"& it turns out that I want all pictures of me loving my people to be in color. I want the sunlight whistling its way across our faces to be always amber & never an absent hue that might mistake our lineage for something safe. I am talking of artifacts again & not of how I cup my hands to the chins of those I love & kiss them on their faces & this type of love will surely be the death of us all. this type of love will shake the angels loose & send them running to their horns."
Hanif Abdurraqib’s epigraph to his essay collection is ‘I can't afford love by The Weeknd’ and that tells you the wild and heartbreaking ride you are about to embark on. If you are an avid concert-goer or music lover, this book will be the perfect fit for you.
If you are a person molded by music and the stories behind the lyrics, you will not be able to put this down. I felt every poetic line in They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us because Hanif made it seem like you were at these concerts with him, listening to these albums for the first time with his fingers tapping against your skin on the beat, and it makes you want to take a road trip to Ohio where Hanif picks the playlist and you just sit there and soak it all in. But just focusing on the musical commentary puts this book in a box it doesn't deserve. It doesn't matter if you know or love the artists, these essays are so much more than that. These are essays about living and surviving and they are brilliantly filtered through your favorite artists and pop culture in a way that elevates Abdurraqib into a new space as one of the greatest voices we have today. Everyone should pay attention to him and bow down to his words.
He starts his essay collection with Chance the Rapper: "because he seems too good to be true, witnessing Chance in person, even in stillness and silence, can prompt a type of thrilling madness." I felt this, because I saw Chance live last year in Atlanta and it was one of the most joyous experiences I have ever had the pleasure of living. It was an outdoor concert at the Atlanta Amphitheater and I was wearing a knee-length soft black dress that twirled as I swayed to the beat with my hands never leaving the air. Chance exuded joy in a time where I was having a hard time finding it on my own, and it's like he let me borrow his for a little bit. I went with my friend Veronica who, like Chance, is from Chicago, and I'm sure she had a completely different experience than I did. Hanif says,
"To turn your eye back on the community you love and articulate it for an entire world that may not understand it as you do. That feels like freedom because you are the one who controls the language of your time and your people, especially if there are outside forces looking to control and commodify both."
It would be like me at a Bob Dylan concert, or Prince, or Hippo Campus, or Lizzo. There's something special about an artist with whom you have shared a home with, have breathed the same air, have looked at the same sky. The lyrics dig a little deeper. Hanif brings up his activism and says
"With Chance, it feels even more urgent that he 'get it right'—a deeply unfair expectation, but one that he seems up to."
After this book came out, Chance received a large amount of backlash for backing up Kanye's conservatism. It was necessary, but it was also much heavier and aggressive than we give most other people for incorrect or digressive opinions, because Chance is held to a higher standard than most other artists and sometimes I wonder if he is exhausted. He does so much: early voter registration, Open Mike in Chicago, speaking at city council meetings, and so much more. I hope he knows we see his groundbreaking work as much as when he makes a mistake in judgement.
Anyway, as soon as I read this first essay on one of my favorite rappers, I knew I was going to enjoy this book. I will say, it took me a while to read. Some of the essays are so heavy, that you need a break afterwards. I definitely read this book while simultaneously reading other books and you might need to as well. Maybe you'll be so entrenched, you can read in one sitting, but my heart could not muster it. It has been months since I finished reading this in Minocqua, Wisconsin in a hotel bed with my phone flashlight and bathroom light buzzing in the background, because my nightstand lamp was broken. There was something about reading it in the dark at a deserted lake resort in the middle of winter that felt right.
He delves into the work of Bruce Springsteen, whose music makes you feel like you could live forever, against the contrast of our America where people are constantly dying . He talks about how the experience of listening to Bruce's songs of "living forever" are vastly different when you are white than when you are Black. I always find it funny when conservatives belt out Born in the USA at Trump Rallies or on the 4th of July when the meaning behind the song addresses the harmful effects of the Vietnam War and how badly we treated our veterans upon their return from the war.
Then, we are brought to Carly Rae Jepsen, and you KNOW I squealed!! I love Carly and I will never forget the time my best friends in college and I bought $15 tickets to see her at the Varsity Theatre on 4th Street in Dinkytown in Minneapolis on a Wednesday night and got trashed on the dance floor belting out our old favorite pop songs. Hanif talks about the diversity of the crowd at this concert and how it surprised him and I would wholeheartedly agree. We thought the show was going to be all teenagers, but honestly, we were probably the youngest ones there. There were girls, gay men, of all ages, all colors, and everybody was just there to have a good time. My friends viewed her as a one-hit wonder, her goofy hit "Call Me Maybe" was all they knew. But her entire Kiss album and Emotion album are amazing. But because of her one-off hit on the radio, and her hit with Owl City, she probably won't ever get the attention she deserves. I skipped along a lot of Minneapolis sidewalks to these albums in the dead of winter believing in a love greater than I'd ever experienced. Hanif said when he listens to her music because
"Even in a city that makes you feel small, there is someone waiting to fall in love with you."
There is a part in this essay where he talks about an artists connection to the audience - how they speak to the audience in between songs (how often, at what point during the set, etc.) and he says that Carly rushes through it because she seems as though she's too excited to wait to play the next song and it reminded me of my friend Annissa. We were at a Ray LaMontagne concert last night and she brought up how he didn't really address the audience and it makes you feel disconnected from the artist as a human being (so Annissa, basically I am saying you need to read this book because you would absolutely love it and I miss you already and I can write this here because you are the best friend in the entire world and I know you read every single blog post I curate. I love you!).
To say I didn't cry when he started writing about Prince would be an outright lie. I remember exactly where I was when I found out that Prince died. It was April 21st, 2016 and I was standing outside of Jimmy John's on my Minneapolis campus in the rain with my friend Erik waiting for a free sub. I am always scrolling on my Twitter, getting real-time updates on news, and I remember seeing the screen grab and didn't realize I said it out loud until I looked up and everyone was looking at me before scrambling for their phones and soon, the entire line had learned the news and no one could believe it. People were crying. It started to rain harder. And I swear the sky turned purple as someone pulled their speaker out of their backpack and started playing ‘Purple Rain.’ The Minneapolis bridge lit up purple in honor and people danced in the street on the corner of First Ave and Hennepin for three days straight outside of the club that Prince made one of the top venues in America through his dance parties. "Prince is gone now, and nothing seems fair. He seemed magic and permanent—the one who would outlive each of us, floating on immortality as a small gift for what he'd given for so long. Prince didn't just arrive one time, but many. His career was that of endless arrivals and re-arrivals, and so it makes sense, upon the news of his death, that he would once again return. That seems unlikely as I write this now, reminiscing on another moment where he arrived, several times in one night, to deliver a show inside of a show. To, once again, eclipse something seemingly greater than himself." Dearly beloved, thank you for blessing us with a talent as great and vast and deep as Prince.
Next, Hanif addresses ScHoolboy Q and how he advertently tells white people at his shows that it's okay to say the N word. He believes that if people paid entry to his show, put food on his table, they shouldn't have to be uncomfortable and can sing along to the word where normally there is a silence. It's crazy how eager people are to say it when they are given permission.
"The problem is that everyone wants to talk about language entirely independent of any violence that the existence of that language has accumulated over time. If, for example, a word can be hurled through the air while a boot comes down on a face, that part of the word's lineage has to be accounted for. Any language that is a potential precursor to bloodletting has a small history that it can't be pulled apart from. All black parents I know, particularly those of some Southern origin, have a story about the first time they were called a n*gger, deliberately, and with some measure of anger behind the word. There is often running involved, or at least the story has a tone of the teller of it understanding that they might not have lived to do the telling if not for some stroke of luck. What ScHoolboy Q is doing at his shows is, in some ways, giving permission to something that would likely occur even if permission wasn't granted. He is allowed it to be done louder, and more comfortably. As the demographics of rap fans shift, and the things those fans have access to shifts, a thing that I have a problem with is the population of the rap show. ScHoolboy Q is not alone, but as a rap artist gets bigger, and their ticket prices become higher, their audiences become whiter. It's a question of who can afford the show, which in the case of ScHoolboy Q, becomes a question of who can afford to be comfortable saying a word that comes with a violence they'll never know."
A large section of the book circles around punk rock and what it's like to be a Black fan in a sea of white people. Driving across state lines with your best friends to see a show. Seeing bands with a crowd of eighteen and then years later seeing them on the Grammys stage with their pants pulled down. How some of their songs are scarily misogynistic and framed around revenge fantasy. There is a theme throughout the entire book of "too many funerals" and "sadness, sadness, sadness" and you wait and wait for Hanif to give into his vulnerability and finally let you, the reader, in. And when you get to the chapter on Fall Out Boy, you will understand. And you will not be able to believe that another human being let you experience this grief with him in such a profound way. You will think about it for months. And you will say, did Fall Out Boy really just make me cry? Yes, yes they did. I was sobbing in a hot tub reading this part. And I'm not going to spoil it, because if there's any reason as to why you should read this book, it is this chapter right here, starting on page 103. If you are not super into emo bands, don't give up when you get to this part, I promise promise PROMISE it will be worth it to continue to trek on. Fall Out Boy tears are a new kind of crying that I'm happy to have experienced.
He talks of what it's like to exist in a Black body and to joyfully take up space. What it's like to watch the news and watch another man who looks like you left on the street with bullets in his back. What it's like to have a friend commit suicide. What it's like to glorify Black spaces but also internally fight the misogynistic tendencies of each space. What it's like to be so fucking sad but still want to be here. What it's like to fight and the different types of rebellion—the hard rebellious work but also the work of taking a break and watching a bad movie without thinking of how awful everything is. What it's like to have your mother die, something I never want to think about. What it's like to be a Muslim in America. What it's like to be pulled over by police for the first time as a Black man.
One of my favorite essays is on Fleetwood Mac, one of the most interesting and musically talented bands to ever exist, and one of my personal favorites. I love being asked the question of "If you could pick one person, dead or alive, to have dinner with you, who would it be?" because I always blurt out Stevie Nicks before they even finish asking the question. I have her poster hanging above my couch and I know every single one of her songs and if I die before I see her in concert, I will be tortuously damned. When Hanif discusses the revolutionary album Rumours, I was jumping on the bed, never wanting it to end. I wanted him to dissect it forever. I would read an entire book dedicated to Hanif analyzing Fleetwood Mac.
“For anyone who has ever loved someone and then stopped loving them, or for anyone who has stopped being loved by someone, it's a reminder that the immediate exit can be the hardest part. Admitting the end is one thing, but making the decision to walk into it is another, particularly when an option to remain tethered can mean cheaper rent, or a hit album, or at the very least, a small and tense place that you can go to turn your sadness into something more than sadness. It's all so immovable, our endless need for someone to desire us enough to keep us around. To simply call Rumours a breakup album doesn't do it justice. Most breakup albums have an end point. Some triumph, a reward, or promise about how some supposed emotional resilience might pay off. Rumours is an album of continual, slow breaking."
I cannot recommend this book enough. The absolute density of insight, observation, and challenges to do better beg for you to read this multiple times. I had fun writing this because I stumbled across parts I didn't pay attention to as closely the first time and got a brand new reading experience. His writing wants you to propel forward and read the next essay—you are so hungry for his words. And you know you aren't taking the adequate time to synthesize all the knowledge Hanif is feeding you, but you are just ravenous for his next take. TAKE YOUR TIME with this book and enjoy it. It's one of those books I wish I could experience for the first time again.
"In this way, heartbreak is akin to a brief and jarring madness. Keeping up the fight - any fight - to not have to reckon with your own sorrow isn't ideal, but it might help to keep a familiar voice in your ears a bit longer than letting go would. I don't enjoy being heartbroken, but I'm saying I enjoy the point of heartbreak where we convince ourselves that literally everything is on the table, and run into whatever will dull the sharp echoing for a night, or a week, until a week becomes a year. It is the madness that both seduces and offers you your own window out once it's done with you."
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us
By Hanif Abdurraqib
270 pages. 2017.
Buy it here.