While historians will no doubt want to focus plenty of time and energy on the 2016 election, the storm of shit that has been 2017, and whatever craziness the next few years hold, the decade between going from “Hope” to “Cope” has provided us with plenty to read. Ten years filled with the voices of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Solnit, Roxane Gay, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Claudia Rankine, Alexander Chee, and Maggie Nelson. George Saunders, Jesmyn Ward, and Colson Whitehead added new fiction to the Great American Bookshelf. We got Grantland, The Rumpus, Jacobin, The New Inquiry, and a number of other journals, magazines, and blogs that only maybe stuck around for a quarter of a year. Releases and authors on indie presses won big awards, and maybe because of these people, presses, and publications we will end up all the better when we emerge from whatever they’re going to brand this hopefully short sour burp in time. It sounds like wishful thinking given our current hellscape, but when you really sit down and think of what has been produced since 2008, you might feel a little bit better.
In his debut collection that makes it onto that list, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio), Hanif Abdurraqib sits between America’s good and its awful as an observer in search of something better. The bulk of the essays in the collection are tied to music and pop culture, but only so Abdurraqib can explain, maybe better than any pundit or content creator capable of snazzy headlines, what it’s been like in America in the 2010s.
There’s a point during the second essay in the book, “A Night in Bruce Springsteen’s America,” where Abdurraqib, dwelling on the 35th anniversary tour and re-release to celebrate Springsteen’s 1980 album The River, provides a focal point for the entire collection. I say this partially because Abdurraqib reveals where the book derived its title from, but also because in one single passage, you get to know so much about the person writing the essay, and how he goes about using some cherished piece of Americana to understand the current state of the country.
“I have been thinking a lot about the question of who gets to revel in their present with an eye still on their future,” Abdurraqib writes. He’s in the middle of the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Springsteenland U.S.A. Up until this point, Abdurraqib mostly writes about the experience of seeing Springsteen on his turf and the music. It’s a sold-out show, we’re told, and that, “when I arrived, the only other black people I saw were performing labor in some capacity.” Abdurraqib dwells on the meaning of Springsteen’s romanticization of working class Americans, thinking about “for whom work is romantic, and for whom work is a necessary and sometimes painful burden of survival.” But it’s as he’s thinking about the aforementioned question about who gets to enjoy the now and think about some sort of future that his thoughts turn to Michael Brown, and a sign hanging above a memorial for the Ferguson teen killed by a police officer a year before The River concert hit New Jersey. “Mike Brown was flawed,” Abdurraqib writes, “but young enough to be romanticized in the way Springsteen’s romantics bleed all throughout The River, where mistakes are large and beautiful, and pointing to some much more spectacular end.”
It takes a lot to write a truly great and meaningful Springsteen essay in this day and age. Few American musicians besides Bob Dylan have had so many articles, essays, and books dedicated to dissecting what it all means; why their work is so important, and what it tells us about America’s past, present, and future. Abdurraqib does that, but it’s a difference take, one that’s less about The Boss as it is America and privilege. Springsteen just provides an opportunity to explore these things; Abdurraqib tries uses his art to make sense of the world. That’s what cultural criticism is supposed to be, right? The thing is that you come away from every ones of his essays with the feeling that he’s trying to make sense of it for himself as well as you, the reader. That both of you should continue to think about these things, to explore all the different angles. He does it when he examines post-Katrina Baton Rouge through the rap song “Wipe Me Down,” Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and his own personal experience. He writes about his first time being pulled over by police, about the cops that would cruise past his hometown basketball courts and follow Abdurraqib and his friends into stores. He writes about radio emo bands, Migos, the middle of the country, and compares the wrestling rivalry between Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes to LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee. The America Abdurraqib writes about is weird and wonderful, scary and horrible. There’s a lot to take in, and a ton to think about.
The titles of the essays work as perfect forewords. “I Wasn’t Brought Here, I was Born: Surviving Punk Rock Long Enough to Find Afropunk,” is one of the smartest looks at how “the attitudes of racism and exclusion in the punk scene” are pretty much the same as they are outside of the supposedly open-minded scene. In “Chance The Rapper’s Golden Year,” he writes, “I haven’t been to church in years but I am of a people who know how to preach.” He also notes, “A lot of white people love Chance The Rapper, which makes me reluctant to paint him as some smiling and dancing young black artist, appealing to the white masses.” In a few pages Abdurraqib dissects Chance, Coloring Book, spirituality, as well as his own personal feelings about the Grammy winner, and comes away with something illuminating: “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.” He breaks down My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy in a similar fashion. Abdurraqib is careful when doing this. He studies every angle of something or somebody he’s going to write about, but ultimately all roads lead back to the self, how Hanif Abdurraqib feels. These essays are personal, but I have a hard time classifying them as personal essays in the traditional sense, the type that were part of a boom over the last decade that Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker believes is now over. Instead, Abdurraqib finds a way to connect with the reader in every single essay. It’s a conversation he’s having with you. You read the essay, then you dwell on it, and it’s your turn to contribute. His feelings aren’t liturgy, he isn’t telling you how you should think or feel, there’s no preaching or telling you you’re wrong. Instead, Abdurraqib offers his takes up for your consideration so that you might sit down, feel, think, and then feel again about Welcome to the Black Parade or Chance The Rapper.
It’s a little bit of comfort when you think about it, that with They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Abdurraqib has provided us with an essay collection that might help make some small sense of what’s going on. That maybe, hopefully, one day soon we can step back into the light with an understanding of how to be a little better. That the voices that emerged over the last decade helped forge a path towards something better, and that things can be good.