By Kevin Clifford
If John Coltrane’s mode of storytelling was his voice instead of saxophone, I like to think he’d aspire to sound something like Noname.
25 year-old Fatimah Warner, known as “Noname”, gave us Necessary Poetry and New Wisdom, Noname Releases Telefone one in July 2016 after features with Chance the Rapper and Mick Jenkins. You could call her a rapper or a singer or both, but she might not approve of either label. Her sibilant voice glistens and lures with off time and near-rhymed phrasing, never forced or over-formulated. Without straying far from her natural speaking register, she sings when tunes need to be sung and speaks when words need to be spoken. Witness this poetry for the 21st century.
Growing up in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, she developed her medium at the YOUmedia Program for Young Creatives at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. Here, she began addressing the growing frustrations and weariness of the black and brown community losing its youth to needless violence. In a deliberately mellow and free-form style, she challenges the in-your-face tactics of many rap artists. Telefone is a meditation on hope. Her humorously anonymous stage-name “Noname” is quite contrary to her cutting individualism and empowered female identity. True to her experience with Chicago as her canvas, she asks you to search her painting for ideas and melodies that bring you comfort and peace in the face of a bleak existence.
Produced in majority by Phoelix and Cam O’bi with SABA and Monte Booker, it is never trying to impress. It simply impresses. With unorthodox uses of twinkling keyboard percussion(marimba, vibraphone, xylophone), J Dilla-esque drum grooves, and repurposed doo-wop harmonies, we are centered onto Noname’s floating stream of consciousness. Phoelix told Senclaire arts blog, “I always hear harmonies in my head, no matter what’s going on around me…” Similarly, Telefone’s harmonic palate glazes itself onto each track with the stroke of impressionism. The genius of the production is that you want to dance and listen at the same time. The music only enhances Noname’s message, never distorting with selfish chops or overtly dissonant chord progressions.
Much like a jazz instrumentalist, she recycles words from the hip-hop tradition and gives them new meaning. On “All I Need,” we are reminded of Mos Def’s “Tomorrow may never come for you Umi. Life is not promised,” on Black on Both Sides’ “Umi Says”. Reminiscently, Noname nods to Islam with the Arabic word for ‘mother’, “This is for my homies; my umi say love.” In “Forever” she says “My druggy is druggy we just some kids out of luck,” much like Chance the Rapper says in “Lost” on which she was featured, “My druggy love me when I’m ugly hug me when I’m bummy, scummy…” Illustrating the paradox of how drugs comfort yet cripple, Chance and Noname share that same knack for recontextualizing words to match the mood of their art.
In the spirit of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly wherein he features an edited conversation with Tupac and references Malcolm X ideologies, her songs resurrect a Nina Simone interview and speak of, “The last time Ali marched Chicago,” acknowledging Muhammad Ali’s devotion to Islam and therefore, his denial to fight in Vietnam leading to the surrendering of his boxing title. We are witnessing a beautiful resurgence of that jazz-turned-hip-hop mentality—striving to honor the past while opening doors to freedom, equality, and individual expression.
Telefone is a sound-diary made public that reveals sacredly personal treasures alongside disturbing truths of life. It intertwines current plights and realities with love and refreshing wisdom. “Reality Check” contemplates seizing opportunity with: “Don’t fear the light that dwells deep within. You are powerful beyond what you imagine.” In “Yesterday”, her deceased grandmother reminds her that fame and fortune matter little, “And I know the money don’t make me whole…The dreams of granny in mansion and happy. The little things I need to save my soul.” This is rare form for a millennial. Practices of positive spirituality are growing scarce in the current materialistic age of Facebook-addiction where true identities are filtered, eloquence is replaced by emoji’s, and ‘likes’ are valued more than a deep breath or glimpse at the sky.
Noname is intent on living eternally through the honesty of her music and she couldn’t be clearer as on “Forever”.
“They ain’t tryna to see me shine, shine
Bullet on my time, time
But fuck it, I’ll live forever.”
I will have the pleasure of seeing her perform at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on March 1st during her Telefone tour. Fortunately for her, but unfortunately for her newest fans, the majority of her tour is already sold out!