Reconciling Sorrow with Grace in Noname’s ‘Telefone’

When I remember memories don’t last forever When I deny my empty with an open […]

Jason Thompson / 12.13.19

When I remember memories don’t last forever
When I deny my empty with an open letter
Who gon remember me?
My satellite, my empathy
The wheels be chrome, chrome spiffy, the Lord with me
My halo said goodbye and the floor hit me
Fill the lining in the pine box, my granny fill the time slot
“Don’t grow up too soon
Don’t blow the candles out
Don’t let them cops get you”
My granny almost Sparrow I can see the wings
The choir sings
And la da di la di da da da, dah
Only he can save my soul

And I know the money don’t really make me whole
The magazine covers drenched in gold
The dreams of granny in mansion and happy
The little things I need to save my soul

– Noname, “Yesterday”

Themes of salvation and death pervade the lyrical styling of Chicago-based rapper Noname’s 2016 mixtape Telefone. I chanced upon her music via an NPR Tiny Desk concert, and I have to say, I was almost immediately hooked. More reminiscent of hiphop progenitors Last Poets & Gil Scott-Heron than she is of her mainstream pop contemporaries Megan Thee Stallion or Cardi B, Noname weaves into her art form the cadence of slam poetry while maintaining the eclectic neo-soul nuances of the likes of Jill Scott or India Arie. Each verse is densely packed with a stream-of-consciousness flow of metaphors and allusions to everything from social justice to love to a penchant for the nostalgic reminiscing of days long gone yet hauntingly resident in the soul’s memory. 

What struck me about “Telefone” in particular was the cover art in which we see a painted portrait of the artist framed against a bouquet of flowers on her right side…while a skull rests upon her head. The casually macabre imagery reflects the manner in which her songs remain unafraid of discussing death or, more specifically, of treating death as not only a foregone conclusion for everyone involved in the human experience, but as an integrated, assumed aspect of daily living. Her song “Casket Pretty” seamlessly blends the transcendent, the beautiful, and the morbid as Noname narrates a personal dialog/vignette/social commentary on the grim reality of urban violence and police brutality, particularly in Black communities. She talks from the very real place whence she navigates daily life, and in her world (as is the reality for many who don’t have her platform), violence and the death of African American men are unfortunately the prevalent narrative.

Noname is not afraid of death and interplays the motif nonchalantly with her engagement of life in this mortal coil. She simultaneously invokes poignant recollections from her youth, pays homage to her Granny while also capturing the atmosphere of family BBQs. She recounts the awkwardness and spontaneous thrill of falling in love, all while acknowledging the futility of life and the imminence of death.

That she reconciles the tension between the unseen and daily experience by embracing death and life equally shows she has a closer apprehension of the Christian faith than what we often hear expressed via the predominant megachurch insistence that we enjoy our best life now. Even the so-called ‘secular world’ has its version of glory theology implicit in naively optimistic axioms for better living and subtle demands to be yourself, find yourself, know yourself, and at all costs…be happy.

Biblical Christianity, however, doesn’t seek to avoid death, grief, or sorrow. The book of Ecclesiastes spends a considerable amount of time pontificating on mortality and affirming the transitory state of humanity this side of eternity. Many of the Psalms consist of funeral dirges, meditations on and in some cases anticipations of the grave. Moreover, at the heart of the Christian religion lies the insistence that we ‘take up our cross and die’ and that we gather for fellowship around the proclamation of our Lord’s death until He returns. To the extent that we accept death as a normal dimension of daily life we enjoy levity and peace of mind–namely, freedom from the burden of having to take ourselves and our vitality too seriously. 

Noname doesn’t shy away from death in her lyrics, and neither did The Word is in His incarnation (John 1:14). We were dead yet Jesus dwelt among us, ‘bore our griefs and sorrows’, and ultimately became our death. Neither does NoName deny the reality of death as an ever present specter threatening our narcissistic hopes of a pain-free existence. One reviewer aptly noted, “even while reliving heartbreak her voice is soothing—resigned but optimistic, weary but hopeful.” For me, this calls to mind St Paul’s claim that as Christians, we are ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’. We live in the overlap of two ages; pain and joy are neighbors, never diametrically opposed or mutually exclusive. The implicit theology of the cross in Noname’s music betrays a sober understanding that our misery procures life rather than hinders it. The Son of God Himself perfectly synthesized these competing tendencies as the ‘man of sorrows, acquainted with grief’. And yet the cross was a perfect ‘joy set before Him’. 

It’s evident that at some level, church and religion played some formative role in informing her perspective of the world. Noname certainly doesn’t ‘claim’ Christianity or, rather, she doesn’t identify as a Christian per se–but the intermittent references she makes to the idea of the soul needing salvation indicate that she has wrestled with or at least thoughtfully considered how ‘the things of God’ factor into her mediation and interpretation of life, politics, society, and identity. 

When she first appeared on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, Fatimah Nyeema Warner was known as Noname Gypsy having derived her moniker from the nomadic characteristics of the gypsy culture. She has stated in interviews that her adopted none-name reflects her disdain for being labeled and categorized. She sees herself instead as a free spirit, wandering through life, establishing an identity on her own terms–or even sans terms altogether. I see the appeal. Yet I also know that in Christ, we have a name because of the grace that drifts where it wants like the wind. We don’t know where it’s going or whence it comes. Thankfully, we are known by the One who became flesh to set us free.