Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib. (Two Dollar Radio)
When you get down to it, most music writing doesn’t need to be collected. It’s a focus on something happening in the present and, unless you’re a fan of the singer or band, it’s hard to see a long shelf life for it. When I began reading They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib, I was foolishly skeptical of this collection, especially since the book opens with an essay about Chance the Rapper. I began reading the essay wary of my ability to connect, but within pages Abdurraqib showed a side of society that is hopeful and optimistic in the face of seismic shifts in life. He uses Chance the Rapper as the example as opposed to the main subject and in doing so transcends his music writing into something much larger and more important.
The trajectory of the book is intriguing. It consists of five sections, with each of them being separated by the story of when Marvin Gaye sang the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. The first section of the book focuses on optimism and hope that music can bring to most of society. It starts with the aforementioned Chance the Rapper essay followed by a look at Bruce Springsteen and how he represents a group of people who have a simple optimism in the face of a long and arduous life. They live through hard and honest jobs working for the small moments of joy, and at the end of the day that’s enough to get them through. In these early essays, he follows the transportive quality of music and its benefits, not for the musicians, but for the fans listening.
The second section deals more with Abdurraqib’s own personal pain and struggles and the effect that music has had on him. In the end, it is still about optimism and hopefulness as he chose to go on to a more positive outlook. The section opens on the role—or lack thereof—that people of color play within the punk community. He started going to punk shows as a teen and, as a black American, felt invisible in that scene. This essay helps set the tone for what the rest of the book will be about. It is a bigger picture of where we are today as a society and how we treat minorities. Another one of the essays in the second section, “Under Half-Lit Fluorescents: The Wonder Years and The Great Suburban Narrative,” shows Abdurraqib focusing in on how pain is relative and music can act as an equalizer. He is building bridges by trying to understand other viewpoints and in turn gives himself the authority to show the reader his point of view with a comfortable level of trust.
The third part of the book, and the shortest, is made up of a single essay. Abdurraqib focuses in on the career of the pop-punk band Fall Out Boy. He parallels the band’s up and down moments to his relationship with his late friend Tyler. The main point of the essay is shown on a patch he had on his jacket saying, “Destroy What Destroys You.” The essay is about adapting to life as you grow older, otherwise it’ll kill you. Our perspective on life is going to change and as we get older we’re going to have to start doing things differently to protect our bodies and our minds. Nostalgia can only take us so far and while it’s fun to look back it’s more important to keep an eye in the near future and make sure we don’t fall victim to what may await.
The last two sections have a shift from societal pressures and experiences with music to a more specific outlook on the role of music. He starts looking at where race and class fit into the larger view of our society and country. The optimism begins to wane slightly and it seems like Abdurraqib has to work harder and harder to hold onto his positive outlook, but the weight of the task is noticeable. In a poignant essay simply called, “On Paris,” he thinks about the terrorist attack at an Eagles of Death Metal show that left numerous dead and wounded. Music, as he contends earlier in the book, is a great equalizer and live music creates a sanctuary and safe place. People from groups that may not feel welcome otherwise are able to go to a show and stand in the dark, letting the music wash over them in a way that helps ease any awkwardness or fear. When there was an attack on the people of Paris, there was a feeling of loss for that sanctuary.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a study of the persona and the perceived. It is a call for empathy, showing us how possible that is within each essay included. Some provide a harder look at life, but Hanif Abdurraqib is aware of how bad the world is and how much life sucks and doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat any of it. Instead, he chooses to be an optimist, even against his own nature. He leads by example and beckons us to follow.