(Noname live at First Ave, January 25, 2019)
For the record, I’m a 48-year-old white dude. While I was first introduced to hip hop at the age of 13 or 14 (through the movie Beat Street--I was wearing windsuits and back- spinning on cardboard almost immediately after seeing the movie), Noname was my first legitimate hip hop show. Ever.
Sure, I’d absorbed the rib-rattling bass thunder of Run The Jewels opening for Lorde (still awed at that particular pairing), and I’d caught an in-store performance by Minneapolis MC Greg Grease with DJ Just Nine at Electric Fetus on Record Store Day, but Noname at First Avenue in Minneapolis on January 25 was the first show dedicated solely to a hip hop artist.
My introductory hip hop phase didn’t last real long back in the mid-’80s. For decades I had minimal exposure to hip hop artists, only what leaked through the whiteout of MTV and made people move on the dance floor at the college bars. I’ve made a late-in- life return to hip hop within the last three years or so, sparked by building with some amazing Chicago poets and educators (Young Chicago Authors), who inspired me to dig into hip hop history, spoken word poetry, and Black literature. I became a diligent student of hip hop: reading nonfiction books, watching documentaries (always with a notepad and pen in-hand), and amassing a large collection of (mostly used) hip hop CD’s I’d read or heard about along the way.
Every morning for the last three years I’ve listened to hip hop on my 35-minute drive to teach high school English. My tastes run old-school. Public Enemy served as my main ambassador during the re-entry phase, clearing the path for BDP, Digable Planets, The Roots, Redman, Eric B & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, Geto Boys, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def. Through Twitter I came to know of more modern artists like Chance the Rapper, Saba, Smino, and, of course, Noname. Telefone pretty much redefined what hip hop could sound like for me. I was enthralled. Still am, so when I saw that she was playing only two hours away at First Ave (when you’ve grown up and still live in rural northwestern Wisconsin, “local” takes on a whole new meaning), I bought a single ticket as soon as I could. (I already mentioned I live in rural, northwestern Wisconsin. Not too many hip hop heads in my friendship circle.)
Leaving my wife and daughter at the hotel, I walked several blocks through the face-numbing Minneapolis winter winds to First Avenue. I grew up listening to Prince on the radio. I’ve seen Purple Rain multiple times. I’ve attended dozens of shows at First Ave and 7th Street Entry since 1990. I know the significance of the place, so I was incredibly excited to see Noname at this legendary venue. Still, I was nervous. Even my students chuckled a little when I told them what I was doing Friday night. Would I get side looks from true fans wondering why a 48-year-old white dude would even show up at a Noname show? Would I stand out like a jacket-holding grandpa waiting by the claw machine at a roller rink? Would there be many other white people there? Despite my middle-aged, white insecurities, as I entered First Ave, my most burning question was actually, Will there be any Telefone vinyl left?
I tucked my record and free poster under my arm shortly after doors opened at 8 PM, staked out my position behind the balcony railing adjacent to the lighting booth, and tried to become invisible. Just two people down from me sat another white dude who was at least as old as me (though much cooler, I’m sure). The floor began to fill, and I kept thinking, Do only white people show up this early?
Promptly at 9 PM, the screen rose on the main stage, and opening act Elton started his set. With youthful enthusiasm and abundant energy, Elton successfully hyped up the crowd--arms in the air, hands waving, bodies bouncing, and “making some noise.” A friend told me hip hop shows are always awkward, so I didn’t think too much of my own discomfort at not knowing exactly how to react to or interact with Elton’s onstage antics. I just wanted to follow a mentor’s advice and “Shut the fuck up and listen.”
During the change-over, the floor filled to capacity: a sold-out First Ave is an energizing sight. Still, I kept wondering, Where are all the Black people? And then the realization hit me: We’re in fucking downtown Minneapolis. As diverse as the Twin Cities may seem, downtown Minneapolis is still very white.
Noname’s incredibly tight band began laying down a solid groove that remained rock steady all night. Listening to digital downloads of Noname didn’t prepare me for her playful stage presence. In a long, black, floral skirt, black boots, and a thick, mustard sweater, Noname could just as easily have been walking into an English classroom instead of onto First Ave’s main stage. The fact that I was NOT in a school became abundantly clear, however,when several overpowering whisps of weed smoke wafted my way. Noname’s big smiles and sometimes child-like shuffling to the music created a whimsical atmosphere ofmusical and lyrical bliss. I was enthralled. (Still am.)
After several smooth songs and one brief, mid-verse interruption to ask if the crowd could even hear her words (they were a bit muffled), Noname paused, shaded her eyes from the spotlight, peered into the crowd and commented, “Damn there’s a lot of white people out there!” Seemingly unfazed, she dropped back into her rhymes and finished out the night with the crowd fully engaged...well, except for the chatty frat boy next to me wearing his silent girlfriend like a loose flannel, and the oversized, vociferous hipster dudes directly behind me. (Seriously, why the fuck do you people even go to shows? Shut the fuck up and listen!)
Standing outside the main doors afterwards, I bundled back up and prepared for the frigid several-block walk back to my hotel. I overheard several people comment about how short the show was. At far less than two hours, I could see their point; however, I also noted (in my head) that Noname has only two albums out, both filled with songs that often seem pretty short already. Plus, as a 48-year-old white school teacher, I was totally OK getting into bed before midnight, especially on a cold-ass January night in Minneapolis.