They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

I don’t want to go overboard here. Hanif Abdurraqib is a less masterful stylist than Dave Hickey or Jonathan Lethem, whose finest collections bear down on music, or straight-up rockcrits Greil Marcus or Ellen Willis. Nor is he as deft as Touré or as dazzling as Greg Tate or as original as his acknowledged inspiration Lester Bangs. And yes, there are other notable youngbloods out there, most of them women. But as someone who’d as soon read a good essay collection as a good novel, I don’t want to understate either. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us establishes Abdurraqib as a major rock critic — polished and deft and original in a searchingly unpolished way and, if you’ll grant that the word need be no more race-specific than “rock critic” itself, more soulful than any of the above except Bangs. Yes, he’s less funny than Bangs — we all are. But in Abdurraqib’s case that comes with the concept.

Abdurraqib is a thirty-two-year-old African American from a struggling lower-middle-class family in Columbus, Ohio, who owes his Arabic name to parents who converted to Islam in the ’70s. Although never devout and no longer observant, he was the only Muslim at the local college he attended on a soccer scholarship. A third of the 60 poems his website links to reference music, which is also the subject of half the 20 essays there. He’s got a gig at MTV News, where a dozen of these selections first appeared; others surfaced in Pitchfork and the New York Times. But whatever their provenance, Abdurraqib has worked hard to make this book their natural home.

An opening section sequenced Chance the Rapper-Springsteen-Carly Rae Jepsen-Prince-ScHoolboy Q-Weeknd establishes his cross-racial orientation and his black identity simultaneously, only not quite as you might expect. Yes, the ScHoolboy Q piece unpacks the rapper’s insistence that the white fans who buy his ever-pricier tickets get over it and utter the word “nigger.” But Abdurraqib’s thoughts on Springsteen, whose delvings into mortality, work, and the American Dream he admires avidly, are just as race-conscious — only a day before the show, he’d put mortality in perspective by visiting Ferguson, and he can’t help but notice that, speaking of work, he’s the only black person at the Meadowlands who’s there for the concert rather than a j-o-b. Yet arrayed around Springsteen are the explicitly happy beginning of a candy-colored, gospel-soaked Chance the Rapper event and, happier still, a Carly Rae concert — which does, he mentions, attract some black couples — where fans are kissing, truly kissing, in Manhattan’s brutally industrial Terminal 5.

If you’re expecting more of the eclectic same, though, Abdurraqib then pulls a switch, because it turns out he was an emo kid, a follower of the punky, hooky, hyperemotional pop-rock subgenre typified by Dashboard Confessional and Fall Out Boy that dominates Section II. I was always too old for emo, with its built-in male narcissism rendered even ranker by its trademark self-pity, but Abdurraqib’s report from the front is something to treasure. Emo is such a white scene that he was often the only black kid at shows where moshers thrashed in full-fledged clubs and sweaty basements alike, and so he begins by outlining his eventual progress to the Afropunk movement. But that clarified, he turns his sympathies to the lost white suburban Midwesterners who were his brothers in pain, in particular his friend Tyler, who surfaces by name in the jumbled eight-part tour de force “Fall Out Boy Forever.” In the beginning, tall Tyler strides into the pit to rescue short Hanif, sprawled below the leaping throng. In the end, troubled Tyler commits suicide. The lesson being that the unlistenable emotions emo indulges are literally too much for many who hear their own anguish there.

Although almost every black American lives closer to death than almost every white American, Abdurraqib is probably more blessed than Tyler was. But not by much. Several other emo deaths haunt him; he lost his mother overnight when her bipolar meds killed her in her sleep; his 2015 “My Demons and My Dog and This Anxiety and That Noise” — not included here, perhaps because he didn’t dare expose himself so nakedly — is an excruciating account of his own anxiety disorders. And so the bulk of the book culminates with a long final section — most of it previously unpublished — that hews close to music as it lays out a piecemeal autobiography. Most of it takes place post−Trayvon Martin, who was slain the night Abdurraqib drove to Minnesota with a companion I take to be his future wife, to witness a typically stirring show by white alt-rap lifers Atmosphere. I don’t agree with all his analyses or feel all his tastes, but every one gains not just poignancy but heft from personal particulars that are also, inevitably, political. Abdurraqib always remains a critic who deals in textual interpretation and aesthetic judgment. But the urgency that infuses music for him, often captured in a few articulated details, is what criticism ought to be for and too often isn’t.

Thus the “shiny suit” rap of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” moves him because he knows his just-deceased mom would fall for its Diana Ross sample. Thus the Bataclan massacre evokes first Muslim teens seeking in live music “an escape from whatever particular evil was suffocating them” and then Muslim rapper Lupe Fiasco. Thus man in black Johnny Cash, who never shot a man in Reno, parallels suburban trap-rappers Migos, who never dealt crack. Thus the interlude when Atmosphere pauses his nonstop set for a brief “I need y’all to know that we’re gonna be all right” foreshadows both “The White Rapper Joke,” which surveys seven of the ungainly beasts and reserves special praise for Macklemore’s “weaponization” of his excess fame, and “They Will Speak Loudest About You When You’re Gone,” which juxtaposes white outrage about racist police killings against white failure to see living African Americans, like the New Havenite who peremptorily dumped her bags in his lap and then got on her cell to gab about Freddie Gray — an image Abdurraqib says he recalls often, as will I.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which takes its title from a sign Abdurraqib spotted in Ferguson, is on balance a rather dark book. His anxieties can’t be much fun, his marriage falls apart as his story ends, and he’s seen too much death without becoming inured to it like a gangsta sporting a teardrop tattoo. But let’s not kid around. The era of African-American good feeling that began with the election of Barack Obama — which generated what “The Obama White House, a Brief Home for Rappers” calls an “optics of equality” — was radically disrupted by George Zimmerman and demolished by white supremacist Donald Trump. Abdurraqib assigns himself a mission of celebrating music’s “love and joy” — his Columbus elders with their Sunday soul parties, his emo brethren discharging pent-up torment, the Baton Rouge rapper Foxx igniting his only hit with a profligate “I pull up at the club VIP / Gas tank on E / But all drinks on me,” those provisionally carefree Chance and Carly fans. He ends with a meditation on the wheelies gleeful kids are practicing in the parking lot behind his apartment. But it isn’t just his anxiety disorders that compel him to dwell as well on all the injustices that surround and subtend the same music. It’s a sense of the moment all too few can figure out how to put into words.

Abdurraqib doesn’t write zingers. His power is cumulative, preacherly even, though his Muslim upbringing renders him the rare African American who’s an outsider in the black church. I’ve told you how he ends, with those innocents and their wheelies. So let me end with how he begins. Goes like this: “This, more than anything, is about everything and everyone that didn’t get swallowed by the vicious and yawning maw of 2016, and all that it consumed upon its violent rattling which echoed into the year after it and will surely echo into the year after that one. This, more than anything, is about how there is sometimes only one single clear and clean surface on which to dance, and sometimes it only fits you and no one else. This is about hope, sure, but not in that way that it is often packaged as an antithesis to that which is burning.”


The post They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us appeared first on The Barnes & Noble Review.

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