The Good Will Read a Damn Book Club: In Praise of Hanif Abdurraqib's "They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us"
I’m what Mike calls a “fucking nerd.” In other words, I’m big into books. And boy do I have a lot of feelings about the things I read.
There’s one title I’ve been carrying around with me all summer: “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” by Hanif Abdurraqib.
I’ve been hauling it around in a hole-y tote since May. I’m taking it slow. Re-reading lines not for lack of understanding but to really savour what’s in front of me, especially when everything else about this summer seems to be speeding by.
This triumphant collection of essays on music and culture spans years and genres, all while shedding light on the realities of Black artists and audience members in modern America.
Hanif holds a sincere appreciation for sound and scene, and his critique of it all comes only from a place of love. Never nitpicking, he unravels the fabric we all know: the chart-toppers and the all-American idols and the bands we’re afraid to outgrow. Hanif re-knits it in a way that can cause more comfort. The result: a fit that doesn’t only cater to the rich and white.
Hanif’s writing has appeared in Pitchfork, the New York Times and Fader, but I was first introduced to the cutting tenderness of his voice through a piece called “Poems From an Email Exchange.”
When I read Hanif’s work, I feel as though I am sitting with him in a warmly lit living room. There are cups of tea and store-bought cookies on a cluttered coffee table, and an unpretentious record plays so quietly in the corner. We sit apart in perfect comfort. And he speaks to me like we are very old friends.
The book boasts titles like “Carly Rae Jepsen Loves You Back,” “The Weeknd and the Future of Loveless Sex,” and “The Wonder Years and the Great Suburban Narrative.” And through it all, Hanif tells me, trustingly, about seeing Prince in the rain, surviving the punk scene as a Black man, and burying his friends.
“I'm sad and I've hurt people and I'm a beautifully tortured survivor of my past is a hard thing to say out loud (or scream on a chorus), but it is the honest thing, which means it is the thing that I would rather have sitting in the room with me on the days I miss everyone.” - Hanif Abdurraqib, The Wonder Years and the Great Suburban Narrative.
Summer, for me, has always been a time punctuated by music. Bike rides with headphones in, late-night shows, and music fests. Hanif knows genres I’ve been hesitant to explore. Emo and blue-collar rock. This summer, with Hanif in my head, I’ve taken up space at shows I previously would have missed. Rap in the woods, new names, and haunted venues. Paying money to hear men scream. Feeling, sillily, that he might be proud of me for showing up. Thinking that, now, we’ll have even more to talk about.
Having lived several more years than I have (and having attended more historic concerts than I, in this skippable province, likely ever will) Hanif is the expert here. But never, in all our time together, does he ever speak down to me. When he finishes talking, he leaves moments of intentional silence. Blank pages between essays, breaths between stories. Room for me and my thoughts. Room for you and yours.
I, too, have been held by sound. And I, too, have shared songs with now-dead friends.
I could tell Hanif about all the shows where I’ve arrived alone and left in love. I could list concerts that made me cry. Or tell him how I still see faces bathed in blue. How my knuckles buzz when they knock against the hands of whoever is standing next to me in a crowd. But, really, in this silence, all I can say is thank you.