'They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us' meditates on music and identity with remarkable results

Sunday, December 3, 2017 - 5:33pm

Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” is as expansive in scope as it is rich in content. Abdurraqib is a music writer, but his subjects — sonic landscapes, fandoms and performance — are only his starting points. His writing is alive and breathing, criticism infused with stories, lived experience and emotion. For Abdurraqib, it’s never just a song, never just an artist; music is a lens through which he sees the whole world.

Life, death, music, loneliness, media, politics and love are necessarily intertwined in his work, because he’s striving for something bigger than a book of thinkpieces. He weaves together personal narrative and rigorous critical thought so naturally you almost forget that these ideas are ever considered separate methods of writing. His book does the extraordinary work of capturing a moment in time, piecing together the fragments of life and death in modern America.

“They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” is itself a phrase from a sign plastered to a Michael Brown memorial. The title serves as an informal thesis to Abdurraqib’s work, which grapples intently with what it means to be Black and alive in 2017. A lot of the time, it comes down to this: “It’s summer and there is a video again,” he writes. “A black person is dead on camera again.” For him, survival is a delicate and precious thing, not a given.

Abdurraqib isn’t able to separate his love of the music from this fundamental fact of his life, and it shapes his perspective and his criticism because, as he puts it, “Once you understand that there are people who do not want you to exist, that is a difficult card to remove from the table ... there is no undoing that knowledge.”

There’s a piece about a Bruce Springsteen concert Abdurraqib attended the day after seeing Michael Brown’s memorial, he contemplates the way Springsteen’s music operates on a narrative of survival. He writes: “What it must feel like to imagine that no one in America will be killed while a man sings a song about the promise of living.” It’s a harrowing observation, but it’s evocative of the way Abdurraqib so precisely articulates the nuance of the intersection between identity and experience. It lends credence to the idea that Abdurraqib’s Bruce Springsteen is not my Bruce Springsteen is not your Bruce Springsteen. But that just makes Bruce Springsteen better — and more interesting.

His range is impressive: He writes about everyone from Carly Rae Jepsen to Prince, Schoolboy Q to The Wonder Years, Future to My Chemical Romance. It’s clear he has a wholehearted love of the music, in all the times it’s pulled him back from the brink. Music isn’t a catch all cure for the heartbreak and the fear, but it’s powerful nonetheless. “The great mission of any art that revolves around place is the mission of honesty,” he writes. For him, music and art exist with the purpose of being as honest as possible — so they’re a way of making sense of the world, his life, his very survival.

Abdurraqib uncovers some truths of his own in “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,” peeling back the layers of a performance, a moment in time or a feeling to find the core of it, what it really means. It’s a beautiful, carefully layered book, full of sharp insights, carefully realized emotions and stories told with a gentle voice that grows ever more important in these times. And in the vein of complete honesty: I hope he never stops writing.