“I’d like to be quieter. I think I’d like to be quieter and let the work speak for itself.”

This Playboy interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates is really, really good. I saw Coates be interviewed at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco a few months ago, and he really has a unique ability to distill profound truths into clear, bell-like language (with the perfect amount of profanity).

A few of my favorite excerpts:

What role does hip-hop play in your work?
I always considered myself a failed MC. That was what I really wanted to do. I was listening to that old Quincy Jones album Back on the Block. Big Daddy Kane says, “Back up and give the brother room to let poetry bloom to whom it might concern or consume.” I heard that and thought, Good God, there’s so much in that. It’s the kind of faux majesty of it, “to whom.” It’s actually really regal. I heard something like that as a kid, and it was like these cats were taking the language from its inventors and retrofitting it to explain their reality. Nas didn’t need to go to Harvard, or even Howard, to become masterful in the use of language. I think great rappers, because of how stuff is structured, really understand on an intuitive level how to get across as much information as possible in the smallest amount of space.

In terms of literary inspirations, hip-hop’s got to be number one, and I’m talking above actual literature. Aesthetically, it defines how I try to write. You really have to think hard about every single word. Probably a hundred years from now people will look back on something like Illmatic, some of that Wu-Tang stuff, some of the Kendrick stuff, some of the other stuff, and they’re just going to be like, “Holy hell.” You’re talking some of the greatest wordsmiths of our age.

Does the fact that these things keep happening make you question the utility of your work?
No, because you have no control over that. Ida B. Wells went all through the South, reporting on lynchings and everything. Nothing changed, not in her lifetime. If nothing ever changes, that does not relieve me of the responsibility to tell the truth as I see it.

Some would make the argument that you have become the voice on these issues. How does that make you feel?

It makes me sad that people don’t read more black writers. I want the notion of there having to be “the voice” for black folks completely obliterated. There is no one voice on climate change. There’s no one person on sports. I think that allows for a kind of laziness among nonblack people who don’t want to read other people’s shit. 


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