They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us: Skin Deep meets Hanif Abdurraqib

Nkenna Akunna talks to Hanif Abdurraqib about his book ‘They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,’ a stunning interrogation of the United States through music.

This is context with which I read Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. At 19, I left London for Dartmouth College, a university in a rural New Hampshire town called Hanover. Tucked away between granite mountains, lush forests, and a river that glints like jewels, Hanover was so pristine and manicured it could’ve been pulled straight out of Disney; red brick shops with striped awnings, wooden signs painted with rustic fonts, and bells that jangled when you opened the glass doors. From the outside, living in that tiny American town looked like a dream. But on the inside, Dartmouth was an organism thriving in its own bubble, replicating and fortifying the nation’s social and cultural hierarchies. My university changed my life for the better, but it also taught me what it meant to be Black in America. It taught me what it meant to be a woman in a heteronormative system that valued my humanity less than that of men. It taught me the quiet and oft erased genius of anyone navigating the US immigration system without significant monetary means. From my a multi-billion dollar institution, thriving in the midst of communities ravaged by rural poverty and opioid addiction, I learned that in the United States, the dreams of a few are built on the nightmares of many. The country’s continued conceit is the belief that those dreams were achievable for all of us.

In They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us Abdurraqib interrogates this conceit, using music as the connective tissue between his contained experiences and the country’s larger structural realities. The result is both devastating and breathtaking. Abdurraqib’s prose holds the weight of whole worlds and hits the reader with a distant but familiar lilt. In “Under Half-Lit Fluorescents: The Wonder Years and the Great Suburban Narrative,” he ruminates on what it means to have grown up poor and in proximity to an affluent suburb. He writes, “Home is where the heart begins but not where the heart stays. The heart scatters across states and has nothing left from what home takes from it.” In another “I Wasn’t Brought Here, I Was Born: Surviving Punk Long Enough to Find Afropunk,” he is upstairs in a concert hall, watching from a helpless distance as the only other black man gets trampled in the mosh pit below, he concludes, “choosing invisibility is giving yourself over to what so many systems in this country already deem you.” They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us tells us about a country and its history through the moments created by its music. I spoke with Abdurraqib late last year about his collection. The following is our edited conversation.


Nkenna Akunna: In the book, there’s an essay on Carly Rae Jepsen that pulled me all the way out of the 2012 college frat basements I would associate her music with. And the essay on Fall Out Boy took me straight back to my walks to secondary school. You write about music in such a nuanced and intricate way, revealing connections to art and space and culture I didn’t even know I felt. Was writing about music something that you intentionally set out to do? How did that begin for you?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I think it began largely because I grew up in a house where music was always playing or being played. You know, my parents had a lot of records, my dad played instruments, my brother played the drums, and I loved the consistency of that cacophony. I wanted to build a language around how it made me feel or the ways it activated different parts of my identity. So, if a song can make me feel something very emotionally large, then it deserves a tribute.

When I was very young, I got very into fleshing out musical narratives or building mythologies around certain songs. I would journal about music and then I would be on message boards and chat rooms talking to people about it. I feel like most teenagers, teenage boys specifically, would have been in the more riskay chat rooms. Meanwhile, I was in like record collector chat rooms talking to people about old records and old songs.

NA: Music’s connective quality, that a song is able to speak to lots of different people, made me think about the title of your book. It’s the line from a tribute left on Michael Brown’s grave. It takes me back to finals period at college when some friends and I found out Darren Wilson wasn’t going to be indicted. We all went on Facebook and were confronted by white students rejoicing and cracking jokes and we all had exams the next day. So that phrase, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, gets at the feeling of having to figure out a way to continue in moments like that when existing fully actually feels impossible.

HA: Yeah, [with the title] I was thinking a lot about the potential for endurance that people can be tasked with, and the ways that people can endure even when they don’t necessarily want to. I was thinking a lot, too, about joy as an earned thing. I think joy becomes a problem when we talk about it and assume that it’s something everyone has access to in equal measure and that it’s something that people can just always unlock. But I think the conversation around joy becomes more rigorous when we begin to talk about it as something that people have to fight to earn and then hold onto when the world burdens them with many things that are not joy. And so the “us” is not necessarily a people as much as it is a people’s joy or a people’s brief moments of reprieve from the world. I am often thinking a lot about endurance and the many ways we are tasked with it. 

NA: Is the ‘we’ being used for all of us? Or, is the ‘we’ specifically African American people?

HA: I always have a specific ‘we’ in mind, so I’m really glad you asked that. The ‘we’ in this case is anyone who is marginalised. I know, or at least I have seen, that there is some marginalisation that affects all, but even inside of that marginalisation, I am not publicly affected in the same way as queer folks or trans folks in the US. I think it’s important to identify that that marginalisation is another type of violence that is different from my violence, right? In doing that, I am also acknowledging that I am not liberated until all those folks are liberated. So when I think about the ‘us’ or the ‘we,’ I am thinking about this idea that liberation doesn’t begin or end with straight black men. Liberation doesn’t end when I am liberated, but it ends when the people I love and care about, who are marginalised and undergoing a different type of violence than mine, are also liberated. That was probably a longer answer than you wanted [laughter].

NA: No, no, I understand what you are saying and it makes me think about death, which comes up quite a bit in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Sometimes I will listen to a song and feel the thing that I felt ten years ago when I first heard it, exactly as I felt it then. In that way, music has the power to make that thing, that moment or that feeling, last forever. My understanding of what that song is saying about that time lasts forever. To think about that in the same space as mortality, you start to question what freedom can look like, and who’s moments get to last forever. Is there a way in which mortality shapes the way you think about culture and music?  

HA: It definitely shapes the way I think about music, and it definitely shapes the way I think about culture. I am always honing in on certain moments, and stretching out other moments because I think what I am really trying to do is to build a catalogue of memories, right? I think there’s no better reason to build a catalogue of memories than the understanding that you might one day lose them, or you might one day not be alive, you know what I mean? I always think of myself as someone who is working towards the building of an archive, an emotional archive, that can exist beyond me. And, the very concept of building towards something that exists beyond you depends on an understanding that you will one day no longer exist. So, I do have an obsession with wanting to build something, storywise, that outlives me.

NA: A lot of your work is written, but as a poet, you also have spoken word pieces which feels like an important continuation of the Black oral tradition alongside scribed documentation. It adds to an even larger canon of Black stories, or stories from Black perspectives, or American stories. 

HA: I don’t know a world where Black mythology is inextricable from American folklore. It is really valuable to define what is currently happening in contemporary Black writing as folklore and mythology. The poet Eve Ewing wrote a book called Electric Arches, which is a book of folklore rooted in her actual experience. [And similarly,] me writing about the impact that Chance The Rapper had on a really violent summer is building a mythology around Chance, this person, this Black person. And so I think it’s really important to always think about what is defined as mythology and what’s not. 

NA: Naming is important, telling people “This is what this is. This is folklore.” What we’re reading is not just an article on Chance The Rapper or just a poem, but part of an emerging canon and it should be thought of in that way as well.

But, I want to shift gears a little bit and turn to your childhood. You grew up in the midwest, a part of the US often treated and talked about in general terms. A lot of the time the Blackness that exists there, unless we’re talking about Chicago, can be erased. The book taught me about your childhood, your teenage years, and about how the relationships you formed influenced how you think about music. Could tell me a bit more about the city you grew up in?

HA: I’m from Columbus, the capital of Ohio. I moved away for a couple years and only recently moved back. An interesting thing about the midwest is that so many of its cities are searching for a definition because they are not coastal cities. In that search for a definition, they just try to wear the costume of a different city. And so Columbus is a city of many costumes, and I don’t say that to say anything bad about Columbus. But, yes, there are failures in that, right? Gentrification is a by-product of a city trying to be several things at once. I mean, gentrification is a by-product of a lot of things, but this conversation will go on forever if we talk about gentrification…

But, when a city is attempting to be several things at once, I think a by-product of that is the displacement of people who were here when the city was what it was. Whenever a city shifts, people are left behind and those people are usually the people who were there at the beginning. Still, there’s something about Columbus that has allowed me to find my voice, not only as a writer but as a thinker and as an activist. I appreciate the activism scene here, and I always have. I appreciate the writing communities that exist here, and I always have. There are writers here who have shepherded me through my early stages of writing and helped me figure out my voice, but also growing up in Columbus or in the midwest also helped in general. The midwest isn’t like the east coast. I know you went to Dartmouth, which is north-east and a little bit removed, but I lived in Connecticut and hated it. What I did like about living in the north-east was that you could kind of get to places semi-quickly. Or at least there’s like structures that allow for that like trains… Columbus doesn’t have trains.

NA: It doesn’t?

HA: No, and what is good about that living in the midwest and particularly where I lived, and being someone who is interested in punk, is that Columbus has a fine music scene itself. Columbus’ music scene is good, but it’s also encased by a bunch of cities that have a lot of great scenes and a lot of great punk folklore or punk mythologies. You know there’s Dayton, Ohio, which is like an hour away; there’s Chicago, which is like a five-hour drive; there’s Detroit, which is like three hours away; there’s Louisville, Buffalo. So there are all these places that if you were young and broke but had enough money to fill up your gas tank and perhaps get into a show, you could just pile your friends in a car and drive towards whatever band was playing in any of these cities. And that, I think, is where my interest in unravelling the moments that exist after music is taken into the body. Because after a show you have to drive home, you have to drive three to five hours home…

NA: And the conversations you’re having…

HA: Yeah, right? And I think that’s where the ideas for me began to exist around the way that music can live even after it stops.

NA: Were you the only black person at these punk shows? Did you have a significant group of friends who you moved through those spaces with?

HA: I wasn’t the only black person and I think the thing that happens here in the US is that there are black people who imagine themselves as odd because they grew up listening to one rock song, you know? I’m not mocking those people, but for me, that just wasn’t the case. I grew up in an area that was largely black and with a high school that was largely black, but I also went to a high school that was pretty curious and there wasn’t a lot of division in terms of crews and cliques. My college was pretty white but I stayed in touch with folks from all those worlds so it’s not like if I played The Clash people would be like “what is that?” I wouldn’t get made fun of. I surrounded myself with black people who, at the very least, were curious about every kind of music. So, there was a lot of musical exchange. I got into punk largely because there was a group of kids at my high school who was listening to loud music and I wanted to know if I could find something in that for myself.

I think that the punk scene, in general, appealed to me because I felt like, or I had imagined myself as, an outsider, and, of course, I think when you’re young it is easy to fashion yourself as an outsider even if you’re only kind of outside the realm of the world you exist in. It only takes one person not accepting you for you to be like, “the world doesn’t accept me.” And don’t get me wrong, I was one of the few black people in the punk scene and there was something about that which felt really exciting to me; this idea that even in the scene of outsiders, I am an outsider. [It made me feel that] perhaps I own this space even more than the rest of these people do. I know that in and of itself is a lie that ignores some of the nuances of the racialised aspects of punk, for better or worse, often for worse, but…I found it really useful to build a world around this idea, this constant repetition of the idea that I was not alone. But even if I felt alone, or even if I was telling myself that I was an outsider, there would be at least one other person at a show who was on the same margins that I was. 

NA: I’ve watched a couple documentaries about Black punk scenes. Were there ever any black punk artists who you went to see?

HA: Absolutely. 

NA: How did that shift the experience, or did it at all?

HA: It shifted the experience into something powerful for me. The idea was that the person on the stage had the power, so it was exciting for me to see the way a room shifted when it had to bow to the power of the [Black] person on stage. So often the people in the majority, people who are white, straight and male, are so used to seeing someone on the stage who looks like them and that becomes the default. The exchange of power is one that is revolving around upholding the status quo, and I think there’s something palpable in a room that shifts when the people on stage don’t look like the majority of the people in the room. Even if it is unspoken, the band on stage, by existing, is shifting the power structure in the room. Or, at least, shifting an idea of what the default power structure could look like. You know one of my favourite punk bands right now is actually from the U.K. 

NA: Ooh! 

HA: I love Big Joanie 

NA: Okay!

HA: I also grew up listening to Riot grrrl and a lot of my politics around feminism was first informed by riot grrrl bands. But, at least where I was from, there were not a lot of riot grrrl bands that had women of colour in them. But, Big Joanie’s does! I am rooting for them to have a moment in the US because I think they are like no one else I had growing up. And they are not the only women of colour band, but I am just thinking of them at this moment. They are a band that I wanted to have, and I imagine there are people who wanted a band like that.

NA: Yeah! There is the essay where you talk about this band you would see when you were younger and the ways that they would talk about women. Then you went to their concert again as an adult and realised that their music and ideas just hadn’t shifted as yours had, or as you would hope grown-ups would. The punk scene can sometimes seem to centre a small, white boy who thinks the world is against him.

HA: Yeah, and I think the constant telling of that narrative doesn’t do a lot for [punk]. It doesn’t do a lot for entitlement in general. And I say that as someone who grew up with a lot of these male narratives, and yes they were sung by primarily white men, but they are still distinctly male narratives. Largely, they are all about either deserving love, or not getting what you deserve, or the punishment around what happens when you don’t get what you deserve. Listening to that for a lot of years without a lot of critical engagement impacted the way I treated people. I’m not saying that I abandoned all of that music, I’m saying that I am able to listen to it differently now and that’s why I was able to write that particular essay for the book. I wanted to talk about what it’s like to listen to that work now with critical engagement. It’s something you can enjoy.

NA: Right. As a teen, I loved Misery Business by Paramore. I listen to it now and I’m able to understand why Hayley Williams decided not to perform it anymore, but it’s still a song that holds memories I appreciate and love.

HA: I talked about this yesterday with Hayley. I feel honoured to have gotten to see Paramore, and Hayley, specifically, grows up as musicians. I saw them perform at their first world tour when they were like 15, and I wasn’t much older, so it felt like this really young band and we got to watch them evolve. The thing I want to say about Mis. Biz. in particular is that Misery Business is still a great song, and I love Hayley’s critical engagement with her own work, and I also believe that on any given day, in that particular scene, Misery Business is maybe like that 20th worst song. Men were writing songs miles worse than Misery Business, trafficking in the same sense of shaming and all of these things. My greatest hope is that those dudes, instead of going on reunion tours and playing these old songs, could have the vision that Hayley Williams has had and at least come out and talk about what it has been like to grow up and to still own this work. 

NA: I feel like I could talk about this with you for ages, but I want to circle back to the time you spent in Connecticut. I lived in New Hampshire and then New York so I have only really experienced life on the east coast, and I’m interested in knowing how your experience there differed from your experience in Columbus.

HA: Yeah, so I did not like living in Connecticut [laughter].

NA: Tell me about it! 

HA: I struggled with Connecticut. I like to imagine that, regionally, there are types of people. There’s a Midwestern person, and while there are many different iterations of a Midwestern person, there is [a distinct understanding of what it means to be] someone with Midwestern qualities. I also think there are like east coast qualities and that they translate differently in the body of a person.

I was born and raised in Columbus and did not leave for many years, and there’s something about the pace of the east coast that I just could not adapt to. My friends who have lived in New York for a long time, for like five to seven years or raised there, it’s just like a habit for them. Ingrained. I could not adapt to that pace and I could not adapt to the kind of… it’s not a coldness, I think it’s easy to mischaracterise people on the east coast as cold or mean. For me, it wasn’t a coldness out of dislike for people but it was like everything is moving so fast that there is no time to, you know, hold a door.

NA: Right.

HA: You know what I mean? Or say, ‘Hi’ to someone on the street. But another thing about Connecticut, in particular, is that there’s a weird brand of racism that I was not prepared for, and I have heard people talk about the north-east liberal who is also kind of a racist [laughter]. In the Midwest, at least in Ohio, it’s just, you know, it’s more on its face. You see someone with a confederate flag on their car or on their house. They are visible signifiers you know? You know going into a place what the racial climate is, so you can prepare yourself for what you might have to endure, nine times out of ten. You might not know how bad it can get, but at least going in you get that instinct that this might not be comfortable for me. In Connecticut, you just don’t know when it’s going to happen. Other times you feel, or at least I felt, invisible to white people. One time in Connecticut, a woman literally, no joke, almost sat on me.

NA: Oh, no!

HA: It was one of my last two weeks there and it felt like such a microcosm of my entire time in Connecticut. I think I found more danger in being invisible there than I did being hyper-visible in some white spaces here, in the midwest. Because I feel like if I am hyper-visible, then everyone’s on alert – I’m on alert. We’re on alert for different reasons, but we’re all on high alert. If I’m invisible, I don’t know what could happen. Do you know what I mean? Somebody could come up to me… So, that is another reason why Connecticut did not work out well for me.

NA: You can’t be prepared. I do recall, particularly in New Hampshire, repeatedly asking myself ‘Was that racist?’, ‘ Did that happen?’, ‘Did that person even mean to do that?’, ‘Did they recognise they were doing anything?’, ‘Did they even see me?’

HA: And, you end up spending so much time on race. You spend so much time on that analysis when someone doesn’t even know that you’re there!

NA: They’re already onto the next thing! They’re playing ping pong, or whatever. It took a while after graduating to be like, ‘Oh, that’s how that affected me and this is how it’s still affecting me.’

HA: It’s like, I’d rather move home. But, you know, Ohio has its own downfalls. The difference is that at least I know how those downfalls work. There’s something to be said about that. When I’m here I don’t agonize over each thing. I’m not like ‘Why did this happen?’, ‘Did this happen on purpose?’, and whatever else. I am a lot more comfortable here, even in my moments of discomfort.

NA: I hear you. I realise we’ve been talking for a while now, and I could really go on but I probably shouldn’t. Other than They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, what should readers look out for? I know you’re working on a new book, right?

HA: Oh, a lot of books [laughter]. February 1st 2019 I have a book about a Tribe Called Quest coming up, so that’s the first book of the year. In the Fall, like in October, my second poetry book comes out, and then in 2020, in either the  Fall or Winter, I have a book coming out with Random House that is a non-fiction book about black performance in the United States. I try to juxtapose well-known, or really dense or traditional forms of performance, with non-traditional styles of performance. For example, there’s a long-form piece in there about Michael Jackson and the first black man to walk on the moon, and there’s a piece that juxtaposes the experience of clocking into work on Monday with the idea of the minstrel, who was a former slave that got to experience some kind of freedom through performance, particularly dance.

NA: I can’t wait to read! Thanks so much for this conversation, Hanif.

HA: Thank you.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, published in the UK by Melville House, is now available to purchase at all major bookstores. You can also follow the incredible Hanif Abdurraqib on his twitter page. 

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