Fatimah Warner whips around so her back is to the audience and bends on one knee. A man emerges from backstage, a sequined cape in hand, and places it on her shoulders. The stage lights illuminate the crimson cape and the satin circle on it bearing her stage name in white bejeweled lettering — Noname.
When she stands and turns around, a pair of red-tinted glasses sit on her face. Suddenly she belts out the hook to the Isley Brothers' "Contagious." "You're contagious, touch me baby, give me what you got." The audience chimes in, a mass of voices singing along with the Chicago rapper. It's the first night of her tour, in her hometown — a concert that sold out so quickly, she had to add a second show.
Noname and her audience are celebrating the release of her long-awaited mixtape Telefone. She started promoting the ten-track debut three years ago, but before the January 2016 release of its first single, "All I Need," she made her name solely as a guest on other artists' songs. Much of her acclaim came through her features on Chance the Rapper's 2013 track "Lost" and Mick Jenkins' 2014 song "Comfortable." Word of mouth only increased the anticipation.
Noname grew up on the south side of Chicago. She lived with her grandparents until she was around fourteen, when she moved in with her mother. Though her mother owned a bookstore, Noname credits her interest in writing to a variety of influences, including a high school creative writing teacher, Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye and her own self-guided discovery of spoken word.
"Honestly, I was watching a lot of Def Poetry Jam videos on YouTube and was like, 'Oh man, this is cool, this art form of spoken word. I'm into it,'" Noname explains. "Then I went off on that tangent."
Around that time, she became involved in YOUmedia, and later Young Chicago Authors — spaces that foster youth creativity and expression through performance-based arts. Those organizations have helped develop the artistry of some of Chicago's best-known emerging artists, including Chance, Mick and Saba.
For Noname, YOUmedia became the tipping point. It was there she met Mike Hawkins, or Brother Mike, one of YOUmedia's first mentors. He was the first person who heard her rap and freestyle, she says, and his support emboldened her.
"He was like an uncle to me," she says. "Just encouraging me as a young black person in Chicago, like, 'Yo, I know that things are messed up and it's hard — it's hard being young and it's hard being in certain spaces, but you are lovable and you are valuable... If you don't want to do poetry, if you don't want to do art or if you're not interested in school in the same way that kids around you are, you are still a very, very lovable, important and valuable spirit.'"
Brother Mike passed away in December 2014. She pays tribute to him on "Yesterday," the first cut off Telefone, a soul- and jazz-infused track where she reminisces about the past. "Me missing Brother Mike, like something heavy / Me heart just wasn't ready / I wish I was a kid again."
But while the Chicago rapper is poetic, she doesn't consider herself a poet. Her music is a sincere portrayal of her reality: She speaks truthfully about her surroundings and what affects her as a black woman and Chicagoan, her message straddling a throughline that is both personal and specific to her hometown.
"I guess I do, in a lot of ways, have a responsibility to the city, but also as a black person, just [writing] based on shit that affects me," Noname says. "I moreso talk about police brutality in my music; I don't tend to talk that much about what people call black-on-black crime. That's something that obviously affects the fuck out of me. I think some people take it as me standing up for a cause, or trying to be a conscious rapper or something like that, which I really don't consider myself."
On Telefone, Noname creates an equilibrium between positivity and realism. Her track "Forever" is rosy, its beat bouncing and twinkling — a testament to self-belief, to remaining hopeful, in the face of opposition. Songs like "Casket Pretty" and "Shadow Man" are vividly somber tracks about death, the latter featuring verses from Saba and St. Louis' own Smino, in which all three consider their own funerals.
"It's just life. As much as you want to be positive and want to not think about the death of people that you love, realistically, if you're living in a city where people who look like you are being targeted, you can't not be a realist," Noname says. "But on the other end, I definitely don't want to spend my whole life just being afraid of death. It's constantly worrisome.
"But it's like anything: You're going to have your good days and you're going to have your bad days," she continues. "You're going to have your days where you're like, 'I'm fuckin' wit the world, I'm fuckin' wit myself,' and then you're going to have your days where you're like, 'Fuck the world. They killing everybody who look like me. Fuck 'em.'"
Telefone is a conversation between Noname and her fans. An intensely private person, she doesn't like giving interviews; she lets her music speak for her. And as her stage name suggests, she has an enigmatic quality. Of her moniker, she says, "I just like the idea of not being tied down to any sort of thing — any sort of category, any sort of aesthetic or occupation. Noname can be anything. I just like the idea — if I wanted to, I can do anything. I'm not tied down to an ideal."
Before Noname took the stage, props were brought out: a lamp, end table, chair and a half-consumed bottle of Maker's Mark. They're items from her mother's house — Noname wants the stage to feel like home. It's her way of giving fans a peek behind the curtain. Selections from Lena Horne films and shots of Do The Right Thing's Radio Raheem are projected on the stage's back wall, as well as tweets dating back to the long wait for Telefone, fans lamenting the fact that the project might never be ready.
On stage, Noname surprises us all, the wit and charm she wields with her pen fully alive in the flesh. In front of 1,100 people, her performance is somehow intimate — she exudes warmth. Her show is a house party and jam session with her closest friends: Mick, Phoelix, Smino, Brian Sanborn, and openers Akenya and Ravyn Lenae.
During the entirety of Noname's 45-minute set, the crowd doesn't stop roaring. Her smile widens, her hands reaching to clasp over her heart, as the audience sings every song, word-for-word, back to her.