If the old saying that voice is the most elusive skill in writing is indeed true then count Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib as a fledgling master. Beyond the Ohio author’s deft storytelling ability and the effortless manner with which he brings the public sphere into the private (and vice versa) the stories that he regales us with are uniquely his own. His latest book, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a collection of essays covering a wide swath of his views on race, pop culture and, wait for it, life in its rawest emotional form, and every single word feels redolent with the kind of rare honesty that can give desperate readers a much needed glimmer of hope for humanity.
Willis-Abdurraqib writes with the wholehearted belief that words are the one escape from the proverbial fire and that truths and confessions. Without saying as much he seems to postulate that ideas and inspiration are the cure for our maligned state of recent discourse. Whether he’s writing about Carly Rae Jepsen or Allen Iverson, his voice reaches off of the page and forces the reader to engage on a deeply emotional level. When Willis-Abdurraqib writes about Iverson and his legendary crossover dribble on Michael Jordan more than two decades ago, it’s not simply witty re-hash of a YouTube highlight. He regales that single dribble and jump shot with blood and sweat and carpet and details of the about the weather, all evoking feelings of loss and redemption. I have read a lot of sports essays and journalism, and few, if any, put me in the seat and even fewer spin an emotional story out a single, frozen moment.
As a music critic, Willie-Abdurraqib touches on a refreshing range of musicians. He tackles icons from the aforementioned Jepsen to My Chemical Romance to Bruce Springsteen (and a host of others) each one with such personal depth it feels as though music is a core element of his spiritual survival. His best work, which is tough to narrow down because all of these essays are page turners, are on his celebration of Chance The Rapper (“Chance The Rapper’s Golden Year”) his uncomfortable rebuke of The Weekend (“The Weekend And The Future Of Loveless Sex”) but nowhere is Willie-Abdurraqib more adept than when he crosses purposes, examples being the fusion of wrestling and hip-hop in “Ric Flair, Best Rapper Alive” and race and music, one of the book’s staples on “Nina Simone Was Very Black”. Even the titles of Willis-Abdurraqib’s essays sparkle like brilliant opening lines, my favorites being “I Wasn’t Brought Here, I Was Born: Surviving Punk Rock Long Enough To Find Afropunk” and “Under Half-Lit Flourescents: The Wonder Years And The Great Suburban Narratve”. It should come as no surprise then that the author’s other literary costume is as a world-renowned poet.
Often throughout the text of They Can’t Kill Us I encounter a familiar conflict. What accounts for my sense of dread? Is it Abdurraqib’s frankness about the state of race in America? Or is it the ghastly, fleeting pall that he casts over his essays about music and live performance? Every section of the book is introduced with a small segment referencing Marvin Gaye’s performance of the Star Spangled Banner at the 1983 NBA All-Star game, an event the author describes as a landmark on his calendar. Gaye would die soon after performing the anthem, a passage that the author equates with massive, cultural loss in his community growing up. Following the book’s subtext, something else died with Gaye months later, a unique feeling of hope or access. What is it? Like all great writers, Abdurraqib leaves the answer to that question to the reader.
As much the chronicle of a black man living in contemporary culture, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a book about the heartfelt state of a poet, a man looking outward and inward simultaneously for his direction. Although we are seemingly past the era in publishing where an omnibus edition can truly claim to be complete, this tome stands as a bold statement for a great writer and a complete breath of life from a rare thinker.