Noname’s Fearless Complexity

Talking politics, sex, and radical human engagement with the rapper around the recent block party she organized to celebrate community, activism, and her brilliant new album, Sundial.
Noname at the Sundial Block Party in Chicago on August 17, 2023

Noname looks elated as she snaps pics of girls double-dutching in the middle of the block party she is throwing at her own expense. The neon-clad jump-ropers, part of a local mentoring organization that strives to mold proud and self-sufficient young women, are exhibiting their talents to hundreds of enthralled onlookers when a tiny girl in braids, about 7 or 8 years old, gets down into a plank position and hops over the rope from there—a superhuman feat that prompts awed screams.

Noname, 32, cheers for the jumpers alongside the crowd here in Bronzeville, on the South Side of Chicago, the neighborhood where she grew up and learned to bend language into layers. Wearing a vintage zipper dress in a blue-and-purple floral pattern, black biker shorts, and roadworn canary-yellow Chuck Taylors, the event’s headlining performer blends into the scene—sort of. As she weaves through the party, her fans grin behind her as she passes. The free event is going down in a vacant lot across from the One Stop Food and Liquors, where Noname used to pick up groceries. Now, she’s depicted in its parking lot on a mural that she can see from the stage. The giant painting connects storied local icons including Muddy Waters, Mary Lane, Buddy Guy to present ones like Noname and Chance the Rapper, alongside a laudatory quote: “The sound of raw emotion and vulnerability.”

Noname, whose name is Fatimah Nyeema Warner, is the reason everyone’s here together on a gorgeous Thursday in August. They’re celebrating her transformative new album, Sundial, lining up for free champagne and pre-rolls; dancing, laughing, eating; talking with people at tables full of literature for activist community organizations like Assata’s Daughters, the Black Alliance for Peace, and Mental Health Meets Hip-Hop. A bouncy castle undulates near a coloring station where small children draw pictures. “There’s a horse in the back!” effuses the block party’s emcee, J Bambii aka Oprah Gucci, from the stage, during one of the most surreal moments of the day. There are indeed two horses in the back, brought by the local cowboy collective Broken Arrow Riding Club, ready to be petted on their muzzles by fawning kids.

Further down the street, a tween girl spends the entire day learning to skateboard with the help of folks from the froSkate, a collective that centers women and queer shredders of color. The girl teeters on the deck, as the bleach-blonde Latina who’s teaching her offers her arm for balance. As I chat with Karlie Thornton, froSkate’s progenitor, the girl hugs the waist of her instructor protectively, like you might to a camp counselor-turned-temporary mom.

The sun gleams with late summer perfection on the beautiful crowd, mostly Black and Latine, and vastly diverse in age—including one elderly woman using a walker, who giggles as the security lady gestures at gently frisking her. Along with being a Noname concert, the event is the platonic ideal of a neighborhood block party: communal joy, reveling in the experience of simply being outside. There are no big-name brands or corporate sponsors on display, save for fellow Chicago-raised rapper Vic Mensa’s weed company 93 Boyz, which is providing the free herb.

Noname spends the day smiling and chatting in the crowd and backstage, surrounded by friends and fans, emitting the nervy ebullience of a party host who hopes her attendees are happy. The Sundial Block Party is the culmination of everything she’s been working towards for the past several years, something that fuses her artistic imprimatur with radical human engagement. “I want to do block parties in different cities as a way to just have free shows where I can bridge the two worlds that I’m really into—the community organizing and the music—especially since I’ve struggled to do only one or the other,” she tells me later. “Like, how do we apply political ideologies in the real world to actually move towards liberation?” As in her music, she is pensive and realistic, speaking carefully as she thinks herself towards pragmatic solutions. “I mean, a free show is not going to dismantle the state. It’s not a revolution. I am aware of its limitations. I’m definitely more of a musician than anything else.… But it’s my attempt to have, I guess they call it, like, praxis?”

Since 2019, praxis has been the focus. Her prior releases—2018’s Room 25 and 2016’s Telefone—established her as one of the fiercest and most intriguing rappers working today, with an artistic palette that was both self-searching and outwardly critical. But Noname’s attention seemed to divert from music after she began her eponymous book club on a lark in 2019. What started as a stoned tweet has blossomed into a national movement with chapters across the U.S., a program to send books to incarcerated people, and a community space in Los Angeles’ Jefferson Park neighborhood that is called, and functions as, a Radical Hood Library. (The block party’s suggested entry fee was a book by a Black author to be donated to their books-to-prisons program; they ended up collecting about 500.)

Still, if Noname’s book club changed the trajectory of her life, inspiring her to enact socialist politics in a meaningful way, some of its chosen authors have felt it too. Myriam Gurba, whose searing memoir Mean was one of Noname’s first book club picks in 2020, says the honor was both artistically and politically validating—that her choice to use humor as a protective force in her writing about sexual violence, which had been criticized in reviews, was recognized by the book club as worth exploring. “I love the concept of a book club that’s sort of the anti-neoliberal book club. It’s really heartening to see book clubs taking a much more radical turn, as opposed to like, ‘rosé and chill.’”

As the book club grew, releases were scarce, though one-offs including 2020’s “Song 33”—a response to a J.Cole diss track that attempted to redirect the conversation to Toyin Salau, George Floyd, and the movement for Black lives—and 2021’s trenchant “Rainforest,” only the made demand for an album that much stronger.

Noname began what was supposed to be her third full-length, a planned polemic about communism and socialism called Factory Baby, in the waning days of pandemic isolation, but ended up scrapping the concept entirely. “I guess I just wasn’t interested in making an album that was going to be specifically just about politics,” she reflects. “Even though Sundial kind of is too, it’s more about the internal conversation that happens within the Black community.” Visualizing Sundial as a casual mixtape rather than a highly conceived project helped her to get loose and creative again. “I was really just having fun with it,” she says. “I see it as a way to get me back out there in terms of people remembering that I make music.”

When she hits the stage at the Sundial Block Party, she waves humbly, like a friend who hasn’t seen you in awhile, but her charisma befits someone who’s operating from a new font of strength: relaxed, confident, with a brilliant grin. “Come on—clap, clap!” she giggles. “It’s a block party! I dropped an album! I need some love!” The couple thousand people in the crowd roar, and she swerves through songs that grapple with leftist melancholy, with searching for hope in the face of anti-Black oppression, with finding beauty in dancing as the world burns. She performs, for the first time, Sundial’s “namesake,” a song about love and wealth distribution and everyone’s messy culpability, encouraging the audience to chant the chorus while doing a little bop with her feet, physical syncopation keeping time with her intricate rhymes. Noname embraces paradox with the openness of a philosopher, and part of her appeal—the part that elides preachiness—is that it can feel like you’re growing right alongside her. Her humanness grabs your hand and runs.

Just as the sun starts to set, casting an orange ombre light behind her, Noname begins “oblivion,” Sundial’s final track, which sounds like a battle rap for the apocalypse: “When the world blow up, that’s it,” goes the chorus. “Spinning into oblivion/Motherfucker I don’t care, I’ma talk my shit.” Her band is deep in the pocket when 51-year-old Grammy-, Oscar-, and Emmy-winner Common, who features on the song, emerges from the back in a bandanna-print matching set and gives Noname a hug. Everyone loses their shit: It’s an important moment for Chicago, to see their South Side prodigal son return at a free block party—and also to see an established elder statesman stand solid alongside one of its younger stars.

“When I first heard Noname, I thought, This MC is bringing something that I’ve always loved in hip-hop,” Common tells me later. “Her music had a poetry to it, but it was abstract, so it made me think about what I love about De La Soul or Ghostface—artists who you gotta decipher. To do that, you gotta be dope. She’s one of the more stellar rappers of this generation.”

A couple of days later, I meet up with Noname on the North Side, just a few hours before a planned guest appearance at Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap anniversary show, where she will perform for an arena filled with more than 20,000 people. She’s trying to juggle a schedule of family, friends, and her own shows before heading back to L.A., where she’s lived for the past seven years, so we grab a couple of plastic chairs outside at a Mexican restaurant near a club where her friend is performing, and barely sip the margaritas we are compelled to order for the privilege of sitting there.

She’s still nearly giddy off the high of the block party, a feat she actualized alongside event organizer Allyson Scrutchens. They had to enlist the help of a district alderman to even obtain the permit, which came through the morning of the event. The whole thing was a massive undertaking—it was pulled together in just four weeks, with many other people from the neighborhood calling to offer their support and services—but she’s not flossy about it. Noname eschews the sort of fame that can accompany musicians of her talent, both because she is innately private and because fame presumes hierarchy.

On Sundial, no one is above or below—except, perhaps, during the three minutes an ex is subject to some withering bars like “quiet as kept, yo, your dick is mid” on the searing lullaby “toxic.” This means that when Noname raps critically, she points her barbs selfward, too. Her critiques are more about inquiry, as she unveils a self-portrait of a woman attempting to navigate a fucked-up web of systems while also simply just living her life. “I was trying to show the complexities of myself a bit more unapologetically than I have in the past,” she says. “My approach in the writing and recording was just a little more…” She pauses to think. “Fearless, I would say.”

On “namesake,” Noname explores the way capitalism keeps everyone under its thumb, including a memorable stanza in which she names past Super Bowl performers, including Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar, while pointing out the NFL’s dirty union with the military industrial complex. “Go Beyoncé go, watch the fighter jet fly high,” she raps acerbically. “War machine gets glamorized, we play the game to pass the time.” (It calls to mind the old Noam Chomsky quote about professional sports as a form of indoctrination.) She ends the song by admitting her own culpability, too, for playing the capitalist bonanza that is Coachella despite promising herself she wouldn’t.

As her full margarita glass collects sweat on the table, she explains that she performed at the California mega-festival so she could afford to throw the block party later, which was funded from her savings and the marketing budget from her deal with the distribution company AWAL. “It for sure set me all the way back," she laughs. “That’s a video I could have shot, but I was just like, ‘All right, let’s just do this.’” She adds that since the marketing money came from her advance, AWAL will still need to recoup it through sales and streams of Sundial. “It’s not like it’s free money. I want to start having more conversations about that kind of stuff publicly, so more artists who are coming up can see the behind-the-scenes of what this is.”

Transparency is a theme on Sundial, as is the idea of connection at a human level, with imperfection as a feature. “Pretty much everybody I mention on the album—I’m inspired by these people. I’ve been fans of their work, I admire some of the things that they’ve done.” In addition to the slate of pop stars she called out by name, she alludes to a line from “hold me down,” a gospel-backed track that kicks off the album’s theme of, she says, “Black accountability”: “We is Wakanda, we Queen Rwanda/First Black president and he the one who bombed us.”

Contemplating her process, she adds, “I don’t think people are evil, even Obama. I don’t necessarily believe in good and bad, so because I don’t see humans in that binary, it opens me up to being able to make certain critiques without it being that deep.” Her broader social critiques are valid, and the bold names serve as a way to engage listeners in the deeper messages she packs in every verse. “The album is really just a look at Blackness, Black culture, our community, and how we’ve contributed [to causing harm] in some ways, and how sometimes it’s uncomfortable to have that conversation.”

One conversation that exploded before Sundial was even released was about “balloons”—specifically the inclusion of Jay Electronica. The elusive MC has been criticized for past tweets and verses with antisemitic tropes, so seeing his name next to hers raised eyebrows, especially in an era in which hate crimes against both Jewish people and Black people have risen. Once the song was released, it became more contentious: Jay’s verse references controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the Rothschild family, whose historical wealth is a frequent target of antisemitic conspiracy theories (Jay dated Kate Rothschild for a couple of years in the 2010s). The hubbub also, unfortunately, overshadowed Noname’s verses on an otherwise excellent song that is, in part, about the way some white fans consume Black pain: “Casual white fans, who invented the voyeur?/Fascinated with mourning, they hope the trauma destroy her,” she raps.

“We do need to have a conversation in the Black community about antisemitism and why it’s running rampant or why we feel comfortable with certain aspects of the Nation,” Noname recently told the Triibe. “It’s like, how are we going to be in the room and even have these conversations if we’re not willing to be in the room with certain kinds of people.” As the Jay chatter heated up online, Noname posted on Instagram that she is not antisemitic, but would neither apologize for a verse she didn’t write, nor for including it.

Besides, she explains at the Mexican restaurant, social media is a trap. “I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to so many different ways of thinking and so many different communities from just opening up and being vulnerable enough to do that,” she says matter-of-factly. “But at the same time, when you are growing on the internet, people have a vested stake in that growth because they feel like they were literally a part of it, and in some ways they were. That is sort of hard now, because I’m at a place in my career where I’m not really as comfortable apologizing to a blank slate of internet strangers the way that I used to. Not to say that I wouldn’t again, but I’m more interested in tangible, real-life people that have an interest in me becoming better.”

Later on, Noname adds that she was more anticipating commentary about songs like “beauty supply,” a meditation on her relationship with her own hair that works as a critique of Eurocentric beauty standards. “Set aside my own standard and really demand hers,” she raps. “Silly and absurd, wearin’ a fur cap wig hat/And then preach ‘I love everything Black.’”

She was unsure how other Black women might take her message. “There’s a lot of songs that exist where Black women are loving and singing proudly about their natural hair,” she says, “and I was like, What would be my version of that song, from an honest place? I struggle with loving my natural hair, like, wearing it out freely.” The conundrum, though, is feeling good about supporting Black hair businesses, even while participating in “a loop that continuously promotes Eurocentric beauty standards,” she says. “Part of it is about the contradictions of wanting to disengage from an exploitative system, but needing it in some ways or even desiring things that come from it and feeling guilty about that.” It’s refreshing to hear an artist grappling with such contradictions when conspicuous consumption is still the lingua franca of so much aspirational rap and pop music. Noname’s aspirations seem to be thinking through solutions to everyday problems, which positions her on an even playing field with her listeners.

On the album, Noname often sneaks in one-liners between her headiest thoughts, so it might get lost how funny she is. I ask her about my favorite lyric from “oblivion,” a madcap diss that lands in an unlikely corner: “I’m that bitch, you sound like cat piss on popcorn.” She says the original line was “you smell” like cat piss, but after she recorded multiple takes, the best one had “sound,” so it stayed.

She wrote “oblivion” and “potentially the interlude,” a ferocious track about her desire to be accepted as she is now, on the same day. “People say they love you, but they really love potential,” she snarls on the latter track’s chorus. “Not the person that’s in front of you, the person you’ll grow into.” The song explores the idea that if she were prettier, or rolled more like Kendrick, she'd be happier and more successful. When she barks the line “I don’t give no fuck,” you can visualize her, middle fingers up, in a fight stance.

“I sent two people whose opinions I really, really value an earlier version of the album, which I was so confident was amazing, and they basically told me it was just kind of OK,” she says, talking about the song’s origins. "My ego was definitely very bruised!” One of her confidantes told her the production sounded like it could be “beefed up a little bit,” and it all lit the proverbial fire. “Ego, man! It’s not good, but it is!” Noname laughs. “It put me in a very bitchy mood, and so I just translated that into music—and the project is better for it.”

Noname has sometimes been painted as a beacon due to her activist work and socialist politics, but it’s a flat way of looking at someone who chose rap as a profession. On the playful “boomboom,” for instance, she raps lines like, “I don’t smoke cigarettes but I lick cigars, and that’s on god,” exploring more of the sensuality that emerged on Room 25. “I was thinking: What would revolutionary Black love sound like if it could be still cheeky and sexual?” she says of the song. “That’s why I was referencing things like W.E.B. Dubois, trying to keep it framed in the same ethos of Black liberation, but from a sexual context—Black sexual liberation.” She giggles. “Honestly, I need to work on that because I’ve noticed I tend to tie in something sexual into pretty much anything? That’s a testament to my brain—I’m pretty much only thinking about politics and sex. At least in the recent. Been single for a minute,” she laughs, her voice jokingly weary. The struggle is real.

Sundial’s cover is by the young digital artist Frank Dorrey, and appears to be a recreation of a sculpture on exhibit in the Smithsonian Hall of Human Origins, based on an interpretation of the face of an ancient human. It’s got hoop earrings and purple lipstick, and a stray graying hair is being held aloft in the cosmos by what appears to be a goldfish, or maybe a tiny mermaid. “I think it’s a mermaid?” Noname chuckles. “I’m not sure?”

She discovered the painting on social media. “I thought of the person in the picture as a different version of me in a different dimension,” she says. The album’s opening song, “black mirror,” is an ode to that alternate-version Noname, from the perspective of this one. She recites the lyrics to explain: “That’s why it’s like, She’s a shadow walker, moon stalker, Black author. It’s just stream-of-consciousness wordplay alluding to whatever she is—genderless, probably in outer space, just kind of vague and weird.”

The song is a double entendre and testament to Noname’s creativity. But even deep in her subconscious, it betrays an inherent kind of optimism: for the new worlds she’s creating, and those she one day hopes to.