In her foreword to Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, writer and professor Ewe Ewing writes, ‘everything is everything’. ‘Race is music is love is America is death is rebirth is brotherhood is growing up is a mother is music is music is music is music,’ she says. Hanif’s essays present music as being a deeply embedded part of our social fabric – nobody is just a pop star, a rock band, a rapper (and really, what does ‘just a band’ mean, anyway?). Bruce Springsteen is a symbol for the privilege of white America, Fall Out Boy are conduits to the ghosts of friends past, and Prince is a god bending the forces of nature to his will – but we knew that part already.
True to its name, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us illuminates death in all its forms. The collection’s title refers to a small paper sign Hanif found hanging over Michael Brown’s memorial in Ferguson, Missouri. “It seemed odd, at first, to see this statement over the memorial of someone who had been murdered and long buried,” he writes in the essay ‘A Night in Bruce Springsteen’s America’. “I think the consideration, though, was that when you come from a people born of a true oral tradition, you live lives even after you are no longer living a life.” Michael Brown’s story, and his death, are seen through the lens of Springsteen’s concert, as Hanif notes the disparity between Springsteen’s “singular America, one where there is a dream to be had for all who enter” and the lived experiences of people of colour in the United States. As Springsteen plays tracks from The River, Hanif draws lines between The River’s vision of the future, and his fear as a black man of not being alive to see a future at all. The River, he writes, was written by a man who knows his work will have some kind of life even after he is gone. Some people are more likely to be afforded that luxury than others.
The idea of afterlives is also a key theme in ‘Death Becomes You: My Chemical Romance and Ten Years of the Black Parade’. ‘Death Becomes You’ is an essay in epic format, a sprawling exploration of certainty, loss, and My Chemical Romance’s most expressive era. The Black Parade saw My Chem far surpass their peers on the mid-00s emo scene, as they deftly navigated themes of death and the afterlife with utter conviction; a certainty inversely reflected by Hanif’s own aimlessness when the album was released. ‘Death Becomes You’ pulls this past-tense Hanif into the present, studying his thoughts on the future and the certainty of death with the benefit of a decade’s hindsight. In ‘Fall Out Boy Forever’, too, Hanif stands in the pit and summons the ghosts of friends long dead – here music is a time machine, a Ouija board, a memorial.
If you – like me, like Hanif Abdurraqib – are a music obsessive, an anxious person, a person whose body has, in some way or another, become a site of conflict, then They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us will probably hit you where you live. By writing about the wider influence of music as a cultural force, Hanif brings deeply personal experiences into the light, as if to lay his grief on a table and say this is mine; and yours? These essays, like songs, are bigger than they appear.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib is available now from Melville House UK (9781911545224, p/b, £9.99)