808s & Otherworlds: An Interview with Sean Avery – Michigan Quarterly Review

808s & Otherworlds: An Interview with Sean Avery

Sean Avery Medlin (he/they) is a gamer and Hip-Hop nerd, whose only wish in this world is to watch an unproblematic Black sci-fi TV show. Till then, Medlin teaches creative writing and guides cultural work for organizations across the US, while also creating rap, poetry, prose, and performance. Their music, literature, and theater all question the limits of Black masculinity, media (mis)representation, and personal narrative. Medlin has shared stages with Saul Williams, J. Ivy, and Lemon Andersen. Their work’s been featured in Afropunk, Blavity, the 2018–2019 Chicago Hip-Hop Theater Festival, and the 2020 Tucson Poetry Festival. Their Hip-Hop play and album, skinnyblk, along with all their previous work, is available online. 808s & Otherworlds: Memories, Remixes, & Mythologies is Medlin’s debut collection, available in September via Two Dollar Radio.

Sam Small (SS): Who came first, the poet or the rapper? 

Sean Avery (SA): For me, personally, it probably was the rapper. I remember when I was young I loved things like Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein and I had read “Harlem” by Langston Hughes or “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, so, you know, since the age of 10 I was engaged with something on the page that was poetic. But, my first love for real was just listening to rap and being like, that’s crazy. How did they do that with their voice, and with English, and with music —  what is this thing? It really captured my attention from a very young age. And also a lot of the rappers I was listening to very early, you know, consider themselves poets.

SS: Totally. How do poetry and rap coexist for you? Is there a difference between the two forms?

SA: I think it’s maybe a yes and no. I think that at one point in time it was very popular for the rapper to think of themselves as a poet. And I think that there will always be rappers in that lineage who do care a lot about the word and writing. But I also think the industry of music has really made it to where there’s a lot of rappers who barely even want to identify as rappers, much less as poets.

SS: So what category would they fall into?  

SA: I mean, there’s a wave right now where a lot of younger rappers want to call themselves musicians or rock stars or things like that. It’s very interesting to me, for a lot of reasons, to think about the ways in which all of that’s Black anyway. And also, too, why do those things have to be exclusive from rap or hip hop?

SS: Yeah, yeah. I’m a really big fan of Noname and she is someone who transitioned her creative work from slam poetry to music. The interplay between poetry and rap is really interesting to me. All musicians aren’t inherently poets, but I feel that all rappers are.

SA: Yeah, I think so. I do believe that, you know, and even the most unpoetic rappers, I find poetry in their work.

SS: Totally. So you’re in Arizona, right?

 SA: I am. I’m in Phoenix.

SS: Arizona is a big part of your book. In the poem “new amerika (iii)” you write, “I wish that I was not small and separated from my people, that I did not live in avondale, arizona where no one looks like me.” How do you think that this particular geography influenced you becoming an artist, in all senses of the word? 

SA:  I really do believe I would have been an artist no matter where I was; I believe that at this point in my life, but I think Arizona did give me a lot of time and a lot of space. It’s a slow pace out here. Phoenix is the 10th largest city in the U.S. but when you think about the infrastructure of a downtown, we are maybe the size of Oakland in terms of our downtown area. So there’s literally just land here. It’s a desert. I felt like I had nothing but time to think and read and listen and go to open mics and rap with my friends and, you know,  all the things that were, and still are, a lot of fun for me. But also I have been fortunate enough to fine tune these skills into an artistic practice.

SS: Do you think that there was  a very distinctive art community or that you and your friends kind of curated your own?

SA: I was  able to connect with the slam poetry scene at the time, and this is like 2009, which really opened my world up because I’m not from Phoenix proper. So being able to come to Phoenix was really necessary because then I could really see what was happening, at least in my state or my city. And I was also able to go to Tucson, Arizona and experience some of the art scene out there, which is very different from Phoenix. And that all  helped me decide, ultimately, if I wanted to continue to claim this place.

SS: How do you feel now about it?

SA: Now, I enjoy saying I’m from Arizona because I think people hear or read my work and assume I’m from a major city because of assumptions about where hip hop lives, but I’m not from a city that’s a big cultural producer. 

SS: I feel like you hate where you grow up until you realize that it’s inherently part of you. In your book, you classify this Black experience as an “Otherworld,” or, “a country of thunder—autonomous and distant from those asunder.” For those who might not know, can you define that “otherworld” and what you imagine it to be?

SA: Yeah, I can — thank you for that question.  For me, Otherworld is the best way for me to articulate being Black in the American Southwest. Otherworld is like this particular experience that feels unreal because it’s not reflected back to me anywhere, except for within my group of Black people living in the Southwest. It quite literally makes me feel like an alien because my experience of Blackness is so specific to this region of the US. Oftentimes, when communicating with other Black people there’s just so much surprise and shock when I tell people about the things that, you know, are kind of just part of living in Arizona. The best way for me to condense all of these surreal, or seemingly surreal, elements was to just use the name Otherworld. Otherworld in Norse mythology, manga, and anime is the afterlife — it’s always death, essentially.  I’m trying to say something there about social deaths, you know? I mean, the book is grappling with this thing we call “Blackness.”

SS: Can you elaborate on social death?

SA: Building this foundation, the economic foundation for the world we live in today, required serious disruption of the social order, and so slaves were not considered human, right? Literally objects. That translates to a very serious effect, right? That’s social death. Humans are social creatures: we acquire social relationships with each other. 

SS: But that’s not possible when people don’t consider you a human.

SA: Exactly. And that’s a condition that outlasts enslavement.

SS: It’s paradoxical, because it’s not death if you can’t even live it anyway. 

SA: Exactly. We’re human literally, right? But, in the ways in which the world acts upon us our humanity is ignored.  

SS: Speaking of paradox, you have a poem of the same name in which you state “pop culture plays dress up with hip-hop.” To you, it seems rappers have become unoriginal, gentrified, or as you put it “made to dance.” Are there any contemporary artists right now that you think don’t subscribe to these conventions? 

SA: Mm. I want to be careful in how I answer this, because I do work in that field, but also it’s a thin line between critique and condemnation. And you know, I think I try to always be critical of the industry more than the artist. And you know I do listen to some artists that sell sex and drugs, for sure. A lot of artists that sell that, right?

SS: Sure, it’s certainly not exclusive to rap. 

SA: Exactly — This is America. So I’ve been listening to Saba. Phenomenal. A lot of Mach-Hommy, Griselda, and Westside Gunn, which is a lot about drug dealing. I don’t necessarily relate to them, but I really admire their craftsmanship and their production and their storytelling. I’ve been listening to this rapper Crashprez, who puts on for  queer rappers, and queer men.

SS: Off the top of my head, the mainstream queer rappers I  know of are Kevin Abstract and Tyler, The Creator, and that’s it. There’s not that much talk of gender in rap, really.

SA: No, there’s not. Rap is probably not ready for that conversation. I mean, America really is still not ready for the conversation on gender. We’re not really talking about gender in politics too much. I mean the closest conversation we can have about gender and rap is like, we talk about women who rap and then we talk about like Young Thug in a dress and that’s “the gender conversation.”

SS: Yeah. It’s very performative.

SA: But I mean there are non binary people rapping, you know what I’m saying? Like Dua Saleh, or Mykki Blanco, myself, too. We’re here. I think the gender conversation, as it continues to evolve in the world, will also evolve in specific industries and cultures. 

SS: So I do have a Kanye question. I’m curious how you grapple with his bizarre, right-wing outbursts. Or to quote “Free Pt. 1,” “Whose mans is on TMZ live with this bullshit?” Do you think there is any way you can ever forgive him?

SA: I mean, to be completely candid I definitely had an incredibly emotional response when Kanye West first started to endorse Trump in 2016 — it did feel like a friend had betrayed me and, you know, that’s complicated because I know that I don’t actually know him, but I feel so deeply, his music has meant so much to my life, in so many different points of my life. The practice of making heroes and idols, you know, we all do it because it’s very much what our culture does. It created this situation where I wanted an artist who’s also a billionaire to represent my political views. It felt like it made sense because at one point he did represent my appeal or at least at the time I was like, yeah, that sounds like what I believe in, you know?  I think what it really showed me is, whether or not I feel I can forgive him or whether or not I feel like I can’t, it’s not like I don’t listen to his music anymore. I’m not gonna lie about that. In fact, in order to make the book, I listened to a lot of his music. But, I have a question now where I’m like, okay, is there accountability for someone that I’m not in community with that’s this far removed from me? I can be upset, I can be sad. I can be angry. I can feel that, and I can let it go. But is there anything beyond that, truly,that I can do or expect? Ultimately, this is someone whose life I really don’t understand and probably won’t ever. But it was a really hard lesson: who are my idols and why? This man has been an idol for most of my life and maybe it’s time to let that go.

SS: Yeah. It’s sad. It would be impossible to erase those early memories of him, but it’s hard to not think of them in retrospect and be a little disappointed. 

SA: It’s hard to hold so many things to be true at once. It’s not easy, you know, and sometimes you don’t even have to. That’s why I do respect people who stop listening to an artist or stop reading a writer or watching a show. That’s why I respect it, because sometimes you just don’t have space to be like, I love this artist and they’re probably a really bad person. 

SS: Like Kanye, rap, in general, seems to make you both proud (see: “Ode to Trap Music”) and ashamed, as rap is now, as you put it, “relegated, related and reduced.” How do you balance these two responses? How does that work for you? 

SA: Yeah, I think it’s a lot about trying to understand what makes me feel uncomfortable about one artist or sound or song, and what makes me feel really proud or makes me feel like I want to claim another artist or another sound or another song. A lot of it for me is really just nurtured the way I was raised. I was very much raised to appreciate music that is not pop. Then I grew up to absolutely love pop rap. Drake has been like my most listened to artists on Spotify for like two or three years in a row.

But I remember having a CD that had Binary Star, One Be Low, and Masta Ace, all of these rappers who still a lot of people don’t know. My parents were like, if you want to listen to music, then put this in the CD player — we’re not going to turn on the radio. So, I was raised up in that and I can’t really leave it. It’s kinda just in me now. That’s what I’m really, really drawn to. 

SS: Tell me a little bit about your teaching practice.

SA: I’ve been in and out of a lot of different creative writing gigs right now, I’m mostly a teaching artists, so my main gig is working with a queer youth center in Phoenix called One N Ten, and right now I’m there monthly, and then I do  extra events outside of my monthly gig with them.  The students are anywhere from age fourteen all the way up to like twenty-one. 

SS: I’m kind of curious what they write about. What surprises you? 

SA: I think what consistently shocks me is their curiosity and creativity. That being said, my students and workshoppers write about their experience mostly. These are young queer kids, so you hear a lot of different things, but I think like the resiliency is always incredible. 

I had a workshop yesterday and we did a Patricia Smith poem called What It’s Like To Be A Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t.) Her poem ends in this place that’s really kind of heart wrenching in the way that it just totally opens up a whole world of experience in her body, but then she closes it because of men. It ends in this place where she’s not going to tell you the rest of what it’s like to be her, but she’s going to tell you that men limit that. It’s like the realest you can get, and I understand why she does that. These students, though, they’re closing their poems in this place of affirmation, grounding, and resistance. Possibility is very much alive. I need that, you know. I don’t have a lot of that.

SS: I also wanted to ask how both your family and the media represented manhood to you. In “Corpus Meum II” you note how you “walk like” your father and “cope like him too,” and the bond you two formed whilst watching superhero films together. So when did you start to notice how you didn’t fit into these molds or like what kind of changed or shifted when you were like, oh, like, this is the black manhood, this is black masculinity and I don’t fit in here. 

SA: I would say I spent most of my life in pursuit of the standards and expectations of me. I also knew somewhere inside of me that it wasn’t working and that it wasn’t going to work and that it didn’t feel good. You learn that pretty early being in a body like mine, but I think you make a choice to remember that or not. I think sometimes the choice is even made for you. But for me, I think that was enough space within my family culture and within like the culture of my home to help me learn the truth about the multiplicity of blackness, because I think that’s something that I maybe had not actually experienced simply because where I grew up was a numbers game in terms of black people. I didn’t have that space to explore it and to witness. Being able to leave was really formative for me, I would say, honestly, the last six years of my life is the time  I’ve actually been able to examine the way I perform masculinity and why, where it comes from, how it hurts me and how it hurts others, and what I could do instead.

SS: Do you think that you used poetry and art as a way to figure that out? 

Definitely poetry and art were big catalysts, that was the place I really could ask the questions. That was where I could really challenge myself of what I thought to be true. But, when I first began to seriously seek praise for performing a certain type of man or masculinity, I was also in that space. Because that’s what I wanted to do, and the men in those spaces would act a certain way and they would get rewarded. So that’s what I would do as well, but it was also the same in the same space that I was able to question it and begin breaking away from it.  And when I say space, I mean the space of poetry and performance.

SS: In a similar vein to media representation, your bio says you wish to see a “unproblematic, black sci-fi TV show.” Maybe you haven’t thought about it, but if you could produce your own unproblematic, black sci-fi TV show what would go on?

SA:  I’m working on a video game right now with my friend and it’s essentially a mixture of high fantasy science fiction with a prison escape narrative.   in this world is Black, but also this is not a world where race exists, people are classified by other things. A lot of times people are like, oh, let’s make everyone Black in a sci-fi show or movie. But then they leave it at that. And to me, you have to do a particular kind of world-building to create a Black world. Because, again, this concept of social death that we know to be very real in our world. So how do you actually make something that doesn’t feel super dissonant? 

To me the question is: what does it mean to make a black sci-fi thing in the first place? Like, what does that actually mean in a super heady, theoretical way? I want to go there; I’d much rather go there, because I think if you can’t stand on an idea it’s just not going to do the thing you think it’s doing in the real world, because it’s always going to be this really whack reproduction of whiteness that you just called the Black. And so for me, let me remove Blackness and Whiteness from my universe so that I’m thinking about real, tangible things like imprisonment, like environmental issues, which obviously in our world are all bound up in race. All of it. But, when I approach a fantasy world with race, first and foremost, I never get anywhere.

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