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Music as Muse, The Essayist Rocks and Rolls


Earlier this fall, we were stunned to come across They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, a mindbogglingly good new collection by Hanif Abdurraqib. MTV music critic by day, poet/essayist by Columbus, Ohio, moonlight, Abdurraqib’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Pitchfork, and The Fader. Foreword reviewer Jon Arlan recently nailed him down for an email interview below, accompanied by Jon’s review of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. You don’t want to miss Abdurraqib unleashed to talk about his approach to music criticism, essays, poetry, and life.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us covers a lot ground—music is at the heart of it, but you also write passionately on sports, violence, race, and kindness, not to mention your hometown of Columbus, Ohio. How do these essays fit together for you? Or, to put it another way: why do Fleetwood Mac and Ric Flair and the story of your first police stop—to name a few examples—belong in the same book?

I think the question I would return to the table with here is why don’t they belong in the same book, you know? I think about all of these things as patches in a quilt covering a larger all-encompassing life. A lot of these things may seem disparate, but I see them as all touching each other. The pieces about Flair, Fleetwood Mac, and my police stop all have fear and loneliness at the heart of them. I’m starting from the same handful of emotions and building out from there.

The thing about Ric Flair is about fearlessness, sure. But to grow fearlessness, he had to become aware of fear. I see parts of myself in everything I put in this book, even in the pieces that don’t center me. I see myself in Fleetwood Mac, retreating to a room with no windows to try to create something so brilliant it will eclipse sadness. I see myself in Allen Iverson refusing to give up his gold and the slang dancing off of his tongue so that people won’t forget where he comes from.

I see my ancestors in the women who have kept black churches alive, and so I see myself in the black church. And, of course, I see myself on a curb as a teenager, surrounded by police and not knowing why. All of these are small squares in my larger history. Or at least that’s how I wanted them to come across. I think it’s all about how many doors you can make for yourself to enter the stories that move you.

Your music writing is such a joy to read, I think, because it’s unafraid (or at least willing) to be deeply personal. Where more traditional criticism might try to consider an artist or album or even a live show with a kind of detachment, your essays seem more interested in exploring your experiences as a listener and fan, and as a consumer of American culture. How did you discover this voice?

I think I grew up reading critics who allowed themselves to balance both at once. Lester Bangs is a big influence, for example. I don’t necessarily view my work as a critic to be someone who sits on high and tells people what they should or shouldn’t like. I’m not really interested in dictating taste as much as I am interested in sharing an experience with a listener in hopes that the listener might search for a similar experience in consuming whatever the art may be.

I am a fan first, right? I really want that to come across. I love music, and I don’t just love it in a casual manner. The only way I know how to make a moment live longer is by pulling it from my memory and offering it to someone else who didn’t witness it.

The work of my criticism is about both intimacy and trust. I’m asking a reader/listener to set aside their notions of what they like or don’t like and open themselves up to the possibility that the way music can live beyond stars and points in a review is really how it finds its way inside of us.

I’m mostly saying that even if I don’t like something, I’m still going to try to see as many angles of it as I can stand before I have to bow out, but I hope to discover something new along the way, and I hope to always be excited about sharing that.

Can you remember the first time you felt moved by something musical?

I was raised Muslim, and so there’s a very real thing I’ve been thinking about and it’s that the call to prayer is a musical experience, in some ways. Even those who can’t sing sound good singing the call to prayer. I mention this as an easy target because it does cause one to be moved, quite literally. Emotionally and ideally spiritually, sure. But also, whenever it echoed through my childhood home with my father’s voice as the vehicle, I was kind of pulled to the living room, which was often the source of the melody. I think there’s something fascinating about that. To have your first entry into music be something that is meant to carry you to a small bit of sanctification.

Are there any artists, genres, or eras that you like to listen to while writing?

Well, I think it depends on what I’m writing. I’m a poet, and I think when I’m writing poems I need music without lyrics. I hear many poets say this, so I’m not alone. I think there’s something about audibly taking in language while mentally chasing language that really jumbles me. It’s like watching a movie in a language I don’t know with subtitles in a language I only know a little of. So I either write poems in silence or I play instrumental stuff. I’ve gotten really into Animals As Leaders with this new manuscript of poems I’m working on. Their newest album—The Madness of Many—is a really stunning effort. It has made for quite the writing companion.

In the first essay, on Chance the Rapper, you write that “everyone I knew needed blessings in 2016.” It seems like little of what made that year so difficult for so many Americans has changed. What are your hopes for 2018?

I hope to support those in our society who are most vulnerable and marginalized, particularly those doing resistance work. I hope to uplift the writing, art, and voices of those who find those things suppressed. I hope to love many and bury none.

Jon Arlan

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