To share every quote from “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” that is enticingly beautiful or haunting would be to write no review at all, but rather to print an abridged serving of words from Hanif Abdurraqib’s first collection of essays. The spoken word poet’s pieces are deep, uncensored analyses of topics ranging from music to death, from culture to sports, saturated with the weight of his memories and experiences. Each essay is a masterful account of what it means to experience culture and current events in a black body, in a country that so often demands black silence. He writes, “We are nothing without our quick and simple blessings, without those willing to drag optimism by its neck to the gates of grief and ask to be let in.” While Abdurraqib does not hold back the pain, the loss, the injustice, and the grief of this world, he draws attention to the small joys through which we can survive it.
There is something precious in how Abdurraqib’s writing transcends changes in emotion and in tone to flow so seamlessly from one topic to the next, as evidenced by his opening four essays. He navigates effortlessly from his first, an insightful description of the optimism of Chance the Rapper, into a retrospective on what it means to be the only black audience member at a Bruce Springsteen concert—which ends in a visit to Michael Brown’s grave. Abdurraqib’s mourning in this moment is brief and then put on hold, while he dives into an impassioned argument in defense of the pop genius of Carly Rae Jepsen. In his writing, there is no separation between art and life. Each informs and intertwines with the other. He is at his best in these accounts, suffused with nostalgia, of concerts and of performers. He sees music as a vessel through which things are felt and processed, both by the creator and the listener, and has deep respect for all art which he believes does this honestly.
“They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” does not shy away from death, but rather sheds light on it. Abdurraqib writes, “There is pretty much no violence in this country that can be divorced from this country’s history.” His essays are eulogies for Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, the victims of the Charlestown shooting, and so many more black lives stolen too soon from this earth. He is achingly honest about his reactions to such devastation and the fear it has instilled in him. It is hard to pinpoint where, in the course of his youth, he loses his innocence. There is a moment, in a heartbreaking account of his first time being pulled over unreasonably and harassed by the police, in which he has a haunting epiphany: “There are two sides of a night that you can end up on: one where you get to see the sunrise again, and one where you do not.” For just a moment, everything stands still.
Separate from the darkness of oppression but still on trial in Abdurraquib’s book is the violence of art. He attacks white violence and its ties to punk rock music, saying, “It is a luxury to romanticize blood, especially your own. It is a luxury to be able to fetishize violence, especially the violence that you inflict upon others.” The violence of art is by no means excused when placed aside the greater violence of the country as a whole. Death comes in many forms, which is no secret to this author. He pushes back against the glorification of killing oneself in pursuit of great art. He writes, “So many of us begin tortured and end tortured, with only brief bursts of life in between, and I’d rather have average art and survival than miracles that come at the cost of someone’s life.” It is a surprisingly rare opinion to have in a country that would sooner see its artists martyred at their peaks than experience their lives in full.
For all its beautiful grief, “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” does not leave you downtrodden. The book is a longing for joy and for hope as much as it is a processing of loss. There is joy in each careful portrait he paints of his idols. In an essay titled “The Night Prince Walked On Water,” he retells the musician Prince’s performance at the 2007 Super Bowl as though it is a myth and Prince is a god. It is a eulogy in a league all its own. He writes, “Dearly beloved, when the sky opens up, anywhere, I will think of how Prince made a storm bend to his will. How the rain never touches those who it knows were sent into it for a higher purpose.” For just a moment, it is just you and Abdurraqib in that stadium, soaked to the bone and belting “Purple Rain” with the artist himself. In another essay, he writes an ode to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” To him it is less of a song and more of a “salve.” It heals. “I realized the magic of ‘Alright’ is the same magic that exists in the body language of the joyful black greeting…. Kendrick Lamar says ‘God got Us’ and the Us crawls out of the speaker and wraps its arms around the black people in the room,” he writes. It is the spark that saves social movements from fatigue–a reminder of the freedom and the joy that they are fighting to secure.
The morning after the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Abdurraqib does not want to leave his bed. He is, eventually, beckoned to the window by the sound of children riding bikes and laughing outside. He ends his book with the essay “Surviving With Small Joys,” to which he has carefully woven a path throughout each of its predecessors. “Joy,” he writes, “can be a weapon—that which carries us forward when we have been beaten back for days, or months, or years.” Sometimes, it is all we have left.