‘Energy, irreverence and imagination:’ Punk and literature collide for new professor G’Ra Asim
G’Ra Asim, a new assistant professor of English at Washington University teaching Creative Nonfiction, can often be found either in front of an undergraduate classroom or at center stage of a punk rock concert — both places he feels comfortable.
Asim is one of four faculty members who have either been hired or promoted as part of the University’s first race and ethnicity cluster hire. The initiative was proposed by Chancellor Andrew Martin during the refocused attention on racial inequality that occurred in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
When Asim first saw the proposed English professor position in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he didn’t seriously consider applying until two important people in his life — his mother and a close friend — encouraged him to look into the job further.
“Having two prominent people in my life tell me [to apply], see, that kind of woke me up,” Asim said.
Asim believes that the University’s attempt to build a program focused on antiracism education is a step in the right direction toward creating tangible change.
“I think a lot of people paid lip service to this notion that the summer of 2020 exposed fissures in the social fabric that we need to repair, but at WashU, they’ve really put their money where their mouths are,” he said.
However, Asim knows that the process of engaging in antiracist work isn’t easily accomplished by a single new course or program.
“Whatever [these things] the reckoning purported to solve…are messy and uncomfortable. And they have accumulated over a long time,” he said. “We’re not going to get past them in one conversation, one class period, one semester, but we can sort of peel back that surface layer and get into the muck of these things.”
Prior to his role at WashU, Asim worked as an assistant professor of nonfiction writing at Ithaca College and as the writing director at the African American Policy Forum, a gender and race justice think tank at Columbia Law School. He also has a book under his belt, a nonfiction work entitled Boyz n the Void: a mixtape to my brother. Asim credits the process of writing the book, which came out in April 2021, to shaping his most current version of himself.
The book is written to and for his brother, who is 14 years younger than Asim. It is a combination of memoir, music critique, cultural critique and personal essay.
“I think the process of writing and researching Boyz n the Void and revising it a number of times helped me to learn a lot of things about myself as a thinker, as an artist and as an educator,” he said.
Asim also comes from a background of punk, a genre of rock music that grabbed his interest early in life. Since 2017, Asim has been a vocalist and bass player for the punk band Baby Got Back Talk, which is based in New York City. Once they’re confident that COVID-19 no longer poses a significant threat, Asim plans to travel back and forth between NYC and St. Louis to practice and perform.
Despite the very different environment of the classroom and the stage, Asim finds that both of his passions share some similarities.
“Teaching is very much a performance, literature is very much performance on the page, and I feel like I take things from both of those spheres,” he said.
Often, however, Asim has an affinity for the side of him that comes out in a punk rock performance.
“I always feel like a punk in disguise, like a person whose core self is perhaps best expressed on stage or in a mosh pit but who was kind of traveling incognito into other zones,” he said.
In the end, Asim prizes the chaotic and political affiliations of both punk — which is often a criticism of authority — and his work in writing and teaching. “[I am] somebody who really prizes energy, irreverence and imagination,” he said. “And I feel like those are things that are really central to my artistic practice, and I hope are legible in my teaching practice.”
So far Asim has experienced just over a week of WashU classes. While still exercising caution due to COVID, he’s thrilled to teach in-person and is encouraged by the energy that he’s felt from the community.
“Everyone that I’ve come across within this intellectual community is professing a commitment to elevating their own literacy about these issues and fostering a campus environment that is more hospitable to anti-racist knowledge production, and to students of diverse backgrounds,” he said.