Sunday Morning! “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” by Hanif Abdurraqib
Hanif Abdurraqib was the writer I needed more than anything in the world at this particular moment in time and nevertheless found his writing on a pure whim. You see there’s a blurb quote on the cover of his Abdurraqib’s recent collection of essays, “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,” from Greil Marcus that reads: “Not a day has sounded the same since I read him.” I don’t particularly care about the Greil Marcus of it as much as the implied change in perception; this is what we want our writers to do, isn’t it? Change the way that everything sounds and looks and tastes and feels? Basically, what that says is “You have to read this right the hell now!”
More specifically, the blurb mentions sound, which is something that exists embedded in time and is subsequently wiped out by time. Abdurraqib’s essays nearly all have to do with music and the ways it contextualizes itself within our life and also recontextualizes our life.
What do I mean by that? Do you remember Luscious Jackson? They were a one-hit wonder (who maybe didn’t even have one) and they featured the former drummer for the Beastie Boys, and they were briefly popular during the one summer I spent with the first girl I ever really loved in that way, like being carried along by a tremendous wave and eventually left on the beach, but we saw them play at an outdoor festival and when she kissed me, she took my hand and placed it on her ass and laughed delightedly. So, that’s what I mean by contextualizing.
To be honest, I love music and I love writing, but I usually can’t stand music writing. There’s so much of it that writers tend to overdo the writing in order to break through the deafening din of it all. I will read some blogger writing about how his friend’s band is “what the Stooges would have sounded like if they were even half this ferocious!” and I feel embarrassed for everyone involved. I guess the common touchstone for a lot of music writers is Lester Bangs who was great when he was great and sort of an idiot when he wasn’t, but has at least five essays that changed the way I hear certain music forever. Bangs burned out quickly though and his writing suffers not only from his substance issues, but also how embedded it is in a particular time and place that might as well be the Edwardian era at this point. The real problem with music writing, you see, is it ages very quickly.
The thing I didn’t realize though is music writing is a bit like travel writing in that it’s a genre of autobiography. If you focus on some album that is currently popular and try to get a bead on it, I might know it and maybe for a brief instant we’re both hearing the same song on the radio all the time. But then you tell me how it fit into your life, how it kept you alive when you needed to hear those words, or got you through heartbreak, or helped you grieve your lost parent, or find the strength to sing very loud in a world that couldn’t otherwise hear you; and then we’re talking.
My favorite essay in the book (and the best essay I’ve read in at least a year) is called February 26, 2012, and it’s about this: what it’s like to drive Columbus, Ohio, to the middle of Minnesota to see the hip hop duo Atmosphere play, missing the NBA All-Star Game to go, in a car driven by someone who you like and who might like you, after a terrible relationship, and getting to spend time with “someone who made me feel like there was a window for my heartbreak to crawl out of.” It’s also, sort of, about Atmosphere and their empathetic portraits of invisible people and how the “consideration of empathy in mainstream spaces” can, better than anything else, “convince someone to fight for your life after your life is taken.”
And then the essay is about seeing this duo play in a large ballroom in which the floor creaks under the weight of hundreds of jumping young people and feeling like it might be okay if it were to give way under the weight of so much joy. And then the wonderful feeling of exiting into the cool night air “cloaked in sweat” from a hot club. And how, “If the night air is cool, the way it sits on your skin is a type of forgiveness.” And how the cell phones didn’t get reception in the club, so everyone turned theirs on afterwards. And how “I turned it back on at just past midnight. Trayvon Martin had already been dead for four hours.”
And after all, the sledgehammer. Everyone is scrolling on their phones. “I wanted, for a moment, to share in this small horror. 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.”
Because, well, this is perhaps the subtext of everything when your name is Hanif Abdurraqib and you’re black in a country that hasn’t decided if it would rather you were alive or not. The subtext is parents telling the son to bring his cellphone when he goes out in case the cops pull him over, or being pulled over for the first time by a very angry cop and knowing: “There are two sides of a night that you can end up on: one where you get to see the sunrise again, and one where you do not.” It’s spending a year after 9/11 apologizing. It’s reaching for your wallet in a small-town gas station and the clerk flinching.
But it’s also sneaking out to hear music and seeing a handful of other Muslim kids who snuck out to hear music. And it’s about how music can serve as a respite from a state of constant anxiety. And, most of all, it’s about joy. After all:
“If this year was bad, next year might be even worse, or at the very least it might be harder. We are nothing without our quick and simple blessings, without those willing to drag optimism by its neck to the gates of grief and ask to be let in, an entire choir of voices singing at their back.”
“And so this is about the choir and about those who might be bold enough to join it before another wretched year arrives to erase another handful of us. This is, more than anything, about those still interested in singing.
So, no, I did not buy the book as part of the current required anti-racism reading list for white people who’ve suddenly recognized black people in their deaths. But it’s about that subject too. And, most of all it is what is needed right now: an expansive portrait of the inner life of a man in relation to music and the world around him and where in that world to glean joy, and it’s rendered in sentences that are so beautiful they make the hairs stand up on your arms. Seriously, you have to read this right the hell now!
So, what are you reading, watching, creating, or listening to this weekend?