Hanif Abdurraqib on They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us uses music and culture as a lens through which to view the world. As the book publishes in the UK, we talk to Hanif Abdurraqib about his incredible collection of essays
It’s fitting that we talk to Hanif Abdurraqib on World Suicide Prevention Day. Threads of tweets, stories and messages on social media echo the strands that run tightly throughout his latest book of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. It’s tough to write about music at all without the concept of the ‘tragic artist’ coming up again and again. Indeed, it’s been just three days since Mac Miller passed away – a man who was open about addiction and mental illness – and the front pages are full of overdue talk about male mental health, particularly in the music industry.
In They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, there’s one sentence in a short essay titled Brief Notes On Staying // No One is Making Their Best Work When They Want To Die that states: ‘I’d rather have average art and survival than miracles that come at the cost of someone’s life.’ Of course, everyone, creative or otherwise, has moments of despair, of grief, and of hopelessness. But what Abdurraqib is most interested in, and what has to start changing, is the celebration of pain and the glamorisation of tragedy that encourages those producing these kinds of work to stay in that dark place, with no imperative to climb out. However, to a certain extent, it’s all supply and demand.
"People like to see themselves in someone else’s demons to try to make sense of their own," says Abdurraqib. "It’s a way to make themselves feel less alone. That is essentially why the tragic artist still has such currency."
While a lot of attaching oneself to the notion of a troubled artist or a tragic persona is rooted in this idea that we’re all aching to not feel as alone as we might normally, there is also the sense of performativity in pain: nihilism on social media is favoured by millennials and Gen Z as a way to approach awkward and difficult topics.
"Performing a desire to not want to exist is a way to not have to discuss the very real implications of what that means for a person," he says. "I think it’s where we are: we’re at a place via social media where we’re performing versions of ourselves that are often heightened and more extreme versions of who we really are."
What this has to do with Abdurraqib’s book is the number of times ideations of death, grief and suicide have appeared throughout his life. Months after he saw the Notorious B.I.G.’s body being carried through Brooklyn, his mother passed away from complications due to medication she was taking to fight bipolar disorder. He didn’t see the missed call from his friend Tyler until 5.30am, when it was too late and wonders, in words woven through memories of Fall Out Boy gigs, about the what ifs. He talks of Trayvon Martin, of Sandra Bland, of Michael Brown Jr, all victims of police brutality, and whether – despite brief moments during Obama’s time at the White House where musicians of colour were welcomed, however superficially, into politics – it will ever be safe to be black in America. His essays punch through music to reveal what’s behind the songs.
"When I was a young kid, I had a strong interest in music and wanting to articulate the stories underneath it," he notes. "So I spent a lot of time journaling about music, and writing concepts and ideas about the songs I was listening to, trying to give them a longer and more interesting life."
And he achieves this, thanks to a combination of his lyrical writing and an intimidating knowledge of music. It’s clear he’s a poet from the way he brushes words across the page into raw, evocative scenes. The black kid passed out in a pit at a Brand New show demonstrates the spaces in which people of colour are ignored and stepped over. An obsession with sneakers ties in with Foxx, Lil Boosie and Webbie’s Wipe Me Down and the importance of stunting, and he turns Nina Simone’s Pirate Jenny into a wild history of black oppression, being ‘out of control’, and riding through the storm.
It’s not as if They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a depressing read; far from it. Expressions of joy, love and – in particular – touch run alongside their more sobering counterparts. At a Carly Rae Jepsen concert, Abdurraqib notes unapologetic acts of emotion and love from the people around him; this is juxtaposed somewhat, two essays down, where the Weeknd proves that touch without love is just as important.
But with each glimmer of joy, there’s a near-instant tempering of excitement – joy in itself is not enough. Joy without activism is not enough. If you allow yourself to have a good day, to watch TV, to eat well and to have good sex, then all you’ve achieved is a day where you watched TV, ate well and had sex.
"I’m a little cynical, perhaps," Abdurraqib admits. "I don’t think this can ever be resolved, but I do think that honesty around the complex notions of the things we feel is as close to a resolution I’m willing to get. Joy is great, but it’s something that has to be learned, and not something people have access to in equal measure."
Without wanting to speak for everyone, what Abdurraqib is aiming for in the book, and in life in general, is the perpetuation of joy. "Not how can everyone get to the same level and the same type of joy," he says, "but how can people prolong it and hold onto it for as long as they can in their lives. And how can people keep their eyes trained towards smaller moments of joy and appreciate those."
Overall, the most important things for Abdurraqib are what readers take away from They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. First, there’s the underlying ribbons of mental health, and how important it is to share your struggles, if you’re in a position where you’re able to.
"I’m trying to make sense of my own internal messiness and attempting to find some understanding of my own tortured interior," says Abdurraqib. "Now, what comes along the way with that is I get to have a dialogue with people who share whatever struggles I have. I’m glad I get to have that conversation as a by-product of my writing and by being a public figure."
There’s no denying though that it’s an intense love of music and writing about music that drives Abdurraqib. The most important thing, at least in terms of this collection, is that it could be used as a conduit for people to find a part of themselves within the pages, and find that there are others with whom they can discuss their most intimate thoughts and feelings about music.
"If there’s one thing I hope that gets taken away from the book, it’s that people see a pathway to talk about the things they love," he says. "One of the greatest things about this book has been that I’ve been able to have conversations with people about songs. And that’s immensely important to me. I’d like for that to continue."
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us is out October 4 via Melville House.