On Thursday, June 18th, Noname released “Song 33” in collaboration with producer Madlib. The single is barely over a minute long, wasting no time and pulling no punches regarding J. Cole—although unnamed—in response to the blatant sexism of the single he dropped earlier this week. Twitter has reached the consensus that his track is about the Chicago rapper herself, who has doubled down on her advocacy for prison and police abolition, Black liberation, and anti-capitalism.
“It’s something about that queen tone that bothers me,” he raps, who later on demands that Noname—the presumed subject of the song—do the job of educating him.
J. Cole’s single, by the way, isn’t worth your time. So I’ll save you the trouble and redirect you to the words of Alphonse Pierre, who summed up the “passive-aggressive, finger-wagging” track’s message: “Damn, you’re smart, but why not be a little nicer about it?”
“He really ‘bout to write about me when the world is in smokes? When it’s people in trees?” wonders Noname aloud on “Song 33.” In the midst of continued institutional violence against Black communities, he chose to put down Noname for being vocal and informed.
Noname is no stranger to criticism herself. Around this time last year, Twitter practically dragged her through the mud for tweeting in favor of Black capitalism. Instead of lashing out, she listened. Later that summer she tweeted about reading Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi. A couple tweets later, the Noname Book Club was born.
From Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed to Fariha Róisín’s How to Cure a Ghost, the monthly picks are a reflection of the book club’s premise to center BIPOC voices. The club’s ethos goes beyond the readings; the completely crowdfunded organization actively supports Black-owned bookstores and public libraries across the country and encourages its members to do the same. It declared January 11th, 2020 “National Fuck Amazon Day” and called on club members to register for a library card instead. This year, the book club started sending monthly picks to prisons in different cities.
I started following the book club on Twitter a couple months ago, but became an active member when I picked up Sabrina and Corina from my local library in January. In early February, I went to my first local meetup at the Sankofa Bookstore in D.C. I’d never been in a book club before, so I had no idea what it was like to discuss reading outside of school. The room was full of Black and brown faces—something I’d never seen in a classroom. Folks were welcome to speak as little or as much as they pleased, passing a mic around a small gathering of about 20 people surrounded by bookshelves. I was happy to sit and listen as readers reflected on that month’s picks. The discussion flowed around revolution, race, and colorism among a myriad of other topics I’d never discussed in real-life spaces. The meetup ended with a picture. Everyone who felt comfortable huddled together—it was a simpler time back then—and held up their books. Afterwards, we helped put the foldable chairs away. I left Sankofa with a copy of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (one of the February picks) and a sense of tangible, genuine community.
I haven’t been able to keep up with all the picks, and there’s plenty for me to catch up on, but I’m reading. I’m reading books that decenter whiteness. I’m reading from academics, activists, poets, and visionaries that I was never exposed to in my public school education. I’m reading texts that solidify and shape my burgeoning fervor for anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and prison abolition. Whatever I read from Noname’s book club is exciting, illuminating, and always worth my time. When I finish one book, I know what to read next.
Unlike the dozens of reading lists on anti-racism and prison abolition that have been cropping up on everyone’s feeds, the Noname Book club not only offers consistent material every month, but has created digital and IRL spaces for BIPOC to be energized about reading.
“We democratizin’ Amazon, we burn down borders,” declares Noname on the closing bars of “Song 33,” beckoning folks to imagine a different, better world than the one we have now. Her book club demonstrates that education goes beyond classrooms, and any community can foster inclusive, radical learning environments. As the song runs out she repeats, “This a new vanguard, this a new vanguard.”
By Sarah Mae Dizon