This piece was written for the KCRW music documentary podcast Lost Notes. This season, the poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib explores a single year: 1980 - the brilliant, awkward and sometimes heartbreaking opening to a monumental decade in popular music. You can find all the episodes from Lost Notes: 1980 here.
For those familiar with prior seasons of Lost Notes, you may know Hanif’s name and voice from his episode on Cat Power in Season Two. Even in the context of an eclectic anthology series such as ours, Hanif’s piece was uncommonly personal and risk-taking in form and perspective. His reflection on Chan Marshall’s magnum opus, “The Greatest,” seemed to land at a fresh intersection of poetics and music criticism. The piece used voicemails from anonymous Cat Power fans as a chorus of personal histories that reflected back on Hanif’s own. By forgoing the usual documentary tropes - the drab march of talking heads, archival tape, etc. - Hanif’s story engaged with the emotional history of a piece of music. This moving and innovative approach made him an obvious choice to helm our third season. Thankfully for us, he agreed.
Hanif, creator/executive producer Nick White, and I set to work in January 2020, joined several months later by KCRW’s intrepid USC-Luminary fellow, Victoria Alejandro. As the year wore on, and with it the unfurling of our country’s various cataclysmic upheavals, Hanif refined his stories to reflect and comment on them in real time. His piece about a pioneering hip-hop album became, in part, a contemplation on what we’ve lost along with the shared communion of dancing. He transformed the well-worn legend of an iconic frontman’s death into a requiem for his own long-lost friends, their voices fading into time. Another story reckoned with the impossibility of bringing those voices back to life, through the critical lens of a pop singer’s (failed) posthumous album.
But, haunted as they can be, Hanif’s stories equally demonstrate how the long arm of hope can gently guide us back to the living. He explains how Stevie Wonder’s anthem for Martin Luther King, Jr., became the de facto soundtrack for generations of private celebrations and public struggles in Black life. He recounts how a homecoming concert for two South African activist-musicians disrupted a decades-long cycle of state-sponsored violence. And his commentary on the transformation of Grace Jones shows how Black women often lead the charge to create a future that may be unimaginable in their own time.
For those who subscribe to a more literal reading of our show’s name, this year’s slate of subjects may not appear to be very “lost” at all: 40 years on, Lennon, Stevie, Grace, Joy Division and others are all unquestionably part of pop’s firmament. But one aspect of Hanif’s genius is his ability to locate the emotional world of a story that may otherwise feel worn to its last thread. Who else in 2020 could have a fresh take on Lennon’s otherworldly fame; Grace’s icy/fiery persona; Ian Curtis’s ill-fated legacy; Stevie Wonder’s obsessive reinvention?
In his career as a poet and cultural critic, Hanif has stood before many such musical touchstones, noisy with their own internal upheavals and machinations, and leaned into them with resolute stillness. The result is a series of seven meditations on music and meaning which are unlike anything else I’ve encountered in the documentary sphere. Hanif has breathed humanity into a year, and a decade, which heretofore has been reflexively reduced to cheap and cheesy nostalgia. And in so doing, he has returned 1980 to us full-blooded, with our ears attuned to its still-beating heart. May these stories fill your soul.