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'I Want Us To Dream A Little Bigger': Noname And Mariame Kaba On Art And Abolition

Rapper Noname and activist and organizer Mariame Kaba joined <em>Louder Than A Riot</em> to discuss hip-hop's role in a prison-free future.
Rapper Noname and activist and organizer Mariame Kaba joined <em>Louder Than A Riot</em> to discuss hip-hop's role in a prison-free future.

In the shadow of police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and in the midst of a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement caught a tidal wave of momentum in 2020. There were hashtags, marches, pickets signs and sit-ins. There were moments of silence and poetic commentaries, renamed plazas and even some sways of legislative change, all evidence of a broader acknowledgement (in some cases, for the first time ever) of the racial inequality that's baked into America's social structure, in everything from education to healthcare to housing. And for many, these wake-up calls came with a much more pointed and precise demand — to take away the power from those who uphold this inequality; or, if you want to get simple and snappier: Defund the police.

It's a slogan that's caught steam in a way that was once unimaginable to prison-industrial complex abolitionist and organizer Mariame Kaba.

"Ten years ago, people thought we were completely bonkers," Kaba says. "This is how I know things shift: when Ferguson happened, and all the demands were about body cameras and things like that — to come to this moment, six years later, and the demand is to defund and abolish police for a significant number of people. I mean, my God, that's incredible to me!"

The demand requires people to imagine a world without police and, subsequently, a world without imprisonment. This has been what Kaba has spent her life's work trying to get people to imagine.

One of the principles of prison reform is that prisons are part of society, so they should be safe and fair. For prison abolitionists like Kaba, these reform efforts simply aren't enough: "It's not as simple as: 'Do you support [prison] reform, or do you not?' The question is: 'Are you trying to make sure that this thing shrinks in power, or not?'"

As Kaba lays out, the limit of prison reform is that it validates the institution of prisons overall — that temporary fixes and goals to make facilities more humane reinforce the idea that imprisonment is a natural human occurrence in the first place. Her work questions why these systems exist at all and, instead, offers people alternatives to carceral ways of dealing with harm.

Throughout the course of Louder Than A Riot, we've investigated and analyzed the ways mass incarceration impacts hip-hop, both as an artform and cultural force. For the final episode, we flipped the script. How does hip-hop impact mass incarceration — from reinforcing it to reforming it to dismantling it completely?

Kaba points to art, like hip-hop, to help give the message a common heartbeat, a rally cry, a conversation starter to "disrupt patterns and old ways of thinking."

"That's why we need artists."

That's what 29-year-old Fatimah Warner, aka Chicago rapper Noname, has been grappling with. Through her music, her social media engagement and her monthly book club, Noname Book Club — which hosts discussions of social justice literature and donates books to prisons — the rapper devotes just as much energy to political education and fostering conversation as she does to creating music.

"I love thinking about [PIC abolition] as this living, breathing thing that we can expand and challenge and grow with — as a politic, as a framework, as a vision for this revolutionary future," Noname notes.

Noname and Kaba share a mutual admiration and respect for one another's work, so Louder Than A Riot invited them to join in conversation to discuss their paths to becoming abolitionists and hip-hop's role in a prison-free future.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


Mariame Kaba: I think [coming to the idea of abolition] was a process, not a moment — I didn't wake up and come to the realization. It was through a process of study — a process of experience and seeing how these systems were crushing communities, crushing people.

I remember this one moment I was talking to someone, many many years ago, and they said to me, "Why do you assume that prisons are a natural thing?" And I really didn't understand it. And they're like, "Prisons are unnatural — somebody made them, and everything that's made can be unmade." This is way before I had come across any readings or thinking about PIC [prison-industrial complex] abolition. And then a couple of years later, I was in a restorative justice training and somebody said, "There are a million ways to handle harm. Why did we choose this one?" I was like, "Oh my God."

So it was these small moments of people literally asking questions of me or of a larger room that got me thinking, like, "Why do I think prisons are natural, naturalized? Where did that come from?" I guess it was because they always have existed as long as I was alive. And why question what always existed? You just assume that's just how things are. And those were the provocations, along with experiences of harm — I was like, "This isn't working. This system doesn't solve anything."

Noname: I hadn't really thought about it; like Mariame said — it's prison, it's just always been here. And I think Twitter, honestly. It's crazy; I have to thank Twitter for so many moments of me being radicalized and learning new things. Although it is a white supremacist app and I really think it promotes negativity, there are some really amazing people on there who share a lot of information. So, stumbling upon [Mariame's Twitter handle,] @prisonculture and then just continuously stalking everything she's done thereafter.

Mariame Kaba: I'd love to ask you a question. Part of why I was excited to talk with you today is because I love talking about creativity and art and PIC abolition as things that work together. For me, PIC abolition is about imagining a new way. And as Ruthie Gilmore says all the time, abolition is about making things as much as it is about dismantling. I love the fact that art and creativity are so much about making things. Are you feeling excited about making things — and if you are, what are you making?

Noname: I am excited. I've been slowly trying to work on my album, and piecing that together, but my industry is so corrupt and so trash that I would be dishonest if I just sat here and was like, "Oh yeah, I'm like so excited."

The type of art that I make doesn't get centered in the industry I'm in, and same with my peers. I don't think the work that we make is for the mainstream, and that's fine. But I think sometimes I can just get into a negative headspace because I'm wanting to make art that is more revolutionary — I'm looking to folks like Fela Kuti and Bob Marley and Nina Simone, and even some of Nas' early stuff, folks who are extremely political in their music — and there's really no space for that. So I'm excited to be making it, but I'm also like, "This is not about to pay my bills." [Laughs.]

It can be hard and it's weird when you're the only one who's screaming about how messed up capitalism is and how it's sort of altered our relationship with our art as Black artists. It's all for consumerism these days.

Mariame Kaba: I was also thinking about the artist Elizabeth Catlett. She said years ago that "art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people." And that idea is not uncontroversial, right? There are many who don't believe that art is most valuable when it's put in the service of movement-building and social justice. Some argue that this is a really utilitarian view of art that limits its potential and maybe even reduces its importance. But I think that art is not only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people, but also, that oppressed people don't have the luxury of not tying art to being in the service of movement-building and social justice.

Noname: I think about that constantly because especially, like, hip-hop — we're talking about a genre that literally came out of the ghetto, you know what I mean? The most oppressed group of people in America decided to collectively create this art form for our liberation, to echo our messages out to larger audiences so they know that this is what is happening in our communities.

The most oppressed group of people in America decided to collectively create this art form for our liberation, to echo our messages out to larger audiences so they know that this is what is happening in our communities.

Because a community that I come from made this work, and now I'm able to sustain myself, I feel it's my responsibility to be as honest and radical in my music as I possibly can. I understand where people come from when they say art should just be art for art's sake — but at the same time, if that idea has been commodified and has been co-opted by capitalism, then we have to reassess. Art isn't just existing as art in some dark cave — it's being sold to millions of white people.

So, yeah — thinking about revolutionary concepts and ideas, it helps when you can package it in a way that's enjoyable to listen to and beautiful to look at. I know for me, I made Book Club, but I struggled so much with reading; the things that help lead me toward wanting to learn more have been art and music and film. So I definitely think we could be, as creators, pushing for something a bit more revolutionary and less individualist.

Mariame Kaba: I'm sure you've heard Toni Cade Bambara's, you know, "as a cultural worker, who belongs to an oppressed people, my job is to make revolution irresistible." I love that quote and it's really true. What you just mentioned, about art making revolution irresistible, is so critical. You attract people to social movements based on a whole bunch of stuff — including aesthetics, including art. All social movements of any sort of import have understood the role of music and song in the collective making of social movements.

Noname: Throughout most of my childhood I was really insecure about reading because it takes me a while to comprehend things and I have to reread and my pacing is very slow. It's gotten a lot better because I'm reading more.

I know that it's important for growth — I want to be the best community member that I can possibly be, and if I am ignorant to things affecting people in my community, I wouldn't be living up to the person that I would like to be in the world.

I wanted to make a book club because I thought, "If people are interested in Noname the brand, if this can function as an extension of my branding, people might be interested in this." And it turned out that people are beyond just, "Oh, this is a Noname thing." I think people also have a similar idea about themselves and wanting to be the best version of themselves that they can, and to be in solidarity with movements. For that, I think the book club has been a success.

I think about my role, too, because I know that just existing as a popular figure, I'm taking up unnecessary space — so not knowing exactly how to promote and share the politics that I have, but also not center myself.

Mariame Kaba: I think about this all the time, about the tightrope you're walking for the reasons you mentioned — but also because you're who you are in your body, because you identify as a Black woman and you're young. Our identities don't determine our politics, but they definitely inform our politics and they inform people's reaction to the politics we share.

I ask you about books because books have been so critical and important to my life, my thinking, my growth and my education. There's something about that process of reading — that can be a real gateway, and can transform your world. What I love about your book club is that you're talking about how you've helped people build community while they've been reading. I think a lot of people don't understand that prison-industrial complex abolition is actually a collective project. People ask me all the time, "What's the world without prisons look like? What is a world without police? Give us the details and give us your imaginary vision." I'm like, "Why are you asking me that?" How is my personal vision going to be the same as somebody in Iowa's vision of that? We are going to have to build it together, and that means we're going to have to argue over stuff. That means we're going to have to create new norms together for how we treat each other when harm occurs. That's going to take everyone.

You attract people to social movements based on a whole bunch of stuff — including aesthetics, including art. All social movements of any sort of import have understood the role of music and song in the collective making of social movements.

Books allow you to have individual imagination, space and a way to develop your politic and what you think and give you new questions. But doing that book club in a collective way, in a communal way, is so amazing because it's about the building of community and the collective making of a thing. And that's what it's going to take, frankly, for us to be able to build the world that we want to build.

Noname: Do you feel that rappers or hip-hop artists have a specific role in creating that community? We bring people together in concert, but it's typically for our own capitalist gain. Do you feel that we have a specific responsibility, especially since we come from communities that are hyper-surveilled and policed?

Mariame Kaba: I do think we all have responsibility to change our world and circumstances. Yes, absolutely, you have a responsibility. I do too, and I'm not a rapper.

It's one thing as artists to actually take part in the civic life of a country and of a world and to be part of organizing — but not everybody's an organizer, and that's OK. The art that gets made is important because it makes us think and feel differently, and because it can help disrupt patterns and old ways of thinking.

It's invaluable — which is why it's saddening to me when I see people with that much skill and ability who choose not to help us do that, for whatever reason.

Noname: Yeah. I just want us to dream a little bit bigger than reform. That's all I'm wanting from us — from hip-hop artists as a community. I think a lot of it is because folks don't have people around them challenging them. Even thinking about what happened with the strike that the NBA was supposed to do, but then they ended up talking to Obama. It's like, "Ugh, if you had just one person in the room who was aware of other ideas and ways of thinking, it would be so helpful."

Mariame Kaba: A big part of where I think sometimes we go wrong in social movement work is that powerful people are not accountable to other people. Powerful people have to — really, I mean, everybody, all of us — we have to practice something called self-accountability, which means constantly asking ourselves what are our values and are we living up to them? And when we're not, shifting our behavior so that we are in alignment with our values.

Part of the difficulty of celebrities and people with power is that, if you aren't already self-regulated enough to listen to people, no one's going to tell you, "You can't just do that." Like, who can go to LeBron except for Obama, another powerful person, and be like, "Do it this way"? Right? So, if you're not tied to a base of folks, if you're not accountable to other people, that's very dangerous.

Noname: I have one question in relation to abolition becoming — I don't want to say mainstream, but a lot more popular. How do you feel about the popularity that it's getting? Do you think it is constructive and fruitful and could lead to something?

Mariame Kaba: I'm stunned, frankly. That's what I keep telling people — when I see people say "abolish police," I'm in shock.

Of course [popularity] is relative — PIC abolition is still deeply unpopular, and it's going to remain unpopular for some time. And that's OK. When I was in rooms, I don't know, ten years ago — and forget about 20 years ago, people thought we were completely bonkers off our mind — but ten years ago, people still also thought we were bonkers for the most part. But this is how I know things shift: when Ferguson happened, and all the demands were about body cameras and things like that — to come to this moment, six years later, and the demand is to defund and abolish police for a significant number of people. I mean, my God, that's incredible to me!

I imagine a whole generation of young people being born in this moment who are going to grow up understanding that the world doesn't have to be this way. We don't have to have prisons, policing and surveillance. When I was growing up, I couldn't have imagined no police and no prisons and no surveillance. It didn't even occur as a possibility. And now the New York Times is talking about it and people are on CNN talking about it. It boggles my mind.

I imagine a whole generation of young people being born in this moment who are going to grow up understanding that the world doesn't have to be this way. We don't have to have prisons, policing and surveillance.

So on the one hand, I just have so much hopefulness. And on the other hand, I'm clear and I understand that we're in a fight, we're in a contest of ideas, and in a contest around resources, in a contest around co-optation, which is always at work, always at work.

There were lots of people who hate me for lots of reasons. And I don't care about them. I care about people who I know and who I have some connection to, who I have some comradeship with, and I really want to work with them. And if they tell me something's off, I'm going to pay much closer attention to that. But I'm earnestly interested in how we get our ideas across to more people so that more people can take those ideas up and challenge them. I want PIC abolition to be challenged by people who are seriously engaging the ideas and say things that I'm like, "Hmm. I didn't think about that before," or, "That's a good point that I need to incorporate into my thinking," or, "Thank you for writing that new thing that had me thinking differently about this concept."

I actually feel super hopeful. I'm somebody who consistently believes that if we act in service of a vision that's liberatory, that we will actually be able to transform our conditions. I believe it in the marrow of my bones. I do. And are there days when I'm despondent because people are a mess? Yes, of course, but I'm always hopeful. I'm always hopeful that after getting a lot of things wrong, we'll come to the right answer.

Noname: I love that. I love thinking about it as like this living, breathing thing that we can expand and challenge and grow with as a politic, as a framework, as a vision for this revolutionary future. Sometimes I think too, when we are able to abolish the prison-industrial complex, I'm hoping that it will also necessitate the abolition of the military-industrial complex.

Mariame Kaba: Absolutely. I tell people all the time: You're not going to be able to end policing without ending capitalism. The prison-industrial complex — the very term has, in part, its roots in the concept of the military-industrial complex. They're in conversation with each other — and we're calling for an end to all carceral regimes, right? Not just cops and prisons. Otherwise, we are going to be reconfiguring carcerality over and over again, and we're going to find ways to constantly be creating violences — not just domestically, but everywhere else. That's why it's so important for people to understand that PIC abolition has to be an internationalist project, as well as an anticapitalist project, as well as a project that is rooted in constantly thinking about concentrated violence across the board.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.