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'We Need To Exist In Multitudes': Noname Talks Artistic Independence, Women In Rap

Feb 10, 2019
Originally published on February 10, 2019 7:10 pm

Despite what her social media handle suggests, Noname isn't hiding anymore. The soft-spoken but quick-witted rapper has spent years bubbling in Chicago's hip-hop scene and sparring on tracks with friends like Saba and Chance The Rapper while still maintaining a low profile.

"It kind of became this very corny way for me to view my identity as this nomadic, weird, avant-garde person who is off the grid, who can be anything and nothing all at once," she says when describing the origin of her stage name.

Born Fatimah Warner in Chicago, Ill., Noname first gained attention when she appeared on Chance The Rapper's 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap. Following that success, she released the 2016 mixtape, Telefone, and used the proceeds from that record to fund her debut studio album, 2018's Room 25. Noted for its sharp commentary on race, identity, sex and politics, Room 25 was one of the most critically-acclaimed records of last year.

Thanks in large part to Room 25, Noname's sense of aloof anonymity has slowly melted away to reveal conscious rap star power. But she'll be the first to tell you that doesn't mean she's got it all figured out.

Noname spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about the messages of Room 25, her preference to stay independent as an artist, the state of women in rap and more. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link, and read on for more that didn't make the broadcast.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Michel Martin: You're from Chicago. I understand you started as a poet.Why don't you tell me a little bit more about the transition to rap, like how did it present itself to you. How did that happen?

Noname: I just got exposed to other types of art. I didn't really grow up listening to a lot of hip hop. I listened to some things like I listened Kanye just because of Chicago. But I grew up with my grandparents, so I ended up listening to a lot of what they listened to.

But doing poetry, and in Chicago, I was able to go to a lot of different open mics and meet a lot of other musicians and other people who who are artistic and express through different mediums. So I met Chance [The Rapper] and Mick [Jenkins], and a lot of other people ended up influencing me and helping me grow artistically and expand outside of just poetry.

I know that artists, especially you, hate to be labeled, that you hate the categories, but how would you describe yourself?

How would I describe myself? I think I'm like a young black 20 something artist who's trying to who's trying to like explore their identity through music and other things. I'm trying to be as honest as possible also, I don't know, I think I'm just trying to figure it out along the way. I don't know entirely how to describe myself. I feel like that's where my music is kind of all over the place sometimes.

Let me say, I could talk about every line [in "Blaxploitation"] and we could have a conversation about every line in this. How about:

I'm struggling to simmer down, maybe I'm an insomni-black / Bad sleep triggered by bad government / Write a think piece in the rap song, the new age covenant / If you really think I'm cooking crack, pass me the oven mitts.

Tell me anything about this. How does how does this come to you?

A lot of the times, I don't really know. I kind of just get inspired by the production. So Phoelix had most of the instruments laid down for the track but the bassline was just so funky that I kind of envisioned like what would Penny Proud be if it were like a political cartoon, you know? Like, what would that look like. I guess I tried to be that character on the song. So, a lot of it is supposed to be visual. Like a lot of the writing is supposed to be purposefully visual, kind of cartoony.

Sometimes you have to play it a couple of times sometimes to really hear it. Even for me because I write my style of writing is very stream of conscious. So it's hard sometimes to explain my work because it's not really linear to anything ... It's like a sarcastic way of looking at it where it's dark but it's also got this levity to it because it's written from the standpoint of a cartoon.

And you mentioned that it feels very visual. This song is also the first song that you've made a video for. And I was curious why you chose this one. Describe the video for people who haven't had a chance to see it.

So the video is basically kind of like in the style of Godzilla. But instead of there being this huge obscene creature terrorizing a town, it's this little baby and he's going around and he's destroying the city. But it's showing like a take on how I think white America sometimes views black people, almost as this unrealistic fear of black people or people of color — what you don't know. But then, by the end, of it it pulls out and it shows is just a baby in a playground.

YouTube

You used the proceeds from your first record to pay for this latest album. I think many people might remember that Chance the Rapper also declined to sign to a record label, choosing to function as an independent artist. Tell me why that's important to you.

I think it's important because it's possible and it's doable. I think ownership, in terms of just maintaining your integrity and how I feel as a woman of color, I just don't want my art to be owned by a white man. I wish it were more nuanced than just me being kind of stubborn in my own "fight the man mentality."But for me that's really what it boils down to.

I just personally like the the role of an entrepreneur. I grew up in that framework because my mother owned her own bookstore, my grandparents own their own landscaping company. So, I guess I approach everything with a very entrepreneurial spirit and mentality. Even though it's a lot of work and I have a very very slow rising career, very slow but I'm grateful for it because I've learned so much about myself through owning my own business you know.

Is there any part of you that feels like you're missing out [on the Grammys]? Is it like, "I'd like to be invited to the party even if I don't want to go"?

No, I don't feel like I'm missing out. I don't know, I've been thinking a lot about the Grammys and just the system of judging art and critiquing music. I guess some part of me still craves it, just because it's what we've taught ourselves is validation: a Grammy nomination or invitation, even. But I think I'm OK. I think I just am wanting to make better content and just keep growing artistically. I think that's where my main concern have been recently.

You don't have any problem talking about a lot of things, the sacred and the sexual, and you don't have a problem talking about any of it. But I was wondering about how faith plays into your music or how music perhaps plays into your faith. How are they connected?

I think music plays into my faith in the way of allowing me to always feel connected. I use music to slightly articulate things about my faith, but I'm not truly religious or crazy spiritual. Sometimes I use the language of Christianity in my music and make references from that because that's just how I grew up. It's also kind of universal.

This has been a big year for female rappers; I'm thinking Cardi B, I'm thinking about you...

It's been a great year for female rappers! It's been crazy.

What does it look like from your point of view?

It looks amazing to me.I feel like this is probably like one of the best times in hip hop for women. I think right now we have such a beautiful variety of artists and everyone. There is this is very communal spirit between everyone. Like, at least of the women that I've met or talked to through social media, everyone is very supportive of everyone and it's really beautiful.

I also think that people's perspectives about women have changed, and people are interested in women's opinions about things, and the type of content and ideas that come from women. So, I'm really excited to see what the future has for these artists and for these new artists coming up, too.

The hyper-sexualization of women of color particularly it's been rife in popular culture. You know imagery and ideas that many people consider misogynistic have also sort of been a part of it. Do you feel that you need to answer to that or answer that or have something to say about that?

I think because of the art that I make people expect me to be outspoken about it and also because I because of the way I present myself. People are like "Well, she is always wearing button up so she must be like against the sexualization of women in the industry." Which I am if that's not what those women truly want for themselves. But I think what I would like to see — I don't know if I want myself to be the artist who is that or just something else in general — but I would just like to see more other variety with women in hip hop on a larger scale. Everyone knows Cardi B., whose name I would like to also exist in a world where like Tierra Whack will be as famous as Cardi B. You know what I mean? So, it's there's something to offset. So there's just not one mono like image of a woman.

And I think right now on the TV scale of things, on the red carpet, that's what we're seeing. And that kind of sucks. It kind of sucks when there is only one of anything, even if it just were only one of me. We need to exist in multitudes. But, yeah, I don't know. Patriarchy is really insidious.

Web editor Sidney Madden contributed to the digital version of this story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, the Grammys are tonight. And if you decide to watch, you'll see what the industry considers the biggest names in music. Instead of talking about that, though, we decided to focus on one of the freshest names in music. She's been described as hypnotic, transcendent and very smart. Her name is Noname.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CASKET PRETTY")

NONAME: (Rapping) And I am afraid of the dark, blue and the white, badges and pistols rejoice in the night. And we watched the news, and we see him die tonight. Tonight the night his baby said goodbye, roses in the road, teddy bear outside, bullet there on the right.

MARTIN: Born Fatimah Warner, Noname first got mainstream attention when she appeared on Chance the Rapper's mixtape "Acid Rap." Following the success of her self-released 2016 mixtape "Telefone," Noname used the proceeds from that record to fund her debut studio album, "Room 25," which was one of the most critically acclaimed records of 2018, noted for its sharp commentary on race, identity, sex and politics. Noname is currently in the middle of a tour. But we managed to catch her on a short break, and she's with us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

NONAME: Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

MARTIN: Well, we are so excited to have you, Ms. Warner - Fatimah...

NONAME: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Noname.

NONAME: Fatimah. Fatimah.

MARTIN: Well, why Noname, if you don't mind my asking?

NONAME: I wanted to come up with a really cool rap name when I was, like, 18, and I couldn't think of anything I thought was clever enough. So I started going by Noname. And then it kind of became this very corny way for me to view my identity as this nomadic, weird, avant-garde person who is off the grid, who can be anything and nothing all at once.

MARTIN: Well, tell me a little bit more about the journey so far. You're from Chicago. I understand that you started as a poet. Was...

NONAME: I did, yeah.

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about the transition to rap. Like, how did it present itself to you? Did you start to hear it in your head? Or how did that...

NONAME: No. I just got exposed to other types of art. I didn't really grow up listening to a lot of hip-hop. I listened to some things - like, I listened to Kanye just because of Chicago. But I grew up with my grandparents, so I ended up listening to a lot of what they listened to. But doing poetry in Chicago, I was able to go to a lot of different open mics and meet a lot of other musicians and other people who are artistic and express through different mediums. So I met Chance, and a lot of other people ended up influencing me and helping me grow artistically and expand outside of just poetry.

MARTIN: You have a short film set to one of your songs. It's called "Blaxploitation." We're going to hear it in a little bit. And I was reading some of the comments - which can sometimes be dangerous because, as you know, some of the comments on YouTube can be less than kind and intelligent.

NONAME: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But a lot of the comments on yours - said some similar things, which is, I had no idea what to expect, but I love it. And I wondered...

NONAME: Interesting.

MARTIN: How do you feel about that? I mean, I know that artists, especially you, hate to be labeled, and you hate the categories. But how would you describe yourself?

NONAME: I think I'm, like, a young, black 20-something who's trying to, like, explore their identity through music and other things. And I'm trying to be as honest as possible (laughter) also. I think I don't know entirely how to describe myself. I feel like that's why my music is kind of all over the place sometimes. But...

MARTIN: But also, your style is so interesting, too, because your just - your style - I don't know how to describe it.

NONAME: Yeah (laughter), I don't know how to you describe it, either. I'm just a weirdo.

MARTIN: No, not at all.

NONAME: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Why don't we stop talking about - why don't we play some, and then we can - people can hear for themselves what we're talking about. Here, let's play "Blaxploitation." We're going to play a little bit. This is from your album "Room 25." Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLAXPLOITATION")

NONAME: (Rapping) Penny proud, penny petty, pissing off Betty the Boop, only date [expletive] that hoop, traded my life for cartoon dance, monkey, dance. Cathedral gonna pay me good tonight, eating Chick-fil-A in the shadows - that taste like hypocrite. Yummy, tasty. Yummy, tasty. Waffle fry my empathy, [expletive] just really lazy. Maybe I'm a hypocrite. Maybe I'm hypochondriac. I'm struggling to simmer down. Maybe I'm an insomni-black (ph), bad sleep triggered by bad government. Write a think piece in the rap song, the new age covenant. If you really think I'm cooking crack, pass me the oven mitts, captain watch a lil' [expletive] go crunch and wonder how everything happen.

MARTIN: This song is also the first one that you've made a video for, if I have that right. I was curious why you chose this one. And describe the video for us for people who haven't had a chance to see it. So...

NONAME: It's kind of like in the style of Godzilla. But instead of there being this huge, obscene creature terrorizing a town, it's this little baby, and he's going around, and he's destroying the city. But it's showing, like, a take on how I think white America sometimes views black people. It's almost this unrealistic fear of black people or people of color - what you don't know. But by the end of it, it pulls out, and it shows it's just a baby in a - like, a playground.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLAXPLOITATION")

NONAME: (Singing) Yeah, anti-political, mythical in the picture. Your [expletive] just moved to Wicker. Your mammy stay on the South Side. She paid to clean your house - power of Pine-Sol, baby. She the scrub tub lady. She that naked [expletive] in videos, that drunk club lady immortalized all '80s and then she real, real nasty. Keep the hot sauce in her purse and she be real, real blacky (ph), just like a Hillary Clinton who masqueraded the system, who chicken-boned, watermeloned, traded hoodie for hipster, infatuated the minstrel.

MARTIN: As I mentioned in the introduction, you used the proceeds from your first record to pay for this latest album. I think many people might remember that Chance the Rapper also declined to sign to a record label, choosing to function as an independent artist. Why is that so important to you?

NONAME: I think it's important because it's possible, and it's doable, and I think ownership is in terms of just maintaining your integrity and how I feel as a woman of color. I just don't want my art to be owned by a white man (laughter). But I wish it were more nuanced than just me being stubborn in my own fight-the-man mentality. But for me, that's really what it boils down to. You know, if Jay-Z's trying to hit my line, I (laughter) might go.

No, I was just joking. But no. I just - I personally like the role of an entrepreneur. Like, I grew up in that framework because my mother owned her own bookstore, and my grandparents own their own landscaping company. I guess I approach everything with a very, like, entrepreneur spirit and mentality, even though it's a lot of work, and I have a very, very slow-rising career - very slow. But (laughter) I'm - like, I'm grateful for it because I've learned so much about myself through owning my own business, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO NAME")

NONAME: (Rapping) Only wordly posession I have is life. Only room that I died in was 25. What's an eye for an eye when [expletive] won't love you back? And medicine's overtaxed. No name look like you. No name for private corporations to send emails to. 'Cause when we walk into heaven, nobody's name going to exist. Just boundless movement for joy, nakedness radiance.

MARTIN: Since we're speaking to you on the day of the Grammys, is there any part of you that feels like you're missing out. Is it like, I'd like to be invited to the party even if I don't want to go?

NONAME: To the Grammys?

MARTIN: Yeah.

NONAME: No, I don't feel like I'm missing out. I don't know. I've been thinking about it a lot - the Grammys and just the system of judging art and critiquing music. Some part of me still craves it, like, just because it's what we've taught ourselves is validation. But I think I'm OK. I think I just am wanting to make better content and to just keep growing artistically.

MARTIN: You know, I've been thinking a lot about that too just because this whole question of what it is that we value, what is it that the industry broadly defined promotes is something that I think a lot of people have been talking about. I mean, I'm thinking, you know, this has been a big year for female rappers. I'm thinking Cardi B. I'm thinking about you.

NONAME: It's been a great year for female rappers. It's been crazy.

MARTIN: And I was going to ask you, what does it look like from your point of view?

NONAME: It looks amazing to me. I feel like this is probably like one of the best times in hip-hop for women. Right now, we have such a beautiful variety of artists. And there's like - there's this very communal spirit between everyone, at least of the women that I've met or talked to through social media. Everyone is very supportive of everyone. And I also think that people's perspectives about women have changed. And people are interested in women's opinions about things and the type of content and ideas that come from women. So I'm really excited to see what the future has for these new artists coming up too.

MARTIN: You mentioned that you're very supportive of each other. It's interesting because the rap beef is so much a part of the culture. You know what I'm saying? It's like - it's almost like its own thing. Is that...

NONAME: Yeah. Aside from Nicki and Cardi, like, I can't really speak to that level of it. But everyone who I've communicated with is very nice and sweet. But it is - I think they keep that sort of beef publicized, whatever because it's a part of hip-hop. Regardless of whether we like it or not, like, it is a part of hip-hop, and it entertains people.

MARTIN: It is interesting because there are - well, I'm thinking about Pusha T and Drake, of course, that as well. But because sometimes truthful things are said, but sometimes it just replicates some sides of the genre that a lot of people worry about anywhere, think about anywhere, have some issues with anyway.

Along those lines, like, the hyper-sexualization of women of color particularly has been rife in popular culture, you know, imagery and ideas that many people consider misogynistic have also sort of been a part of it. Do you feel that you need to answer to that or answer that or have something to say about that? Is that - do you feel like that's something you have to do or not? What do you think?

NONAME: I think because of the art that I make, people expect me to be outspoken about it and also because of the way I present myself. People are like, well, she's always wearing button-ups so she must be anti the sexualization of women in the industry, which I am if that's not what those women truly want for themselves. But I think what I would like to see - I don't know if I want myself to be the artist who is that or just something else in general, but I would just like to see more of the variety I was talking about with women in hip-hop on a larger scale.

Like, everyone knows Cardi B's name. I would like to also exist in a world where like Tierra Whack will be as famous as Cardi B or da-da-da-da-da (ph). You know what I mean? So it's just - there's something to offset so there's just not one mono image of a woman. And I think right now, on the the TV scale of things, on the red carpet, that's what we're seeing. And that kind of sucks. It kind of sucks when there's just only one of anything, even if it just were only one of me that was like - we need to exist in multitudes.

MARTIN: That was Fatimah Warner aka Noname. Her latest album is "Room 25." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.