Fern Ling Chettle

Spinning as Stimming

Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Johnson as a Role Model

Ahmir Johnson (*1971), known professionally as Questlove, is an American musician, record producer, disc jockey, filmmaker, music journalist, and actor. But what makes him a role model for neurodivergent creatives? 


Questlove speaking at NYU - Photo taken by Joe Mabel , found on Wikimedia Commons 

In a 2013 NPR interview about his memoir Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, Questlove spoke about growing up as an undiagnosed autistic kid, and how his passion for records provided a social escape and helped pave his way into the music industry. He spoke in particular about his love for spinning records as a child, and how the action became a form of stimming that has always helped him relax.

Born into a musical family in Philadelphia, USA, Questlove grew up surrounded by instruments and began drumming on stage at shows by the age of seven. At home, he was entranced with records, describing himself as a child who was “obsessed and sort of, I was always in a trance with things that spun”. He speaks of how his babysitters and aunts used to always say he was the first child to never give them any trouble, “Like he doesn't scream. He doesn't even talk. Like he just sits at the turntable - all you have to do is get a stack of records, put them on the turntable and he'll literally just sit there and watch them turn.” His parents, both touring musicians, had a 5,000-strong vinyl record collection, which Questlove credits for giving him an early education for his own career in hip-hop. Throughout his school years, he grappled with feeling ‘socially awkward’, and music became a refuge amidst such anxieties.

Now one of America’s most-loved disc jockeys and musicians, Questlove’s obsession with records has bloomed into a rich musical career ranging across hip-hop, jazz, R&B and rock. In 1993, he co-founded The Roots and has since collaborated with the likes of Erykah Badu, Jay-Z, D'Angelo and Madonna. From 2009 to present, The Roots have been the in-house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, becoming network television legends in their own right. In recent years, Questlove’s repertoire has expanded beyond the musical, and he has since written four books, become adjunct professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University, and co-founded the websites Okayplayer and OkayAfrica. Notably, in 2021 he made his directorial debut with Summer of Soul, a film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which went on to win Best Documentary Feature at the 2022 Academy Awards and Best Music Film at the Grammys. 

Throughout his career, Questlove has never lost sight of his love for spinning and his collection of records and musical memorabilia has remained a special interest– a way of celebrating the artists who have shaped his life. In a 2022 article for The New York Times, aptly titled ‘Questlove: Collecting Is an Act of Devotion, and Creation’, he notes his collection has grown to more than 200,000 records and thousands of other artifacts. In 2020, during the pandemic, Questlove began live-streaming DJ sets that paid tribute to music icons, and sets of self-care slow jams from his collection, "as a way of trying to help people cope by reminding them of the way they used to feel." Records have always brought him 'sparks of comfort', particularly when finding his place as a young autistic musician, and Questlove has inspiringly spent his career sharing that same musical comfort with others across the world. 

Here are some more resources about Questlove, and how he serves as a positive example of autistic representation: 

Hughes, Jazmine. (2021, 12 Oct),“The Passion of Questlove.” The New York Times

NPR. (2013, 24 June) “Questlove's Roots: A 'Meta' Memoir of a Lifetime in Music.” 

Thompson, Ahmir Questlove. “Questlove: Collecting Is an Act of Devotion, and Creation.” The New York Times.