Small Heavens for Respite

Review of Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (USA: Two Dollar Radio, 2017)
by Kendrick Loo

There are few things I remain more ambivalent about than our desire for joy. Our desire for it drives our furious search for experience and innovation, while its loss attests to its fragile nature. One definition of joy is found in the negotiation of self in relation to the wider world, and in the individual's ability to claim space for happiness. In this vein, Hanif Abdurraqib's They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, his first foray into non-fiction following poetry collections The Crown Ain't Worth Much and Vintage Sadness, explores how music helps us seize joyfulness from the jaws of the world. Through a collection of forty essays surrounding pop culture and music, and how it relates to family, friendship, politics, and love, Abdurraqib explores the relevance of music in our lives, and through it how happiness is an arrangement that is lost as easily as it is achieved.

Published by Two Dollar Radio, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us was released in November 2017, its essays covering a diverse range of musicians from rappers such as Atmosphere and Notorious B.I.G, to artists such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Bruce Springsteen. While the sheer breadth of musicians covered could intimidate, Abdurraqib's collection deftly avoids common pitfalls of other reviews by grounding his essays in the context of personal experience. In the first section of They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, this is achieved by observation, which transforms personal enjoyment into public commentary and analysis. From The Weeknd to Prince, Abdurraqib's essays probe artists and their audiences, and the emotions an artist elicits from their fans.

Hanif's background as a poet lends itself to an evocative method of close listening, which intersperses anthropological observations about audiences, concert venues, and musicians themselves with critiques of craftsmanship. On Chance the Rapper, for instance, Hanif contextualizes music in the political and emotional climate it was released: "This, more than anything, is about how sometimes there is only one single clear and clean surface on which to dance, and sometimes it fits only you and no one else…. It was an endless year that was sometimes unbearable, and I sometimes threw open my windows and let music flood into the streets." Abdurraqib's subsequent observations persuasively argue how Chance's music represents a break from the pessimism of 2016, a characteristic lens when we retrospectively look at that year. Undeniably too, Abdurraqib possesses a keen ear for rhythm and sound, and his writing is surgically precise. He is able to subtly switch from exposition to direct address, achieving a cumulative power similar to a charismatic preacher. "Dearly beloved,” Abdurraqib writes in his essay on Prince's half-time Superbowl performance, "I will walk into the next storm and leave my umbrella behind me. Please join me." Caught up by emotion, it is difficult to not follow his intimate imperative.

The audience is both participant and arbiter on the overall success of an artist's vision and message in They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us. The book relies on their energetic and emotional response to derive conclusions on an artist's overall success. This gold standard is explored in the essay "Carly Rae Jepsen Loves You Back,” which explores how despite the approachability of her music, there remains an effervescent and genuine quality to Jepsen's stage presence that convinces "a room full of people to set their sadness aside and, for a night, bring out whatever joy remains underneath—in a world where there is so much to be had.” While Carly Rae Jepsen and other musicians like her may never succeed in the popularity sweepstakes, Abdurraqib, observing how the concert audience lowered their public inhibitions, reasons that audience validation is a suitable alternative to venue size and sales metrics. "Here," Abdurraqib writes on Jepsen singing, "that shame falls to dust." In and of itself, audience engagement is a rare gift.

In They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Abdurraqib rarely feels unalloyed joy or constant alienation. There is a mix of emotions inherent in the anthropological, retrospective angle that his essays take. However, Abdurraqib's familiarity and skill with the narrative form reveals itself in startling surprises. Take "February 26, 2012", which is the first of three date-line titled pieces in the collection. Here, Abdurraqib narrates his travels to Minneapolis to listen to rapper duo Atmosphere perform on home turf. Dubbing it one of the best shows he has ever attended, Hanif emerges from the show to the phone notification of Trayvon Martin's death. For individuals unfamiliar with the date, this narrative twist is quietly devastating. Abdurraqib paints the crash from euphoria in rhythmic understatement, punctuating it with arrestingly short clauses: "I remember looking up and into the still-lingering crowd and seeing another person scrolling their phone, stopped in their tracks. And then another, and one or two more. I imagined they were all taking in what I was taking in, even if they weren't." As much as Abdurraqib wishes for a return to that emotional oneness of the music, the news of Trayvon Martin's death works as a vicious undertow against his thoughts. Sentence structure mimics thought process, and nothing can stop the gradual fragmentation of the crowd transforming back into individuals.

Even as Abdurraqib's writing achieves both lucidity and complexity in its exploration of feeling, documenting moments of hard-earned joy will almost certainly mean that the events and performances recorded, like the ephemeral nature of fame and music, will age poorly for future readers. What wll stay with every reader, however, is the lodestar of deeply felt personal experience. Take Abdurraqib's essay "Fall Out Boy Forever,” which forms the third section of the book. Narrated non-chronologically, it traces Fall Out Boy's journey to find their sound, while running against Hanif's own experiences of attending the funerals of friends and acquaintances he grew up with. The suicide of Abdurraqib's friend Tyler, which forms the main emotional hook of the piece, marks an emotional turning point in the collection, as the death of a personal friend pointedly introduces the intersecting axes of economic and race-based discrimination to Abdurraqib's musings. Abdurraqib's writing, more certainly than previous sections, turns in his fourth and fifth sections to documenting what it means to be black and Muslim in a world after 9/11. Partway through "Fall Out Boy Forever,” Hanif writes about dating a girl who never attended a funeral before: "I couldn't decide if I thought something was wrong with her, or if something was wrong with me—the way I learned to cling to my relationship with death as if loving it hard enough would make it into a full person." This discomfort is resolved narratively through the essay's final segment, which chronicles Fall Out Boy's reunion in 2013. Pete and Patrick's actions that night becomes an emotional surrogate for Hanif's own relationships. In the reconciliatory handshake between bandmates, Abdurraqib senses his own longing—"It felt, more than anything, an acknowledging of no hard feelings. Or, an acknowledgement of that which we all spend a lifetime searching for: the permission to come home again, after forgetting that there are still people who will show up to love you, no matter how long you've been away. No matter how obsessed you've been with your own vanishing, there will always be someone who wants you whole."

Compared against Abdurraqib's 2016 poetry collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us reads more cohesively. This may be in part due to Abdurraqib's writing, which stylistically is more suited for the essay form. His eye for detail turns any of his essays into a treasure trove of details, allusions, and insights, complementing his ability for crafting stellar opening and closing lines. These range from the gently incongruous, such as "In the fall of 2006, I was in the midst of typical early-20s purgatory,” to stunning acts of personification such as "I am made more uneasy by a rage that rests itself beneath silence than I am with something loud, stomping along a house and making glass rattles.” Penning the foreword for They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, poet Eve L. Ewing notes that Abdurraqib is "something between an empath and an illusionist":

"He has an uncanny ability to write about music and the world around it as though he was sitting there on the couch with you in your grandma's basement, listening to her old vinyl, or he was in that car with you and your high school friend who would later become your boyfriend, singing until you were hoarse."—from "Foreword"

As one who did not grow up in that historical landscape, this review must differ from Ewing's judgement. Abdurraqib's writing succeeds due to its ability to dig into a common emotion and portray it in a way that challenges its previous conception. This is most evident in Abdurraqib's essays which comment on broader pop-culture phenomena and not just music. Writing on Serena Williams, arguably this era's best female tennis player, Abdurraqib deftly unpacks and sensitively demonstrates how Williams' aggressive and joyful style of play is positioned uncomfortably between being both black and female in a traditionally white-dominated sport. "For many people," Abdurraqib writes, "the intersection of race and gender is an uncomfortable place, and Serena Williams' greatness sits firmly in the center of it. So much so that any time she wins, there is no way to have a discussion that does not reduce her to her most Black, or her most woman." In light of recent events at the 2018 U.S Open women's finals, Abdurraqib's writing remains an urgent and timely read.

On the whole, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us is not an easy read. Its heavy truths reflect the realities of oppression and violence that often intersect and compound each other upon a black, Muslim man. However, Abdurraqib's voice never loses sight of the optimism that drives it so strongly in the first section of the collection. Throughout sections four and five of the collection, joy is still found even as the essays turn to examine the structures of oppression entrenched in black communities and the larger world that surrounds them. This is achieved through movement away from music to a broader perspective on art and society—examining significant representations of black culture such as ex-President Barack Obama, basketballer Allen Iverson, and tennis player Serena Williams. The hazy line between danger and joy is most strongly embodied in the essay "November 22, 2014,” which conflates the image of fireworks with gunshots. As the essay closes, Abdurraqib hears a popping sound from outside the house. Instead of revealing if it was one or the other, Abdurraqib chooses to focus on the act of turning to look at the sky. Perhaps the world is dangerous, as earlier essays like "August 9, 2014" or "On Paris" delineate, but there is a chance for beauty that is worth braving the uncertain for.

It is perhaps telling that the last essay to close They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us is titled "Surviving on Small Joys". In a book whose title comes from a sign Abdurraqib spotted in Ferguson, hanging over the memorial of Michael Brown, "Surviving on Small Joys" as a title responds to the question of living in a hostile world. That answer, Abdurraqib writes, is joy. "Joy alone will not grant anyone safety. It can, however, act as a small bit of fuel when the work of resistance becomes too much." While indeed They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us may not provide any pleasant answers to the questions it raises, Abdurraqib's intentions parallel that of Marvin Gaye—whose music inspires the opening of each of Abdurraqib's five sections. In a book so critically aware of how the world appears to be falling apart, Abdurraqib's writing recognizes the impulse that drove Marvin Gaye to produce beauty in a country so deeply divided on issues of race and gender. By locating our existence among public issues but by carving out small heavens for respite, even the sound of bullets can be softened into fireworks. This manifesto provides a beautiful ending to a collection filled with hard-won happiness, reminding us that there are timeless and timely ways about America— in the opportunities it allows and also in the challenges it poses.

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Kendrick Loo is an English & Management undergraduate at University of St Andrews. His poetry has been published in SingPoWriMo '16, The New Paper, and L'Ephemere Review. He is part of the ATOM writing group, and publishes poetry reviews for Singapore Unbound.