Rock and Roll Book Club: 'They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us'

'They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us.'
'They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us' by Hanif Abdurraqib. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

What does it mean to write about music in the rock era? Over half a century after the dawn of serious rock criticism, we're still trying to figure that out. No one asks what it means to write about classical music, or theater, or even the relatively young medium of film — but pop music is different.

In part that's because of the legacy of Rolling Stone and gonzo journalists like Hunter S. Thompson, and in part that's because recorded music insinuates itself into our lives in a different way than other art forms do. The vast majority of the time people spend listening to recorded music, and even a lot of the time they spend listening to live music, is also spent doing other things.

For Hanif Abdurraqib, a lot of that time is spent looking around him, and listening to what others are saying. The essays collected in his new volume They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us are about music, but more broadly they're about the role of music in public and private conversations — including the conversations he has with himself.

Abdurraqib is from Columbus, Ohio — not a town that screams "rock and roll" quite the way, say, Cleveland does. The writer admits to a grudging appreciation of native sons Twenty One Pilots: "I'm proud of them because I watched them from their early days, and I'm hard on them because I watched them from their early days."

He's an African-American man, born in 1983 and raised Muslim by parents who converted from Christianity in the 1970s. The title of They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us is taken from a paper sign hung above a memorial for Michael Brown, which Abdurraqib visited the day before attending a Bruce Springsteen concert in New Jersey.

Abdurraqib's analysis of that concert is typical of the insights he describes throughout the book: Springsteen's themes of longing and constraint are universal, but his romanticization of labor "is a dream sold a lot easier by someone who knows where their next meal will come from." The only black people Abdurraqib sees in Springsteen's Garden State audience are actively laboring as vendors, and not being shown much kindness by the Boss's white audience.

While some of the essays have previously appeared in publications including the New York Times, Pitchfork, and MTV News, They Can't Kill Us as a whole is decidedly of its moment: a year into the presidency of "a xenophobic bigot," in a nation convulsed with pain over the deaths of Brown and Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile and the many more whose names never make the headlines.

Abdurraqib repeatedly avers that he won't pretend to be optimistic about what the future holds, but he celebrates the spirit of Chance the Rapper, who "has made joy into a brand" and who "makes music facing his people while also leaving the door open for everyone else to try and work their way in." Poignantly, Abdurraqib writes that "the soundtrack to grief isn't always as dark as the grief itself. Sometimes what we need is something to make the grief seem small, even when you know it's a lie."

Although most of the book's 40 essays (including an interpolated reflection on Marvin Gaye singing the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game) address music in some manner, several aren't about music but about being stopped by police, about violence to black bodies, about sports and faith and death and family. The result is a portrait of a man and a music-lover whose tastes range from soul to hip-hop to an abiding affection for emo.

An essay on Fleetwood Mac compares Rumours to a couple the author knows who broke up but couldn't afford to split up their cohabiting arrangement. A piece on The Weeknd explores his evocation of "loveless sex," of eroticism that somehow doesn't involve the singer trying to be particularly sexy. An essay on Nina Simone resists the "predictably polished" version of the singer seen in the Zoe Saldana biopic.

When it comes to hip-hop, Abdurraqib is penetrating. He praises the grand invention of LL Cool J's indomitable persona, and defends Migos against those who say their street-smart rhymes aren't legit because they come from the suburbs. ("Rap is the genre of music that least allows for its artists to comfortably revel in fiction," he writes, pointing out that Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno.) A fascinating essay on white rappers argues that Macklemore isn't bad as an artist, but that Abdurraqib gravitates instead to Eminem; he admits to personally wishing Macklemore would "make songs where he isn't lecturing me on the world that I already understand."

A couple of essays will have special interest to Minnesotan readers. Abdurraqib writes about Prince at the Super Bowl, literally walking on water: "There are moments when those we believe to be immortal show us why that belief exists."

He also writes about taking a long road trip from Ohio to St. Cloud, Minnesota, to see Atmosphere on their home turf. When Life Gives You Lemons, released in 2008, resonated with Abdurraqib and his friends working menial jobs at the time; that album's lyrics spoke to "what it is not to go home, when going home might be a more comfortable option." Themselves at home, Slug and Ant delivered "one of the best rap shows I have ever seen," writes Abdurraqib. "I haven't seen Atmosphere since February 26, 2012, mostly because I haven't been able to catch them in Minnesota again."

Then, when the concert got out, the writer learned that Trayvon Martin had been shot to death. Abdurraqib reflects on "what a country's fear of blackness can do while you are inside a room, soaking in joy, being promised that you would make it through."

Hanif Abdurraqib will do a reading at Milkweed Books on May 1.

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