They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us
(Two Dollar Radio, 2017)
I was introduced to the work of Hanif Abdurraqib through his brilliant essay, “In Defense of ‘Trap Queen’ As Our Generation’s Greatest Love Song” in 2015. In it, I instantly heard something (yes heard, for Abdurraqib’s language is so vibrant and alive that one can’t help but hear its musicality when you read it) fresh, unencumbered, yet familiar. That essay has the energy and love for language of Lester Bangs, sure, but what Abdurraqib is articulating there and in his masterful collection of essays They Can’t Kill Us Until they Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio 2017) reaches far beyond Bangs’ grasp.
When most people look at music they see and hear music. When Abdurraqib looks at music, he sees a portal. A portal to a deeper understanding of himself, of our culture, of the times we are all (barely) living through.
He’s a cultural critic, a poet, a fan, and a seer. He lives in and is from Columbus, Ohio, he released his first collection of poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, in 2016 with Button Poetry, and put out a limited edition chapbook, Vintage Sadness, with Big Lucks in 2017. His cultural criticism has appeared in places like The New Yorker, The New York Times, Pitchfork, the FADER, and MTV News, where he was a music columnist. Our interview was conducted via email, because Abdurraqib is a very, very busy man.
Nicholas Rys (Rail): I think I love your work so much because it blurs so many lines genre-wise. I read that you have been writing music criticism for much longer than you’ve been writing poetry. I wanted to know if you consider yourself a journalist or poet first. I was wondering if you even care about these kinds of distinctions. I think I ask because I read this collection and thought wow, this is a collection of essays clearly written by a poet—so, in many ways, I was a bit surprised to learn that you’ve been writing music journalism for much longer. I’m just curious if you can speak to any of this and the relevance, if any, of these genre distinctions.
Hanif Abdurraqib: Those are distinctions I don’t really find much use for. I don’t know much what I consider myself more of, I just know that I’m a writer. I am always thinking of ways to make the language I’m excited about bow to my desires to explain my way out of whatever wrongness I have found myself in the room with. Sometimes I can expand on that in a poem, and sometimes I need a longer, more rigid format. But I’m served by both of them. I know that genre is an important distinction to make as a teaching tool, but I’m kind of over the idea of it as anything other than a limitation. I’m always trying to write away from genre and write more towards this idea of unraveling a truth, whatever form that takes.
Rail: Something I really admire about your essays is that they seem to rarely rely on whether you like the music or not, if the concert or album or artist gets a “thumbs up/thumbs down” rating, you don’t assign it a score out of ten. Your criticism deftly moves beyond that and sees deeper. I’m curious about how much of this is a conscious effort to eschew this more (in my opinion) boring and reductionist means of evaluating art, or how much of this is just your natural inclination.
Abdurraqib: I mean, I think the work of the critic is no longer to sit on high and determine for the masses what is good and what isn’t. I don’t know if that was ever the work of the critic, but I definitely don’t think it’s the work of the critic anymore. I don’t necessarily care much about whether or not I like a song, or whether or not you like a song. I’m not trying to convince anyone to love as I love, and I’m certainly not entirely here in service of the song itself. I’m wondering more about the importance of what a song can unearth, or pull out of a person or a moment. So, I’m more evaluating the song as a type of tool of remembrance, or a tool of elegy or a tool for any kind of freedom that once seemed impossible. Yeah, I like a good song as much as anyone else, and I can talk to death about the technical elements of music—I was just talking some pal’s ear off the other day about the intricacies of percussion in Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album, and that’s not as interesting to me as talking about the emotions behind detaching yourself from something massive and trying to sprint towards something new. But yeah, I can talk about drums too.
Rail: I really enjoyed your essay on the punk rock scene you grew up around as a kid. I found your exploration and explanation captivating, convincing, and relatable. In many ways, the scene operates a lot like a church, in that can elevate you, make you a part of something bigger than yourself—but it is also like a church in its rampant and glaring hypocrisy of the “everyone is welcome” message. Kim Gordon has made references to this idea as well; I’ve read her talk about how people tend to think that punk or underground culture is implicitly more inclusive and democratic, but the reality is that it’s just as exclusionary and hierarchical as anything else in America. I was wondering if you could talk more about this—did it in any way affect your enjoyment of that kind of music? How did or does it inform how you consume or experience that type of music?
Abdurraqib: I think if anything, it made my act of consuming the music and taking part in the scene a type of resistance. I found that I entered this community as an other, in most cases. And so if I was going to stand out anyway, I was going to imagine myself being rebellious in every way possible. It was a really flawed concept, but one I took to as a means of survival. I still love the music. It feels, in some ways, like the thorn I just couldn’t get out of my side, and so I became comfortable with it.
Rail: I noticed a lot of use of collective language in this book—a lot of usage of “we” or “us” in a way that, to me, almost felt religious. I have a lot of ideas of its implications, but I was wondering if you can talk about it.
Abdurraqib: So I’m actually strongly opposed to the collective “we” in the poem, which I speak about a ton. What I like about the essay, or even the longer, more critical piece, is that a writer can flesh out their “we” or “us” in a very defined way—the “we” doesn’t become collective or universal anymore; it hones in on a very specific group, who know that they are the group that is supposed to receive the language. I talk about this in the piece about Kendrick Lamar, how “God Got Us” is not a universal term, and he is relying on a listener to understand the “Us,” and who is implied in that “Us.” I really reveled in this newfound experiment: to define the collective and ask them to join me if they wish, which still attempting to leave the door open a crack for anyone who might be on the periphery. Once I got back to poems, though, I think I picked my fist-shaking at the collective right back up, sad to say.
Rail: What other cultural critics writing today do you admire?
Abdurraqib: I miss and value the time I spent at MTV News, under the care and direction of Jessica Hopper, who I would follow into any project at any time. I miss the sharp editorial eye of Simon Vozick-Levinson, who I got to work with on a freelance project recently, which really brought me a lot of joy. I miss writing alongside such iridescent peers: Molly Lambert, Doreen St. Felix, Ira Madison III, Hazel Cills, Sasha Geffen, Tirhakah Love, Charles Aaron, Carvell Wallace. All of those people were such lighthouses for me at a time when I found myself still considering what it was to hone my voice. I’m still very much a child of Greg Tate, and Lester Bangs, and Jessica Hopper. But I also fostered that voice among my direct peers. People I text, or email, or message, or run things by. Much like in poetry, it has served me to build a cohort. Admiration is great, and best when it drives writers towards a community where they can sharpen each other.
Rail: Congratulations on your book deal with Random House. I was wondering if you could talk about the projects you have in the works with them.
Abdurraqib: Well the first project is a book called They Don’t Dance No’ Mo’, which is a book ideally coming out in 2020. It’s a series of writing on black performance in the United States, beginning with minstrel shows, and going through sports, popular music, comedy, and writing. Most of the work is meditating on the threads that can be found in all of these things. It’s still pretty early, so right now I’m just collecting a flurry of ideas and trying to commit them to the page as best as I can. The second book is just going to be a second essay collection in the vein of They Can’t Kill Us.
Rail: What has brought you back to Columbus? I know you lived and worked on the east coast for a while.
Abdurraqib: I lived in Connecticut for nearly three years, working and writing. It wasn’t my favorite place, but it’s largely because I am just not an East Coast person. I like parts of it, and had spent a decent amount of time there in the past, but living there was an entirely different situation. There’s a very different temperament. I imagine it is a question of warmth, and who can afford to give it and how frequently it can be afforded to others. The speed of the East Coast doesn’t always allow for that warmth, and I understand that. I expect no place to bow to my desires, even if I am paying rent there. In short, I returned home in the name of warmth.
Rail: Did I also read that you landed a teaching gig? Could you talk about where and what you will be teaching and how the opportunity arose?
Abdurraqib: I’m going to be teaching a poetry workshop in the Butler University MFA program in the fall. I read there on a Friday in November, and I guess it went well because I got an email on the following Monday, asking me if I’d be up for teaching. I wasn’t initially—I don’t have an MFA myself, and feel unqualified perhaps . But it’s an honor, really. I think the best work of the poem is talking excitedly about the poem and trying to get as many people as I can excited about the idea of talking about the poem. So, we’ll see how it goes.
Rail: You mention Lester Bangs in your Acknowledgements, and I’d love to ask you about his influence on your work. I am a huge fan of his writing, and see so much of his energy and scope in vision and love of language in your work, but I wanted to ask you what drew you to his work.
Abdurraqib: I like that Bangs wrote about music as a fan first and as a critic second, or maybe even third. There’s stuff like that massive profile he wrote on The Clash in 1976, when he went to England to tour with them, and it’s got the whole thing. It’s a profile on a band the writer is learning to love, and learning to grapple with. I want the tension of music fanhood to always be present in my work. Being a fan of anything should feel earned—something that comes with complications for a fan to eventually fight through and get to the other side of, so that they might be able to articulate their fanhood a bit easier. I think music is no exception, and I hope to bring that to the forefront of my work if I can. I think Bangs did that when he could, and he really let every reader see the interior of his specific type of fanhood, which is a blessing.
Rail: Part of me feels like saying these essays are more than music criticism. They’re cultural criticism, but then I feel like that’s reductive. Then when I consider calling them personal essays, I also realize I am doing them a disservice. I want to ask what you call them, and if these distinctions are important to you or matter at all.
Abdurraqib: I mostly call them ramblings that I’ve somehow tricked other people into reading. That’s the only distinction I think is useful: am I writing something people find worth reading, or am I just yelling for the sake of hearing my own echo?