Rolling Stone

No Hero, No Villain, Noname


One of the best rappers alive is also one of the most outspoken.

Fatimah Nyeema WarNer has been a homeowner for two weeks, a fact she calls “a mindfuck, for sure.” Sunshine pours into the 29-yearold’s modest, comfortabl­e home from a sliding door leading to a small, fenced-in yard. Better known as the rapper Noname, Fatimah is turning one of the bedrooms into a recording space, though it’s clearly a work in progress, with soundproof­ing boards leaning against walls and cartons of equipment strewn about. In the house’s common area, stylish maroon and orange chairs offset a cerulean velvet couch. Plants adorn her tall black bookshelf, packed with texts on the problems and promise of life on the margins — Black Marxism, Captive Genders, The Color Purple.

It’s a stereotypi­cally gorgeous June day in Los Angeles as Fatimah greets me in a loose, boxy, striped dress, her fluffy, bicep-length hair floating around her. She tries to fix me a glass of ice water, fiddling with her freezer before losing a battle with the ice machine. She offers me an iceless glass instead. “Clearly, I haven’t had company,” she apologizes.

Fatimah purchased the Leimert Park home after about four years of living in the city, having relocated from her native Chicago. Her new neighbors — kind and elderly — in the historical­ly Black but rapidly gentrifyin­g area have been happy to see a young Black woman claim a lot on their street, but know little else about who lives next door. They likely missed Noname on Fallon and Colbert, likely didn’t trek to Coachella to see her perform in 2018. They may be unaware of the various controvers­ies stemming from her unflinchin­g outspokenn­ess — like when she got into a high-profile war of words with the rapper J. Cole over their social responsibi­lities last summer, or when she tweeted that she wished Angela Davis got as much love as Beyoncé and insinuated that the star’s Disney+ film Black Is King is “an African aesthetic draped in capitalism,” sending the Beyhive into a minor furor.

As a low-key rap sensation who routinely turns down photo shoots and brand deals, Fatimah

doesn’t make it easy to put a face to her genius. But with her lyrical athleticis­m, brave storytelli­ng about Black life and death, and ear for organic production, she is one of the most distinct and exciting rappers alive. There’s a reason Ms. Lauryn Hill personally sought her out as an opening act.

Fatimah hasn’t released an album since 2018, though she’s made progress on her next one, Factory Baby, and has been dropping loosies like February’s “Rainforest,” on which she two-steps with anti-capitalism over sultry guitar. Mostly, though, she’s spent the past two years spreading the gospel of radical thought through Noname Book Club, a monthly meetup around two texts by writers of color who reckon with inequity. Book-club meetups became online gatherings during the pandemic, but took place in bookstores, libraries, and community centers before it. There are 12 local chapters in major cities like Boston, Phoenix, and London. Since January, Fatimah has been building out a library headquarte­rs in L.A. to house her efforts.

It’s hard to name another young musician so critically adored and civically engaged: not stumping-for-Bernie civically engaged, but dedicating-their-lives-and-sacrificin­g-their-wealthto-move-the-needle-to-the-left civically engaged. Fatimah’s social media has been an unending trail of revolution­ary learning materials and her synthesis of them, from the teachings of Karl Marx to takes on the Cuban embargo to condemnati­ons of LGBTQ persecutio­n in Ghana.

The political theories she identifies with evolve as she learns. Some days she believes in anarchy; most days she thinks socialism is our best way forward. She’s most comfortabl­e simply calling herself a radical. She wasn’t always this way. Really, the book club came to fruition in 2019 after Fatimah “got dragged on Twitter for not knowing what capitalism was,” she says. The virtual stoning led her to do her own research into why compassion­ate capitalism might not be a tool for mass economic freedom. Rather than double down or bow out of sociopolit­ical thought completely, she read.

“I came across this book called Jackson Rising. It’s about a cooperativ­e named Cooperatio­n Jackson, in Mississipp­i,” Fatimah tells me. She tweeted about it, and found others who were reading the same book. “I was high,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my fucking God, I should make a book club!’ ” She promptly created a Twitter account for the club, and thought 10,000 people would follow it, tops, at its height. Instead, about 10,000 people followed the day it was created. “Then, Trevor Noah was like, ‘I want to interview you about the book club, not about you being an artist,’ ” Fatimah says. “And I was like, ‘Oh.’ That’s when I knew this shit is beyond me.”

“I expect more,” Fatimah says of celebritie­s. “They have to do the reading — or pay someone to do the reading because you’re rich.”

Staff writer Mankaprr Conteh wrote about the rise of Amapiano in the July/August issue.

The first time Fatimah felt like a celebrity was when she played a show in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2017. “The folks who showed up were so excited and just happy to see me. They were really treating me with a lot of love,” Fatimah explains. “They were chasing the Sprinter down the street.”

How did that feel? “Really uncomforta­ble. I’m a very regular person. So, I was humbled that I don’t usually have to go through that,” Fatimah says carefully. “I know that a lot of real celebritie­s do have to deal with that type of personal invasion into your privacy.”

Fatimah is doing everything she can to avoid the status of “real celebrity.” It’s less a matter of privacy and more a matter of ethics. “Real celebritie­s,” according to her, can’t walk the streets with the level of anonymity Fatimah has, in part a result of their undeniable self-promotion — building their brand and amassing primarily selfservin­g wealth because of it. She thinks of Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Rihanna as “real celebritie­s.”

“I don’t do brand deals, I don’t take advances, and I’m very much a hired, outside contractor,” says Fatimah. “A venue hires me to come and play a show, and then I go. I don’t really do photo shoots. They had to convince me to do this. I don’t like doing things that I know are going to build on my celebrity because that’s not ethical to me when I’m trying to be anti-capitalist and also trying to present myself in a specific way. It’s hard to do that, and then be like, ‘Let me do this photo shoot, let me be in Rolling Stone,’ ” she says, mocking herself with a ditzy warble.

Her disinteres­t in wealth for wealth’s sake makes Fatimah an anomaly in popular music, and she desperatel­y wishes she wasn’t so alone. “I expect more,” she says of celebritie­s. She wants them to learn about the exploitati­on of capitalism, the harms of imperialis­m, and the insidious mechanisms of racism. “They have to do the reading,” she insists. “Do the reading or pay for someone to read to you because you’re rich. You have no excuse. I know what it’s like to have a bunch of fucking free time because we don’t work nine-to-five. I think you can hit up your manager and be like, ‘I want to learn this thing.’ ”

Last year, in the midst of 2020’s massive protest movement against police brutality and anti-Blackness, fueled by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police, Fatimah made a targeted observatio­n on Twitter. “Poor Black folks all over the country are putting their bodies on the line in protest for our collective safety and y’all favorite top selling rappers not even willing to put a tweet up,” she wrote. “Niggas whole discograph­ies be about Black plight and they no where to be found.”

She never named anyone in the tweet, but says she was speaking about rappers, predominat­ely Black men, that traffic in Black plight in all ways — from lamenting lost friends to celebratin­g murder sprees to repping gangs to trapping — who were not elevating the cause. So she was unsurprise­d when J. Cole took it personally. “I knew people were going to take it how they were going to take it. I knew that people were likely to think I was either talking about Kendrick [Lamar] or [ J.] Cole,” Fatimah says. The pair had been notably absent from public discourse that summer.

More than two weeks later, the Fayettevil­le superstar released “Snow on tha Bluff,” nearly four minutes of defensive lamenting about an unnamed woman whose tone bothered him, whose message couldn’t reach the people who need it most, and whose parents must have raised her into radicalism. There was little doubt he was referencin­g Fatimah. “Instead of conveying you holier, come help get us up to speed,” he rapped, as if she was not doing just that with Noname Book Club.

Two days after “Snow on tha Bluff,” Fatimah responded with “Song 33.” In one sharp minute of pointed raps over a Madlib beat, Fatimah called out Cole’s engagement with her tone and his disengagem­ent with that summer’s atrocities:

It’s trans women bein’ murdered

And this is all he can offer?

And this is all y’all receive?

Distract you from the convo with organizers They talkin’ abolishin’ the police

And this the new world order We democratiz­in’ Amazon,

We burn down borders

This a new vanguard, this a new vanguard I’m the new vanguard.

But almost as quickly as she shared the song, she tweeted an apology for doing so. In Fatimah’s mind, rather than directing attention back to the movements and matters it describes, “Song 33” instead absorbed onlookers into a spat between a famous person and a semifamous person.

Fatimah finds the situation particular­ly petty because she and Cole had spoken on the phone for the first time recently — after her Black-plight tweet and about two days before “Snow on tha Bluff ” debuted. “We’ve had each other’s numbers for a few years and we’d text little shit, but my friend came up with this idea to have artists sign this open letter to the industry that [said] we were going to refuse to perform at venues or spaces that hire police,” says Fatimah. She was excited about a way for prominent musicians to participat­e in social change, so she reached out to Cole.

Cole didn’t seem concerned about Fatimah’s tweet, she says. “He had mentioned the fact that he was making music again: He just made this song, he’s really into it,” Fatimah adds. “I’m not thinking this nigga just wrote a song about me.”

After Cole’s single dropped, they had another call. “He was apologetic and like, ‘The song wasn’t really about you, it was more like, it’s about a type of person on the internet,’ ” which Fatimah, of course, didn’t buy. I mean, the man had tweeted, “Follow @Noname. I love and honor her as a leader in these times,” even as he doubled down on his lyrics. The call ended tensely.

While many press outlets took Fatimah’s side, J. Cole fans harassed her online. In my world — on my timeline — people celebrate her talent and her advocacy. But the disparagin­g voices are the ones that ring loudly in her ears. “The hateful stuff goes viral. The love doesn’t,” she says.

Today, on her living-room couch, she’s preparing letters to send to incarcerat­ed folks whose loved ones have signed them up to receive books from Noname Book Club. “Someone who doesn’t follow Noname, who randomly hears about it, it’s always something messy,” she says. “It’s always like, ‘She came for Beyoncé, she’s in a fight with whoever.’ So their opinion of me is formed around what goes viral, not this shit that I’m doing.”

“The internet is so violent towards Black women online, especially when they’re visible, especially when they have an opinion,” says Clarissa Brooks, a journalist and organizer around anti-racism, policing, sexual violence, and environmen­tal justice whom Fatimah has gotten to know online. “Fatimah does this thing that is just painstakin­g to me at times, which is growing publicly.”

Those who admire Fatimah do so fiercely. “The people who want to see the revolution happen and who are building that possibilit­y see Noname as somebody who is a leading voice in that,” says Brooks. Plus, she adds, “She just out-raps all of your faves. That is actually the crux of it. She’s here because she has an amazing talent and that talent has never gone away, regardless of what you think about her Twitter account.”

As Fatimah ventured into radical thought, she shared her evolving ideas with the world on Twitter. Many people, myself included, felt like she was making our timelines and our analysis better. When we learn, though, we make mistakes, and hers were all public. “People really do not like me on the internet,” she says. “Which I get. I’ve fucked up however many times. I’ve said the wrong things, and I’m really fucking annoying; who wants to hear about colonialis­m and Black death every second?” Twitter has become a useful but treacherou­s place for her, so much so that as we spend two days together, I find myself reminding Fatimah that she and her work are good.

‘It’s time for us to go to work!” Fatimah says melodicall­y, standing near her front door. Sage — one of three people Fatimah hired to help her run Noname Book Club and the Radical Hood Library, a working title for the Club’s L.A. headquarte­rs — will be driving the three of us to the nearby Jefferson Park location. Fatimah, who’s still learning how to drive, usually bikes to the headquarte­rs, but today I’ll be in tow, along with some heavy supplies.

I help carry books to Sage’s hatchback as Fatimah carries a bulky printer to the car, the cord dragging along the driveway. We soon arrive at what seems to be an old furniture store, as indicated by a massive sign in Spanish and English. This is the headquarte­rs, still in progress.

We walk in and are met with the most glorious bookshelf I have ever seen. Light streams onto it from skylights in the high roof like a direct line to the divine. The shelf towers and slopes, curved and sturdy, with five rows of tall, deep levels already filled with titles. It doubles as risers, so when they have meetings or screenings, people can sit directly atop it. She climbs the shelves and plops herself near the top. This is the first time she’s seen it too, as it was built over the weekend before our visit. She’s quietly ecstatic. “It looks so good!” she says. “It’s crazy!” says Sage.

Today’s project is preparing to distribute free books at a community festival this weekend in Leimert Park. After we settle at the library, Sage and Fatimah begin to organize books for the giveaway. Michael, a Ph.D. student in the history of Black education who facilitate­s online events for the book club and breaks down titles on its YouTube page, arrives and joins in, tossing books by Fredrick Douglass and Octavia Butler into containers. They ultimately give away more than 400 brand-new books.

Fatimah hired Sage, whose pronouns are they/ them, in the spring after they applied for the position, advertised on social media. Incarcerat­ed folks are signed up for the book club largely off the strength of social media. “We have a Google form I will tweet and post on Instagram, like, ‘Hey, if you have an incarcerat­ed loved one, friend, or family who might be interested in getting some free books, sign the form, we will contact them,’ ” Fatimah explains. They start off sending books like Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, The Autobiogra­phy of Malcolm X, and lately, the novel Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi.

Fatimah is looking into expanding Noname Book Club as a government-recognized cooperativ­e, where all of its workers own the social enterprise and have similar power in running it. She also dreams of opening physical locations in all the cities where there are book-club chapters.

Her efforts are mainly funded by book-club supporters. A bulk of the money comes from the almost-8,000 Patreon subscriber­s. They also sell merchandis­e — hoodies, totes, and bookmarks — to cover costs like rent, shipping books to prisons, and providing inmates with


[ Cont. from 69] commissary money. “‘Send niggas books, put money on niggas books,’ was kind of what I was going for,” says Fatimah. “That’s catchy,” I respond. “I’m corny,” she says lightly.

Fatimah is so engrossed in book projects that I’m left wondering where music fits in. “I’m excited about creating and making art, but it’s coming from a different place,” she says. “The more I’m feeding into political education and organizing and the mutual-aid work that we’re doing and just this . . . whatever this is, I’m starting to be a little less interested in making music.”

But she is thinking about Factory Baby, a lot. Fatimah thinks it’s imperative she fight Black oppression, because she feels her music has profited from it. “Casket Pretty,” for example, from 2016’s Telefone, is a gentle horror story about murders in Chicago. She tells me Factory Baby will be more radical, more informativ­e, and solution-oriented. She’s been making music with producer DJ Dahi, who’s built hits with Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Big Sean. She describes their creative output as “Noname music” — soulful and similar to her previous work. “He was very nice,” she says. “It was super easy.”

She figures that her fans support Noname, the musician, by supporting her book club, through donating or buying its merchandis­e. “I’m like, ‘If I made a fire album and I still kept doing the same thing where I’m not putting out personal merch and I’m driving all of my fans to go purchase book-club merch, we would just be able to raise more money and do more things,’ ” she thinks aloud. “But we’re doing a lot more than what the average book club does. I do struggle sometimes just taking a step back and being like, ‘Man, this is . . . you are really doing a lot.’”

“Do you sometimes feel like you’re not doing enough?” I ask.

“All the time,” she says. “I could be a better organizer. I could be more anti-capitalist, more anti-imperialis­t, I could be more active politicall­y in my community. It’s probably impostor syndrome, it’s probably a lot of things, but I just feel like with the state of the world, we all should be doing more. . . . I know people feel a specific way when my name comes up because of this journey I’ve been on,” she says. “Either you hate me or you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, she’s doing such amazing work. Why is she so good?’ “And you feel like . . . ?”

“Neither one of those things are truly honest and who I am.”

After a water break, the trio return to their work. Sage skims the book club’s tracking system. It’s a glorious Google doc, elaborate and color-coded, that helps them monitor what their incarcerat­ed members specifical­ly want to read, whether their books are getting in, and roadblocks inmates are facing.

Michael comes across a book of anarchist prose and poetry, which Fatimah promptly designates for the giveaway. “We can’t send that,” she says. Prisons limit the literature they accept, she explains. “What is against the rules?” I ask. “Almost everything,” she says with a drawn, dry laugh.

“There’s no logic to it,” Sage chimes in.

“You know what it is: white supremacy and capitalism,” mutters Michael.

I mention, sheepishly, that I wrote my college thesis on Angela Davis’ articulati­on of prison abolition, and that my research inspired me to consider the power of abolitioni­st fiction. “There are tons of cop shows. There are tons of shows about prisons. What if somebody just made a television show about a world where there weren’t any prisons?” I muse.

“That shit would not get picked up,” Fatimah says softly. She and Sage agree that Hollywood is too close to the state to allow it. “They don’t want us to imagine what our world could look like if we weren’t oppressed. That’s dangerous to them,” says Sage.

“There’s not a bunch of movies about communism and socialism, because they don’t want us imagining that type of a world,” Fatimah notes.

I’m reminded of this year’s film about slain socialist Fred Hampton, Judas and the Black Messiah. Fatimah publicly declined to be part of the film’s soundtrack, even though it featured two friends, Chicago rapper Saba and Chicago transplant Smino. Fatimah assures me she feels positive about the guys and her choice. She says it’s not a bad movie, but feels it was somewhat inaccurate, sanitized, and isolated. It was a movie about an informant who got Hampton killed, not the radical leader himself.

Michael compares it to a hypothetic­al film about Martin Luther King Jr., from the perspectiv­e of his murderer. “You would be like, ‘What?’” he says.

“He was adamant about being anti-imperialis­t,” says Fatimah. “One of the cool things about Fred Hampton was the fact he could integrate theory into regular conversati­on with any nigga who he was talking to. You didn’t really get that [in the film], to which maybe some people are like, ‘Well, you’re not going to put these political terms in the movie. No one’s going to get it.’ But that’s how that man talked! He spoke that way, and people got it. That was the beauty and the magic about who he was.”

Fatimah also objects to the casting of a 32-yearold and 29-year-old to play Hampton and the informant, William O’Neal, respective­ly. Hampton was killed at 21, O’Neal was 20 at the time. “This isn’t just to shit on the movie,” she says “This was personally why I wasn’t into it. I wanted something that was going to be anti the state. On top of everything else, it’s not like there aren’t Black Panthers who are alive right now still being brutalized by the state, and the movie, the actors, they’re going off and they’re getting their awards.”

Before we leave, Fatimah and I wipe dust from the concrete floors of the headquarte­rs off our bags. I ask if her mom is proud of her. “Yeah, I think so,” she says. “I think she worries, but she’s definitely proud.” Fatimah was born and raised in a neighborho­od called Bronzevill­e on Chicago’s South Side, mostly by her grandparen­ts until she was in middle school. Her grandparen­ts wanted to afford her mother time to focus on the bookstore she ran.

Her grandmothe­r grew up a sharecropp­er in Mississipp­i, and her grandfathe­r was poor in Alabama. They had an entreprene­urial streak, owning a landscapin­g business. Even her father, who she doesn’t say much about, came to the U.S. poor from Tobago and managed to start a company. He worked in book distributi­on, leading him to Fatimah’s mom. Around the time Fatimah moved back in with her mother, she was fighting to keep her once successful shop alive, battling Barnes & Noble, Borders, and eventually Amazon.

Despite her mom’s work, Fatimah struggled with reading as a young person. She says that skipping college, smoking weed, and making music made her the black sheep of the family. Now, Fatimah financiall­y cares for her mom, who doesn’t work anymore.

Still, Fatimah finds it difficult to be proud of herself. “I love doing it, but it also is just a reminder that this isn’t enough,” Fatimah says of her work. “It’s important because people feel seen and connected and they feel like someone cares about them, and that is powerful. We do have to keep fighting for people to not feel disappeare­d and forgotten. But . . .”

I interject with a reminder: “I wonder if it’s possible to think, ‘OK, we’re going to work toward anti-capitalism and anti-imperialis­m,’ right? Wouldn’t people need to know about those things in order to fight it, right? Isn’t that why Michael is pursuing education?”

This seems to reground her, if only for a second: “Yes. Yes. Yes, you’re right. I mean, that’s why I’m so obsessed with political education, because you can’t build anything without it. ” She loses steam as she begins to think about how less-supportive people may see her work. “I know as soon as this place opens, people are going to be like, ‘What is this? She spent all this money on this?’ I know people are going to have something to say. And I do struggle with that.”

I’m not sure what to say, but I want to be empathetic. “I think it’s hard in your position to not make assumption­s about what people think because people tell you what they think so often.”

“All the time, yes.”

“It probably makes you hyperaware of how you’re perceived.”

“I think that also plays into just how I perceive myself as well,” says Fatimah. “I’m starting to believe it.”

The next day, I return to Fatimah’s for a tour of her neighborho­od. I find her in an Assata Shakur tee, a skirt with warped polka dots, a North Face bucket hat, and the lived-in salmoncolo­red Vans she wore the day before. As we stroll down long, wide streets to Leimert Park’s hub of Black businesses, Fatimah points out the beauty of the bark of the trees, the good Caribbean spot on the corner, the building that functioned as actor Issa Rae’s main character’s nonprofit office on Insecure. She is most enthusiast­ic about the bark.

When we reach the business district, Fatimah is stopped by a couple of organizers of the festival she’ll be tabling at with Noname Book Club. They seem genuinely excited about the festival and grateful to have Fatimah participat­e, without an ounce of star-struckness. “I think the community here is just incredible,” she says. “Everyone is not only just inclusive to people who are not from here, who are coming into this community with care and respect, but there’s a really beautiful artistic scene here. Everyone is just Black and amazing.”

On our walk home, she elaborates on what she envisions for Factory Baby. It’s in its early stages, but she says she could complete the project in two months of laser focus because she’s been ruminating on it for so long. “Revolution­ary bops” is what Fatimah wants to turn her experience­s into now, with more songs like “Rainforest,” danceable and forthright.

Noname songs often feature lyrics that feel like codes. “I kind of write in free thought. A lot of my stuff is like, ‘Penny proud, penny petty, pissing off Betty the Boop,’ ” she raps. “It’s like, ‘What?’ I would like it to be accessible, but I also don’t know that any of my music is fully accessible.” Incorporat­ing theory and ideas about capitalism, imperialis­m, and racism into an album that’s also personal and fun to listen to is a challenge she’s up for. Fatimah may be unsure of the magnitude of her social-justice work, her likability, and her choices, but she is not unsure of herself as a rapper. “I know exactly what I’m feeling, what I want to talk about, my experience­s,” she says. “I’ve sat with my own thoughts long enough to just know where I’m at.”

 ??  ?? Fatimah Warner is one of the best rappers alive — and perhaps the most outspoken. In the face of vitriol, she’s backing her words with a remarkable program of action and education
Fatimah Warner is one of the best rappers alive — and perhaps the most outspoken. In the face of vitriol, she’s backing her words with a remarkable program of action and education
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