it! It’s like, once you see one thing is selling, you just keep doing that thing.
“You’re not in the Hollywood shuffle. You ain’t missing shit. If you know a garbage can, you know Hollywood. Seriously. It’s fucking disgusting out here.”
Part IV. Celebrity
Lakeith—Do you separate artists from artistry? Because the guy who made your album cover, didn’t he get into some kind of situation?
Noname—He did get into a situation. [Ed note: Bryant Giles, who created the cover art on Room 25, was charged with domestic battery in October 2018.] I’m from Chicago. I was talking to my little sister and I was like, ‘You know, this R. Kelly shit is crazy.’ People in Chicago know that he’s been a sexual assailant and a fucking pedophile for years. This is nothing new. Everybody knew! People should have stopped listening to his music. But you still listen to James Brown, don’t you? And brought up a bunch of other blues musicians and jazz players that I love, that definitely are terrible people! So, I don’t know.
Lakeith—In this environment, do you still want to make things that challenge people?
Noname—Yeah. I think it’s important, especially if you’re an artist that is intrigued by the spectacle of honesty or the spectacle of being vulnerable and how that shakes people up. But I do think that it does come with a price. I’m always thinking about this idea of having a platform. What am I supposed to do with it? Two hundred thousand people follow me on these different social media platforms. What am I supposed to say? What am I supposed to retweet? What is important? I don’t know.
Lakeith—Go in the house and sit your ass down.
Noname—Do you feel like you have to keep making movies that are shifting the culture and rattling up the minds? Like, you’re not doing your human duty if you’re not?
Lakeith—If I could do something to make the world a better place and I can be a part of that, I’m all for it. I don’t necessarily feel that it’s my life goal to be people’s moral parameter. I don’t worship. I don’t understand that. I don’t think that you should look to celebrities for that kind of thing.
Noname—It’s really weird.
Lakeith—Yeah, man. I think you’ve gotta look inside!
Noname—Do you feel like it’s unhealthy to be a celebrity? I feel like that’s weird.
Lakeith—It is weird!
Noname—I feel like it’s not natural for a human being to be so greatly idolized and to have these obscene amounts of money. I don’t ever want to sign a label! I don’t ever want to get closer to fame or to that kind of money!
Lakeith—This is what I was talking about when I said that Hollywood was a garbage can! What I was alluding to has to do with that and the hierarchy that exists in the streets out there in the middle of that. It’s just such a nasty sort of display. But it’s glazed over with Gucci.
Noname—It’s gotta still be nice. A little bit.
Lakeith—No, it is, it is.
Noname—You get dressed up and hang out with your friends.
Lakeith—You get to wear nice things.
Noname—To do it with your friends. I’m thinking, if me and Felix were at the Grammys, we would have a bottle, we’d probably have some edibles.
Lakeith—You would have to ’cause they boring.
Part V. Identity
Lakeith—I was listening to your record today. I got out of my car to go into CVS, and I didn’t even realize—in the parking lot—there was this woman who was just staring at me. I’m on the car, bent over, tears just rolling down, and then I look at her—I didn’t even give a fuck. I was just having my moment.
Noname—I wonder if you’re able to do that because you’re tapping into your emotions deeply all the time, because of the work that you do. I don’t know many black men who, for one, would admit to publicly crying. What you just said, if you really did do that shit, that is brave.
Lakeith—I think that it hit me in a personal space. When that thing happened, the thing your music recalled, I was doing the same thing, crying publicly without reserve. Your music inspired me: ‘Yo, you can be honest about these things and be okay. You’re not alone.’
Noname—Aw, man, that’s dope. I always need another fan. I don’t have label support, so…
Lakeith—You don’t need it.
Noname—That’s the thing about being independent, you have to go broke every time. I just have to invest it all, every single time. Which I’m down to do—but just to even convince yourself that you’re worth risking so much of your savings, so much of your everything. I feel like being independent has taught me to self-love more because I have to really believe in myself and be investing everything.
Lakeith—What’s the toughest times that you can remember?
Noname—I was living in a nook in my friend’s apartment, and I was paying her $400 in rent. There wasn’t even a door to my room. I would make $300 or something and all of it would go to my rent and I wouldn’t have any bread to do anything. I’d be in the crib on a futon for months at a time in the winter.
Lakeith—In cold-ass Chicago.
Noname—Chicago is this ugly, brutal place, but it’s also one of the most beautiful cities that I’ve ever seen in terms of the humanity that can exist within people.
Lakeith—People be thinking that in certain environments shit is all one way. We’re resilient and we’re surviving. I think that’s something that is also quite unique to black people, and our experience and our struggle. Especially women. I don’t even like the word ‘strong’ anymore, because I think it discredits how sensitive black women are. I’ve been with a lot of black women, and I have black women in my life that I love a lot who have had really tough lives. I don’t view you as hard or prickly—like when I touch you, my finger breaks. I view you more as loving and receptive, but you still can get through. When the wind comes, you ain’t gonna fold on a motherfucker.
Noname—It’s a fine line, though. Part of our beauty as black people is that we’re so resilient, but it’s also where all of our trauma comes from. It’s because we have lived through so much. In order to be resilient, we have had to endure so much more trauma. I’ve had people talk to homies of mine, trying to explain to me why I don’t get approached by a man or shit like that. Usually people are like, ‘People are intimidated you, men are intimidated by you, because you’re a strong Black woman. That shit is intimidating.’ It’s shitty to have to feel bad about something that I know is making me more beautiful. I know this is making me a more resilient and a more giving person. Most of the time I feel Black first and then I feel like a woman. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. In terms of the issues that I’ve had and things that I go through, the world doesn’t see me as a woman first, they just see me as Black. So that’s how I feel first.
Lakeith—I think that makes a lot of sense. It’s like the #MeToo movement. A lot of that stuff became lost on the ears of a lot of Black woman, frankly, because…
Noname—It really does center around the issues and the trauma of white women.
“Two hundred thousand people follow me on these different social media platforms. What am I supposed to say? What am I supposed to retweet? What is important? I don’t know.”
Lakeith—I’ve always had to wrestle with those ideas. It’d be insane, because I’d have a dark-skinned black woman as a girlfriend, with an Afro or something, and it would be striking when we’re seen in public.
Noname—That’s striking just to hear you say it. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you date a dark-skinned woman.’ As a successful Hollywood actor, I don’t believe it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a picture with a dark-skinned woman who wasn’t a part of the cast.
Lakeith—You gotta Google.
Noname—It’s the same way with rappers and musicians. They don’t date dark-skinned women. They don’t even date, like, brown-skinned women. It’s so weird to me, this need for what is exotic. ‘My bitch gotta be exotic. My car gotta be exotic.’ I don’t know why just being a black woman and being interesting and beautiful isn’t enough.
Lakeith—Because everybody think they got you in a box. They’re like, ‘Oh, we know what that is. All black women are the same.’ Which is not true. They do it with black men, too.
Noname—You think they think something specifically about dark-skinned women that they’re avoiding?
Noname—It’s not solely based on a physical standard of beauty?
Lakeith—That’s part of it, but not solely, I don’t think.
Noname—Well, what do you think it is? We’re all bitter, or something traditional?
Lakeith—All more difficult to get along with, and all scary because they’re mysterious and they’re not represented in the media enough. And when they are represented in the media, it’s all the same thing. They snap and they going off and they represent a threat to somebody.
Noname—Or it’s all trauma.
Lakeith—Or it’s all trauma.
Noname—I feel like dark-skinned women in the media are all sadness. That’s what they’re so good at, just being broken.
Noname—Or they’re so angry. I feel like that’s why Issa Rae means so much to people. She is finally this representation of a dark-skinned woman who is just normal.
Lakeith—Who do you hope to represent? Maybe we can end on that.
Noname—Who do I want to represent? I wish I could just not represent anything. I wish I could be the artist that people separated the art from, where I could just put my music on the internet and nobody knew anything about me.
Lakeith—You gave a beautiful exposition of at least some parts of you that has affected me profoundly, and I’m sure a lot of people. Please keep doing it.
Noname—You too. I feel like I should’ve asked you more. Another day. We’ll save it.
Lakeith—If we do it again, we’ll just talk.
Noname—We’ll see each other at another fucked-up L.A. event.
Lakeith—In the middle of the Hollywood shuffle… just do it all over again.