A superstar in disguise: Rapper Noname hits St. Louis stage
Noname is her own kind of superstar. The absence of glitz and flare onstage is replaced by a refreshing, laidback comfort that the rapper exudes in her music, her presence and her audience. It is precisely this unusual attitude that drew a sold-out crowd to the Ready Room on the night of Mardi Gras. In less than an hour, Noname cruised through a set list in the same way two lovers would have a passionate conversation on their first date: incessant, charming, sad, funny, tense, whimsical, upsetting and everything in between.
Her name is Fatimah Warner, born and raised in Chicago, and a poet at heart though in her lyrical work—rap and poetry is one and the same. She has collaborated multiple times with her friend Chance The Rapper. It is only March, but we can already conclude that one of the year’s most rewarding moments has been watching both rappers on stage of “Saturday Night Live.” It was as close as going to church without leaving home.
Three backing singers enter the stage along with a guitarist, pianist, and drummer. They immediately engage in an anthemic introduction of “Telefone,” the name of her debut album. Minutes later, a visibly happy Noname emerges onstage. She’s wearing a black and white striped shirt tucked in a long plaid skirt. She wastes no time as she dives right into “All I Need,” in an impressive delivery of her now well-known dense verses, loaded with rich imagery and painful metaphors that force us to look at the world through her eyes. Three lines into the first verse, she can’t help but blurt out a giggly laugh that makes the entire crowd laugh in unison. “I forgot the lyrics but f— it; I wrote all of it,” she jokes mid-song.
It is obvious that Noname partially survives on the joy that she gets from seeing an entire crowd rap along her intricate lyrics. “You might know this next song,” she says numerous times, even when the audience undoubtedly knows what’s coming up. She locks eyes with the crowd as she sways left and right, almost as if to make sure she is giving equal attention to everyone. She is.
Even to Noname, the rapid success of her first album might seem incredible. “Telefone,” a much awaited album from fans who had been following her underground career, was self-released as a free digital download. This is the story of a black female rapper who has made a name for herself solely based on her talent. Her album is about black womanhood and the unspoken pains that are marginalized and misunderstood. In “Reality Check,” she opens up about her insecurities mainly stemming from self-doubt and fear about her future. She brings her black ancestors to this track to wonder what they might say about her hesitation to take risks: “Granny gone turn up in her grave / And say, my granny really was a slave for this / All your uncompleted similes and pages ripped / You know they whipped us n—–s / How you afraid to rap it.” Although she is clearly in a different place than when she wrote this song, her performance hints at such vulnerability.
Her body stops moving for a minute to make sure she gets every line across the way she intended it to be. She offers no explanation for what any of the songs mean to her. Her stage name is Noname, after all. She values a certain kind of anonymity that’s necessary for her to write personal narratives without secondary others discerning her past.
“Diddy Bop” is next. Arguably the most upbeat track in the mixtape, Noname cannot stop smiling, aptly so. She sings, “run, run, run, mama say come home before the streetlights do /
Ice cream on my front porch in my new FUBU and my A1’s too / Watching my happy block my whole neighborhood hit the diddy bop.” It is a treasured memory from her childhood that she gifts the audience who does not take it for granted; they embrace it wholeheartedly as everyone sings along with her.
Just as she delivers joyful moments, she also takes us through dimly lit paths with no clear destinations. For “Casket Pretty,” she decides to rap with no music—it’s just her and a microphone. The result is utterly painful. She raps: “And I’m afraid of the dark / Blue and the white / Badges and pistols rejoice in the night / And we watch the news / And we see him die tonight.” Her tone is weary and resentful, and we expect no less from the experiences she is representing in this track. Beneath it all, however, Noname gives us a necessary wisdom as if to tell us, not all is lost, not all is pain.
There is a plethora of nuances to unpack from every word Noname raps. It is hard to do justice to the powerful significance of hearing her perform and to give corporal meaning to her musical poetry of xylophones and catchy gospel hooks. We gain an extra layer of understanding from standing before her, watching her recite musical poetry without taking a breath for minutes. Her musical persona is defined solely by the music she makes; there are no music videos, no intimate interviews, no unfiltered Instagram posts. Noname is who we are listening. Noname is the person who comes back to the stage to do an encore but instead, pushes the audience to sing “Shadow Man.” Don’t clap; snap your fingers—Noname indicates. In those two minutes, Noname performs an animated duet with a crowd of hundreds. And in those two last minutes, when the lights are dim, and the crowd is restless, Noname shines bright, so bright, under the purple moonlight.