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There’s a moment in Hanif Abdurraqib’s excellent collection of essays on music, mortality and being black in America today when he is describing Prince’s famous Super Bowl performance in 2007. As the rain gets heavier, Prince becomes more mystical. Abdurraqib describes this transcendent moment where he launches into Purple Rain and appears to “bend a storm to his will”. It’s like the rain is hitting a force field around him as he hits those perfect notes we know so well. It’s magic.
Having seen the video on YouTube, and watched as the star’s silhouette becomes larger than life, I understand what Abdurraqib means when he says: “The rain never touches those who it knows were sent into it for a higher purpose.” It’s a delicate moment of joy and reflection in a book that uses music as memoir, music as reason to be and music as historical record.
Abdurraqib is a critic who has made his name by dissecting pop culture and music with a compassionate, sometimes cutting tone. His poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (2016), was an emotional barrage of captured moments. Having written for Pitchfork, the New York Times and Fader, this is his first book of essays. From the impact of Ice Cube’s seminal album Death Certificate to the sight of the Notorious BIG’s coffin, from the significance of seeing Springsteen, days after the death of Michael Brown, to the fallout from Fall Out Boy’s career, the music that is the soundtrack to They Can’t Kill Us… is magnetic and poignant, and tinged with heartache. Each piece on a band, an album, a concert, a lyric, tells the story of modern America and what it is to be black.
Small moments acquire the weight of history in Abdurraqib’s mind. There is a breathlessness to his writing, as if each essay exists in one rush, a thought that builds and builds before bursting with compassion. In It Rained in Ohio on the Night Allen Iverson Hit Michael Jordan With a Crossover, we bear witness to a three-second move in the middle of a basketball game that reminded Michael Jordan, just for a second, that he was human and could still be beaten. As the essay builds, he throws in oral histories of the latter stages of Jordan’s career, of his own parents and how their basketball allegiances set the tone of the household and how a young Abdurraqib saw, in one small moment, his own potential laid out for him: “Alone in the wet aftermath of a night where I first saw the player I imagined myself becoming. A shot, finally finding the bottom of the net, and my hand, still extended, to an audience of no one.”
Abdurraqib’s writing is an antidote to the arched eyebrow of most music journalism. He writes with a sincerity that makes his subjects fallible. He writes as if music matters. For him, it is a metaphor for human suffering, for race and class, for what it is to be American. In one of his interludes dealing with the impact of Marvin Gaye, he writes: “To bear witness to so much death that could easily be your own is to push toward redefining what it is to be a patriot in this country.”
It’s the line-by-line prose that best shows off his ability. He uses repetition – of phrases, of sentence structures, of images – to establish a rhythm that stands toe to toe with the rappers he idolises. No sentence is laden, no word is overused, making They Can’t Kill Us… a joy to read aloud in small chunks.
There are essays about his family, his childhood, friends, his neighbourhood. About Serena Williams, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Nina Simone. Each one is about death, about lore, but also, in its own way, about hope and finding moments of joy and grace in a country that is armed against black people.
Like Lester Bangs, who wrote as if his life depended on it, whose thoughts would lie like lead in his brain if he didn’t get them down on paper, Abdurraqib’s writing is full of urgency. In the final essay, Surviving on Small Joys, one of the book’s quieter, meditative pieces, he writes: “Let the children have their world. Their miraculous impossible world where nothing hurts long enough to stop time. Let them have it for as long as it will hold them…”
I’m there with him, hopeful yet realistic, headphones on, music on loop, letting it soundtrack every single second of our lives.
• They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib is published by Melville House (£9.99). To order a copy for £8.59 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian
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