Noname has always stood up for what she believes in. Outspoken in her socialist motivations, the American rapper has used music to open conversations, and expand on what rap can achieve. Building real world solutions – her Noname Book Club is an inspiration – the Chicago artist has continually led from the front, matching her deeds to her words.
New album ‘Sundial’ is an enriching work, packed with stunning word play. Technically, she’s an excellent rapper, continually switching flows and peppering her writing with revelatory insight. Matching political theory to some devastatingly crude everyday observations, it’s a record of bold colour, and palpable complexity. Yet her work is in danger of being overshadowed by a guest in her artistic home, with Jay Electronica’s feature on ‘balloons’ sparking a weekend of conversation.
When the song was originally announced, Noname had intended for it to be a single, one of the prime entrance points into the realm of the album as a whole. Fans online were appalled by the move, however, citing Jay Electronica’s previous anti-semitism and his continued support for Kanye West as being antithetical to Noname’s own critique of racial power structures globally. At the time, Noname seemed to find a solution that calmed the crowds: the single was pulled, but the track remained, and she hit out at the “selective outrage” of those commenting online.
With ‘balloons’ now available, it seems that this row has no intention of going away. The verse from Jay Electronica is incendiary, touching on antisemitic tropes while labelling the war in Ukraine “a hoax” and falsely stating that Ukrainian leader Zelesky met with “rabbis and the Pope” before it broke out.
Aesthetically, it makes absolutely no sense of include the verse. Jay’s words are a literal neck-snapping 180 on what precedes it – a re-affirmation of Noname’s own beliefs – and it sits in total confrontation to what surrounds it. It seems to justify those initial reservations – the verse is offensive.
There’s also no real reason why it didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. It’s not as though Jay Electronica would be the star attraction for fans, or those new to her work – he’s a big name, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker. Rap music is littered with collaborations that didn’t quite make the cut – Stormzy axed a Jay Z collaboration as he felt the results weren’t quite right for the project as a whole.
After a weekend of online discourse, Noname shared a statement via IG Stories, denying allegations of antisemitism while also seeking to address the controversy. “here’s the truth. no, i’m not antisemitic. i don’t hate groups of people. i am against white supremacy which is a global system that privleges people who identify as white. i’ve been clear about this for years.”
She added: “i’m not going to apologize for a verse i didn’t write. i’m not going to apologize for including it on my album. if you feel i’m wrong for including that’s fair. don’t listen. unfollow and support all the other amazing rappers putting out dope music. your disappointment truly means absolutely nothing to me and i say that with love.”
In a way, Noname has a point – she shouldn’t be expected to apologise for Jay Electronica’s words. The fact remains, though, this is her album, and her role as curator means that she had an active choice as to whether this verse was included. Her dismissal – that fans’ concerns mean “absolutely nothing” – is crude, and lacks a sense of ownership in the impact of her own work. This is meant to be Noname’s celebratory moment, finally sharing her first album in five years – instead, it’s become a conversation about her core values, and the work of another artist. She may well block out that discourse, but fans have a real to feel disappointed.
Words: Robin Murray