“WRITING IS FIGHTING,” wrote Ishmael Reed. One might add, “so is living.” In his debut collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib writes: “There is no moment in America when I do not feel like I am fighting.” The book explores political, cultural, and racial issues via the lyricism of contemporary music by the likes of Fall Out Boy, Springsteen, The Weeknd, My Chemical Romance, and others. Abdurraqib is haunted by his own mortality, which he juxtaposes with a love of being alive, a sense of loneliness amid a crowd, and an embrace of solitude.
The book’s title is taken from a note left on the grave of Michael Brown, the unarmed black youth who was killed by police in a suburb of St. Louis in 2014. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a joyful requiem — emphasis on joyful. Abdurraqib has written a guide for the living as well as a memorial for those we have lost.
Raised by parents who converted to Islam and transplanted to Columbus, Ohio, Abdurraqib suffered the pitfalls of being a young man of color with an Arabic name in a mostly white city. How he lives and why he is hopeful is charted in his book. His work has been published in The New York Times, Pen America, MTV News, and Vinyl, among other venues. In 2016, Button Poetry published his first volume of poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.
I spoke on the phone with Abdurraqib on Valentine’s Day, as he was about to depart on a lengthy book tour. (Look for him in Los Angeles at the Broad Museum on April 12.) We talked of Confederate statues, race relations, surviving Trump, baseball logos, and aging rappers.
DAVID BREITHAUPT: You’ve been traveling quite a bit promoting your book. What reactions are you getting back from readers? Has there been anything that has surprised you?
HANIF ABDURRAQIB: This is the first time I’ve been on a book tour, and I’d say I’ve been surprised by the kindness of people. The comments on my work have been mostly positive, and I’m surprised by how folks come to share a space with me. I’ve been overwhelmed by their generosity in many different ways. I most like the opportunities I get to meet and talk to new people in new places. The readings are great, but they feel more like a vehicle for me to make new friends. Which is kind of why I got into writing in the first place — to bridge the gap between my desire for human connection and my ability to comfortably attain it.
What are the most interesting questions you’ve gotten from audiences?
For me, the most fun part of the process is the conversation that comes after reading from the book, the conversations we have about music and the interests folks have in the world around them. It’s a type of writing for me, learning how other people use the pop-culture landscape to see their own lives. The conversation is part of the craft.
Is music a survival tool for you? I sense a heightened awareness of mortality in your work. You write that “death is a low-hovering cloud that is always present.”
Music is a way for me to help understand and articulate my joys and fears. It’s not so much looking for a way out but an intriguing way in. I’m really excited about songs, but I’m more excited about digging underneath their outer layers in hopes that something new and important emerges.
I grew up in the ’60s, which was a significant decade for music, to put it mildly. When a new release was due, my friends would wait outside for the record store to open. Then we’d go home and listen to the LP and not talk. Does music hold that same sense of importance today?
I grew up more in the CD than the vinyl era, and I don’t know about lining up at stores. But there was that same sense of excitement for a new release, getting to the store during lunch break or after school. I think that excitement takes different forms today. I kind of miss the album-release cycle, but I understand the shift. Music comes to you today through different venues, such as social media, so I think there has been a shift in how people engage with it. I still see a lot of good, organic discussions across borders and boundaries via the internet. I came of age with the flourishing of online communities, but my introduction to talking about music was with friends in person. This broadened our enthusiasm, and that was heartening in a lot of ways.
Do you think rap has failed as a political tool in that it didn’t bridge the gaps between communities and create new bonds?
No, I don’t think rap has failed, but the people who consume it may have failed to open themselves up to what rap has to offer. I don’t think the genre itself has failed. I think rap is born out of an oral tradition, out of the narratives of marginalized neighborhoods. Rap is still somewhat new and has evolved over several decades now. So, I would ask first not if rap as a genre has failed, but if the people consuming it have failed the genre.
I read in Rolling Stone recently some thoughts Chuck D had on rappers. He observed that the first wave of rap inflicted hardships on the performers — they went broke or suffered from drug abuse and bad relationships. He thought they might bounce back in later life and that the best age for rappers was from 40 to 80. He thought these older rappers might make a new kind of blues for the 21st century.
I don’t think we are going to know how rap is aging for at least another decade. Most rappers older than their mid-30s have had a hard time finding mainstream success, with a few exceptions like Jay-Z. I think we really have to see how rap treats its aging stars, how older rappers deal with mainstream success, and whether rappers can age without becoming legacy acts. Can they create new and exciting music that is relevant to the times?
We are just starting to see how the rock acts of the ’60s and ’70s are dealing with age. Some of those acts have been able to create new music and gain traction not just with the older fans but with younger listeners as well. Take Dylan as a case in point. I think rap has to find a way to access that kind of ability. But it’s still such a young genre that there’s no telling how it will deal with, say, a 40-year-old Drake. What will happen to artists who pass that age threshold — will they be able to remain commercially viable?
Since we are both Columbusites, I want to ask you a question about our town, which has been deemed by some to be a normal American Midwestern city, perfect for a consumer test market. We were the first to test the KFC Double Down (no comment). Since we are supposedly representative of normal, whatever that is, how do you think our racial relationships compare to other major cities you have known?
I think it is as you said: what is normal? Every city has to define normal for itself. I think Columbus has structural inequalities that involve not just race but also sexual orientation. We’re just a few days removed from the guilty verdict of the Columbus Four or “Black Pride Four,” who were protesting peacefully but were assaulted by police officers. Stonewall-era activists, supposed to be beacons of equality, testified against the Four, who were protesting in a parade for a movement that was founded in protest. I love Columbus deeply, but I can’t talk about how great the communities are. There is still a lot of work to be done to level the playing field.
You write about being shook down in Bexley (an upscale Columbus neighborhood) for looking “suspicious.” That reminded me of a computer bulletin board in my own neighborhood where residents often post about “suspicious” people. My neighborhood has a largely Appalachian population, so the suspicious people are usually white, but I’m wondering if the flood of suspicion you talk about may be an outgrowth of the Trump administration allowing racist opinions to come out from under their rocks.
I don’t think this phenomenon is new. In my experience, people have always had a degree of suspicion. Being born before 9/11, I can see a clear dividing line. Yes, we now have technology that immerses us in a constant news cycle, a cycle that shows the results of bigotry developing into actual violence, the ways in which suspicion can be harmful. But it’s not the result of the Trump administration alone. Those seeds were planted long before he took office.
Since we mentioned Trump, are you optimistic for 2018?
The Trump administration is abnormal. We can say he backs policies that are harming marginalized people more than any other administration. But there are elements of Trump’s America that have always been present. I think people are emboldened by his policies, certainly. One of the many ways I exercise my resistance is by creating a smaller America that I can call my own. My America is calling and hugging my friends, or writing in a bakery and smelling the bread. What I’m trying to do is build a small window that looks out from our current space onto a better world.
So you do think that Trump has emboldened those who were formerly tight-lipped and afraid to air their racist and homophobic beliefs openly?
Yeah, it did seem like, after the election, these views were more boldly expressed. But I think there are tactical measures to fight them and people in power who can be urged to speak out against them. There are still many people, though, who think nothing can be done to put these fires out.
Maybe we can start with taking down the Confederate statues. What are your thoughts about the Columbus monument, for example?
I think the Columbus statue has to go. All of them should go. Growing up, my personal monuments were musical, the things I loved enough to write about today. I’m not sure about changing our city’s name — I don’t know what would be involved with that, particularly with a city our size. But I would be more than happy to do away with the iconography, if not the name. Frankly, I’m not sure how many people in Columbus are all that passionate about Christopher Columbus. There was a protest against the Columbus statues last year and I don’t think there was much of a counter-protest. The Southern states have had more of a groundswell about taking down the Confederate statues. I think the issue is not as intense here in Ohio, at least from the view of my bubble.
What about the elimination of the Cleveland Indians logo? Is that a good move, in your view? To me, Chief Wahoo always seemed liked the Native American version of Sambo.
Oh, I’m happy about that. I grew up in a house with that team’s logo on shirts and caps, but I was too young to understand why it might be hurtful. The change has been a long time coming. The process has been gradual, but it’s good to be completely done with that logo now.
What advice do you have for those of us who look toward the future with more pessimism than optimism?
Go outside, turn off the news, drink more water.