Ice Cube’s “Death Certificate,” a sparkplug of a rap album released six months before the 1992 Los Angeles riots, is segmented into halves: Side A titled “The Death Side” and Side B “The Life Side.” Visceral guides to early-’90s urban unrest, both sides are striking not so much in their contrast as for their likeness. As an authoritative treatise on the delicacy of black lives during a period defined by inequality and protest, the album is a touchstone for “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,” a breathtaking collection of largely music-focused essays by Hanif Abdurraqib.
“The link between black music and black survival shows up most urgently when the stakes are at their highest,” Abdurraqib writes in an essay charting the inextricability of music and the African American experience from Harriet Tubman through N.W.A. That statement informs the approach of his critical pieces, most of which are narratives interspersed by ruminations. He attends concerts alone and observes the songs’ effect on other solitary faces, sees Bruce Springsteen a day after visiting Ferguson and recalls watching the Notorious B.I.G.’s casket travel through Brooklyn months before burying his own mother. As media pundits decry position-paper-styled op-eds and music critics offer letter-graded album reviews, Abdurraqib’s wide-ranging appraisals feel intensely vital.
Abdurraqib’s famous subjects are treated as humans first, artists second and celebrities a distant third. As such, his portrayal of pop music reads true to lived experience, evoking a medium in which emotiveness overshadows mechanics. For instance, a short essay recalling Prince’s Super Bowl XLI halftime performance focuses on brief moments of transcendence, the way time seemed to freeze for a few minutes of decades-old synth-pop. In Abdurraqib’s hands, Lite FM staples and flawed emo bands are vehicles for human coping and suffering, dignified through their warm comforts and pure intentions. Whether the music was good is often less important than that it was indelible.
The timeliness of its subjects may make “They Can’t Kill Us” vulnerable to rapid aging, but the writing is anything but disposable. Paragraphs open with piercing salvos, with sentences that move with hammering force and finish with finesse and flourish. Deployment of the second-person turns descriptions into urgent mandates. An interlude invoking Marvin Gaye professes, “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.” An account of the author’s years spent in the Columbus, Ohio, punk scene proclaims, bluntly, “There is something powerful in someone who looks like you actually seeing you.”
Rhythmic repetition makes for roaring passages that beg to be read aloud, but for all his poetic muscularity, Abdurraqib understands the value of linguistic economy. “What makes the dead body worthwhile is that it was once living,” he opens a passage about Ida B. Wells and Sandra Bland.
In essays dealing with historical figures, long-winded reveries are punctuated by moments of shattering empathy. We’re reminded that Allen Iverson, an icon as important for his fearless pride as for his gamesmanship, was in fact mourning a murdered friend on the day of his infamous “Practice” rant. An anecdote about Marvin Gaye’s anthem performance at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game serves as a thematic link between sections. For Abdurraqib, the singer’s lively interpretation of an ode to the flag is at once deferential and transgressive, an impossibly on-the-nose metaphor for a rich life cut short by his own father.
While the more autobiographical pieces presented within “They Can’t Kill Us” depict the author’s family and childhood, his essays about Serena Williams, church bombings and 9/11 capture the broader culture and era.
Readers who don’t know Webbie from Lil Boosie, or who can’t distinguish the members of Fall Out Boy may find themselves disoriented during parts of “They Can’t Kill Us,” but that specificity arms Abdurraqib with impeccable command even in his most vulnerable reflections. The struggle between anguish and hope, between a well-impacted cynicism and the optimism needed to face another day underscores nearly every essay. “What good is endless hope in a country that never runs out of ways to drain you of it?” Abdurraqib despairs in a dispatch dated December 2016. And yet, as Gaye’s anthem drove home, “Celebrating while still fighting . . . is perhaps what represents the ethos of this country more than anything else.”
“They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” is a definitive meditation on contemporary black dying, so if parts read like a eulogy, others create a manual for how to live when America looks your way and sees a dead man walking. Which is why, time and again, Abdurraqib and his readers return to pop music, a medium where the voiceless find words — or if not, a cheap thrill enjoyed on the march toward death.
Pete Tosiello is a writer and critic based in New York City.
By Hanif Abdurraqib
Two Dollar Radio. 236 pp. $16.99