If Noname, the sharp-witted American rapper, could have her ultimate desire, this performance would not just be another concert at a commercial rock venue, but a free community event. It would feature food trucks, booths for activist organizations and Black-owned companies, as well as complimentary marijuana and a place for attendees to contribute impactful books written by people of color for those incarcerated. This is exactly what took place in Fatimah Warner’s hometown of Chicago last year, in honor of her provocative and intimate third album, Sundial, which was featured on multiple year-end lists in 2023.
However, Noname appears to be very happy to be performing at the Apollo with a capacity of 5,300 people – especially due to the large turnout (although not completely sold out). As she requests for the lights to be turned on, she is amazed by the number of individuals present, eagerly singing along to her songs.
Warner’s jazz-inflected hip-hop about personal struggle and radical thought could seem quite a niche affair, compared with the Auto-Tuned juggernaut that is mainstream trap-pop. Not only that: her sound feels luxuriantly retro, even neo-Daisy Age at its breeziest. But her dissections of America’s ills are incisive and up to the minute.
Supported by the energetic live drums of Greg Paul, Brooke Skye on bass and keys, and Cisco Swank as backing vocalist, Noname dances around a mostly empty stage in a black dress, black knee socks, and black shoes – what rapper Lupe Fiasco might refer to as “all black everything”. She exudes warmth and friendliness, while also passionately criticizing the appropriation of Black culture, profiting off of trauma, and her past relationship.
Before delving into the heart of Sundial, Noname is already becoming more comfortable with her topics. She starts off with her song Self (2018), which serves as a declaration of her purpose. Its main line – “Y’all thought a girl couldn’t rap, huh?” – sharply contrasts with her quick-paced verses that are filled with references and frank discussions of sexuality. In this “crack era”, her vagina is proving the doubters wrong. She proudly proclaims, “My pussy is like a ninth grade English teacher! My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism!”
Sundial itself is perhaps Noname’s best work yet, with some reservations – principally the inclusion on the album of a guest verse by rapper Jay Electronica that seems to contain antisemitic tropes, and in which he allies himself with highly controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
She almost didn’t release the album; she abandoned her previous attempt and took a break from music due to discomfort in attracting predominantly white audiences instead of her intended audience. Warner created the Noname Book Club with the goal of promoting works of Black liberation, including getting them to those who are incarcerated. Noname may not have the same level of influence as Tupac Shakur, who was the son of a Black Panther, but Warner’s mother owned and operated her own Afrocentric bookstore, making her the first Black woman in Chicago to do so.
The name “Sundial” may be a subtle reference to hip-hop’s long-standing focus on time and Noname’s tendency to throw shade. One of the standout moments of this captivating performance is when Warner pauses during the song “Namesake” and delivers most of it as a powerful a cappella, reminiscent of a slam poet. She calls out specific names, including Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Kendrick Lamar – all artists who have performed at the Super Bowl despite the NFL’s increasing ties to the military. “The glorification of war is used for entertainment, we participate to pass the time,” she observes.
Warner’s goal on Sundial is to function as a “black mirror”, not only to expose and criticize racism and capitalism (which she does effectively), but also to challenge apathy within her community. She is shrewd in her approach, stating to the New Yorker that “I could discuss the industrial complex endlessly, but people don’t pay attention until I mention ‘Rihanna’. It’s not right to have to use those tactics, but that’s what gets people’s attention.”
Importantly, the artist acknowledges that she also participates in the industry and openly admits to it. In one section of the song “Namesake,” she confesses to this contradictory behavior – performing at Coachella for financial gain, even though the festival’s parent company has been criticized for supporting conservative organizations. As she passionately expresses her frustrations on “Namesake,” she takes a moment to shout “free Palestine!” before smoothly transitioning back to performing with her band.
Her sensitive personal expressions are just as skillful as her more publicized lyrics. Warner often turns to drugs as a means of escape. Sex is another enjoyable form of distraction on the lively Boomboom, but even then she mentions WEB Du Bois, the pan-Africanist scholar and activist from the early 1900s. In Beauty Supply, she expresses frustration with Eurocentric beauty ideals that she still conforms to.
-century global citizen
It appears that the current era requires an individual like Warner, who exudes the same energy as a younger sister to influential icons like Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu. At the same time, she is actively involved both in the physical world and online, embodying the characteristics of a modern, global citizen in the 21st century.–
The individual is a multi-talented rapper and activist of the 21st century. She is known for her honesty and humor, but also for moments of hopelessness. She takes on roles as a leader in her community while also navigating her own journey as a young woman.