Noname review – the consummate rapper-activist multitasker

Noname review – the consummate rapper-activist multitasker


If Noname, the powerful American rapper, could have her ultimate desire fulfilled, this performance would not simply be another concert in a commercialized rock venue. Instead, it would be a free community event, complete with food trucks, booths for organizations fighting for social change and Black-owned companies, as well as complimentary legal marijuana and a place for attendees to donate empowering books written by people of color to incarcerated individuals. This is exactly what occurred in Fatimah Warner’s hometown of Chicago last year, in honor of the release of her explosive and deeply personal third album, Sundial, which was featured on multiple end-of-year lists in 2023.

However, Noname appears thrilled to be performing at the Apollo, which has a capacity of 5,300 people. She is particularly pleased with the turnout, which is plentiful though not completely sold out. As she requests for the house lights to be turned on, she is amazed at the number of individuals present, enthusiastically singing along to her lyrics.

Warner’s blend of jazz and hip-hop, which explores personal challenges and radical ideas, may be considered a niche genre when compared to the popular Auto-Tuned trap-pop. Additionally, her music has a lushly vintage feel, reminiscent of the neo-Daisy Age. However, her critiques of America’s problems are sharp and timely.

Supported by the energetic live drumming of Greg Paul, Brooke Skye on bass and keyboard, and Cisco Swank as a backing vocalist, Noname moves around on a mostly empty stage in a black dress, knee-high socks, and shoes – a style that rapper Lupe Fiasco might refer to as “all black everything”. Despite her criticisms of Black appropriation, profiting off of trauma, and her ex-partner, she exudes a warmth and friendliness.

Prior to delving into the main themes of her album Sundial, Noname is already becoming more comfortable discussing her topics. She begins with her song Self (2018), which sets the tone for her album and boldly challenges any doubts about her rap skills with the recurring line, “Y’all thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” This line stands in contrast to her quick-paced verses that are full of complex references and open discussions about sexuality. Noname embraces the current “crack era” and uses her vagina as a symbol of empowerment, proving the naysayers wrong. She even jokes about her vagina being a teacher, stating, “My pussy teaching ninth grade English! 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.

Noname on stage in London last week.

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The release of the album was almost cancelled as the artist had abandoned a previous attempt and took a break from music. She felt uneasy about attracting white audiences instead of her intended audience. In an effort to promote works promoting Black liberation, Warner created the Noname Book Club. One of their goals is to provide these books to incarcerated individuals. While not at the same level as Tupac Shakur, who was the child of a Black Panther, Noname’s mother owned her own Afrocentric bookstore – the first Black woman to do so in Chicago.

The name Sundial appears to subtly reference hip-hop’s past focus on time awareness, and potentially Noname’s tendency to throw some shade. One standout moment of this captivating performance is the track Namesake, where Warner pauses the highly infectious beat and passionately recites most of the lyrics in an electrifying a cappella style, similar to a slam poet. She boldly mentions artists like Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Kendrick Lamar, who have all performed at the Super Bowl despite the growing ties between the NFL and the military. She acknowledges the glamorization of war and how it is used as a distraction from reality, stating “we play the game to pass the time.”

Warner’s goal on Sundial is to function as a “black mirror”, not only by condemning racism and capitalism (which she does skillfully), but also by highlighting complacency within her community. She is strategic in her approach, stating to the New Yorker that “I could discuss the industrial complex all day, but people don’t take notice until I mention ‘Rihanna’. Although it’s not right to use these tactics, that’s what captures people’s attention.”

Important to note, she is aware that she also participates in the system and openly acknowledges it. In one part of the song Namesake, she admits to this contradiction – Noname accepts payment to perform at Coachella, despite concerns about the festival’s parent company donating to organizations with conservative beliefs. As she passionately sings on Namesake, she takes a moment to declare “free Palestine!” before skillfully leading the band back in.

Her more vulnerable personal tracks are as just as deft as the more newsworthy rhymes. Often, Warner wants nothing more than to get high to get away from it all. Sex is another pleasurable escape on the frisky Boomboom – although even there, she can’t resist a reference to WEB Du Bois, the early 20th-century pan-Africanist scholar and activist. Beauty Supply, meanwhile, gnashes over Eurocentric beauty standards that she is still buying into.

century artist

It appears that the current era requires a person like Warner, who exudes a similar energy to that of younger siblings of influential figures like Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu. At the same time, Warner is diligently active both in physical and digital spaces, making her the quintessential artist of the 21st century.

Rapper and activist of the 21st century who excels at multitasking. She is known for her frank and humorous nature, but also expresses moments of despair. She is a leader in her community and a young woman who is still navigating through life.