A collection of essays published in the NYT, Pitchfork and Medium, Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us proves a masterful and wholly relatable work that, although predominantly through music, reaches into life, love, history, culture, and death with equal and inimitable talent.
Poet, music writer, activist and critic Hanif Abdurraqib is all of these things, but above all, a person. On his website, the first greeting reads: ‘Hi. I’m Hanif. I write poems. I write things about music. I am probably eating french fries.’ Abdurraqib’s voice and style shines through in these essays, and that style is almost like he’s sat next to you, talking to you about music as naturally as you would with your best friend, or your partner, or your parents. This book, comprised of forty essays, ranges through life with music as his chosen lens, and especially about its connection with its sublime power (probably on par with words) to take you back to a place, a time, a person you were when you listened to that one album.
Eve L. Ewing, in her foreword to the collection, attests to this power and Abdurraqib’s aptitude for tapping into it. She writes that he “is something between an empath and an illusionist […] He seems to know all about that summer, that breakup, that mix she made you that you lost when someone broke into your car later that year.” Music, to Abdurraqib, isn’t just in your ears. It’s in a space live or recorded or blared at a house party or quietly in contemplation. This set of music essays, ranging from Chance The Rapper to Carly Rae Jepsen and My Chemical Romance, is written with such utter candour and talent that enshrines Abdurraqib as my favourite authority on music – or french fries. Kiese Laymon, in another record of glowing praise for the author, suggests that ‘No writer alive writes first and last sentences like Hanif’, and I am inclined to agree with him. From ‘On Kindness’, which opens “I am made more uneasy by a rage that rests itself beneath silence than I am with something loud, stomping along a house and making glass rattle”, to ‘Fall Out Boy Forever’ which ends with “No one decides when the people we love are actually gone. May we all be buried on our own terms”, Abdurraqib masters the grandeur of both leading the reader into, and out of, an essay with decisive, unique expression.
(Abdurraqib, pictured in front of a map of his home state of Ohio).
The pertinency and continued importance of this volume, as I have mentioned before, rests with the author’s appreciation of the whole, the human. These essays grapple with the killings of unarmed black Americans by police, ideas of subjective loss and heartbreak, and the highs of childhood memories of friends with ease and grace, but never losing the idea that it all comprises a human experience. Things are seen, heard, felt, in a real and emotional way, though different to every person – Abdurraqib uses music to lead into higher social issues precisely because of its ability to emotionally manipulate, to drag you back to halcyon days and your darkest depths with unerring, indiscriminate power. This collection doesn’t read like any other on music criticism, with no awards, no power rankings, no ratings out of ten. Any judgements on the music are refracted through his experiences, the context of his life and the culture, which makes this an erudite encapsulation of a time/a feeling/a place. It’s the same as he states in an essay on Baton Rouge, that “If I do not believe in what you’re telling me, I won’t believe in you. It is not exactly a measure of volume – rather, a question of defined intent, articulated in a way that people can get behind”. Through Abdurraqib’s writing, written in a way people can get behind, I believe in what he’s telling me. His notion of growth and love for a hometown rings true with anyone who has come from far away but learned to love this small town on the East Fife coast, that “Home is where the heart begins, but not where the hearts stays / The heart scatters across states”. Much of the author’s exceptionally relatable writing style comes from a mix of his accomplishment at moulding words into feelings from his poetic background, coupled with the absolute frankness of his content. Abdurraqib is as at home in telling you about going to a concert he didn’t enjoy (for the sake of his partner who did) as he is relating his first traffic stop by cops, or his visit to Michael Brown’s grave before a Bruce Springsteen gig.
The aforementioned visit is where the title of the collection comes from: They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us was written on a banner above his memorial, a romanticised defiance in the face of a culture where black people’s lives are often commodified into just their faults after they are wrongfully murdered. In Abdurraqib’s eyes, “you live lives even after you are no longer living a life.” His essays on music and musicians treat both listener and artist as humans – with faults, with fears, but above all with feelings. It is these feelings that the author taps into so beautifully, in a culturally inhabited collection whose essays relate to a time, be it now or long past, where “it may never be like this again”. Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us revels in this transitory nature of experiences and, through its lens of music, insists to us that it is “a way to escape our understanding of the world” even if just for a moment, no matter how fleeting.