An interview of my (current) favourite public intellectual, Ta-Nehisi Coates. It's everything about his writing experience, fame, living in France versus living in America, criticisms, comparisons, a charming sense of respect and protection of his wife, his relationship with academics, and my favourite - his elevation of hip-hop as a true literary form. Brilliant mind!
Has being in France changed the way you view yourself as an American?
France was the first place where that was the first thing people saw when I talked. It reminds me that the first thing they think in America is, Oh, you’re black. Here, the first thing they think is, You’re American, maybe black American. They’re racist as hell, but the sociology that comes out of slavery is a little different from the sociology that comes out of colonialism. France colonized all sorts of people—Asian people, black people, whoever. So the relationship is a little different. It’s not a good relationship. But America has a very specific thing with black people. Here, the people who get it the worst are actually the Muslims, so it’s not like they’re cured. But slavery did something to America; it did some shit.
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.