Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017) is like no other book I’ve read. In essays that combine pop cultural criticism, sociopolitical commentary, and memoir, Abdurraqib cuts to the core of his subjects with sensitivity and eloquence. He never oversimplifies. The book is written in the wake of 21st-century traumas— Hurricane Katrina, killings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, the election of Donald Trump, and others—that have only augmented a historic sense of injury, loss, and defeat for black Americans like the author. “There is no moment in America when I do not feel like I am fighting,” he writes. “When I do not feel like I’m not pushing back against a machine that asks me to prove that I belong here.”
Several essays in the collection wrestle with Abdurraqib’s appreciation for cultural products and spaces made without regard for people like him. He exposes the paradox that certain artists and artistic movements act as refuge for some yet ignore or marginalize others. The essay, “I Wasn’t Brought Here, I Was Born: Surviving Punk Rock Long Enough to Find Afropunk” takes the reader through Abdurraqib’s complicated relationship with the punk scene, citing racism directed at him at shows, as well as themes in punk music that arise from privilege. “It is a luxury to romanticize blood, especially your own,” he says. “It is a luxury to be able to fetishize violence, especially the violence that you inflict upon others.” Another essay describes a Bruce Springsteen concert, beginning with the writer’s long appreciation of Springsteen’s music and its cultural impact, then shifts to the whiteness implicit in his romanticization of blue-collar work. Having arrived at the show directly after visiting Michael Brown’s grave in Ferguson, Missouri, Abdurraqib writes that The River “is an album of a specific type of optimism—one not afforded to everyone who listens to it.”
Other pieces in the collection provide deep examinations of the ways that black musicians—from Nina Simone to Chance the Rapper—express and elucidate black Americans’ means of survival and refusal to give up what is theirs. “I have always held the legacy of Nina Simone close,” he writes, “because I know how easily it could be taken from me and served back to America as something more pleasing.” Framing the collection are fragments that add up to an essay on Marvin Gaye—as cultural icon, black hero, artist, and man—as well as his impacts on our country and the writer himself. All of Abdurraqib’s music writing demonstrates an incredible attunement to what is happening between the notes and beneath the lyrics. He is an endlessly generous listener, always regarding an artist on their own terms yet constantly probing the surface.
“Black Life on Film,” one of the most affecting essays in the collection, starts devastatingly with the writer seeing video of the Rodney King beating on the TV news at age seven. The essay then turns to Boyz n the Hood but here, too, the analysis is about the listener as much as the music. Abdurraqib describes his impression of the movie as a twelve-year old, and now, in early middle-age. “Looking back…I think it’s less a movie about death…as it is a movie about loyalty that spans generations,” he writes.
Some of Abdurraqib’s most personal essays address teenage friends’ suicides and his mother’s death. In one essay, he takes us through the summer of 1997. He is 13 and just coming of age as a rap fan. Both Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. were killed only months earlier. Then his mother dies suddenly in her sleep. Grieving her as he is surrounded by hip-hop, he says, revealed to him the strong undercurrent of grief in hip-hop music at the same time that it provided comfort, escape, and a little joy. Another essay is a chronicle of the author’s process of mourning his mother alongside rapper Future’s grieving of his relationship with the musician, model and actress Ciara, as demonstrated in his lyrics. The comparison may seem shallow but music is deeply personal for Abdurraqib. Though he never says it outright, it is clear throughout the book that for him, music is a mirror, a microscope, a glue, and a salve, all in one.