As a teenager, I vividly remember hearing Rage Against the Machine play for hours and hours from my brother’s bedroom. His devotion to the band was about more than the music; it was that they opened the world up to him at a time where others were closing him out. While teachers spoke condescendingly to him and actively ignored his voracious appetite for understanding, Rage Against the Machine taught him about Malcolm X, about the social impact of drug cartels on ordinary people in South America. Even beyond the lyrics, the liner notes to their album Evil Empire contained a reading list for those wanting to find out more. It introduced my brother to the work of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, from The Anarchist Cookbook and Karl Marx to Joan Didion and Angela Y. Davis.
Nearly ten years later, on a dusty oval in Adelaide, I stood next to my brother as Rage Against the Machine headlined the Big Day Out festival. As they played ‘Killing in the Name’ and we screamed ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,’ in unison, I was overwhelmed with pride for the teenager who, despite being doubted by those in authority during his most vulnerable and impressionable years, had grown up to become one of the smartest, most astute and emotionally intelligent people I know.
Music opens worlds for kids from the suburbs and small towns, offering a window beyond the lives we live in our wide, empty yet claustrophobic streets, through an accessible art form. As kids, my friends and I used to tape songs off the radio; now we share Spotify playlists and SoundCloud mixes. Unlike art galleries in big cities with grand entrances and steep stairs and long queues, or small, dusty, poorly-funded libraries with staff scrutinising every title you borrow, music reaches every inch of every city and town alike.
Music opens worlds for kids from the suburbs and small towns, offering a window beyond our wide, empty yet claustrophobic streets, through an accessible art form.
And so, as I read Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio) from my hometown where I’ve recently returned, I am heartened at how familiar the music that features in these essays is to me. While my life is nothing like Abdurraqib’s experience of growing up black and Muslim in midwestern America, his writing speaks to the universal desire to belong, the bands and artists that he draws on opening the door to a broader discussion of race, politics and class.
The only black face in the crowd at punk and emo gigs in the midwest in the aftermath of 9/11, Abdurraqib’s collection is constantly seeking out places and ways to belong. At a time in his life where others were looking for a way in, he was constantly being pushed out. In his essay ‘On Paris’, Abdurraqib speaks of living as a Muslim in post-9/11 America. At a time when ‘Muslim kids […] knew what it was to have a head covering torn from them in a crowded school hallway’, it was more important than ever to find a place to belong:
Perhaps if you were once young and black, or young and brown, but definitely young and Muslim in the heart of a Midwestern city surrounded by corn fields, trees, whole stretches of land where you were feared. Perhaps then you would sneak out of a house, or take the money your father gave you for food or college textbooks, and you would go to see a live show wherever you could find a band playing some songs that you knew enough words to.
There, you might find ‘some other weirdos like you’, and, if you’re lucky, ‘you might find a small corner and dance together, sing together, revel in being alive and imagining yourself, for a few hours, un-feared and un-killable.’
Living as a Muslim in post-9/11 America, it was more important than ever to find a place to belong.
That longing for connection to peers, for the shared experience of listening to a band play and hearing those around you sing the same words – Abdurraqib’s ability to voice this desire without placing judgement on what type of music deserves an audience is what separates his criticism from his peers who seek to denigrate the experience of listening to music, and of absorbing pop-culture in all its variances, as a low-brow pursuit.
Like the explorative music criticism of his MTV editor Jessica Hopper, or Anwen Crawford and Brodie Lancaster locally, Abdurraqib is not interested in imploring the reader to follow recommendations or the zeitgeist; his work is not bogged down in the technical production of the sound or breaking down the lyrics line by line, but instead speaks to the experience of music, either live or recorded. Abdurraqib is just at home talking about the feeling of listening to underground punk bands as he is writing about the beauty of seeing pop in a packed room full of kids making out. As he writes in ‘Carly Rae Jepsen Loves You Back’:
This is the difficult work: convincing a room full of people to set their sadness aside and, for a night, bring out whatever joy remains underneath – in a world where there is so much grief to be had, leading the people to water and letting them drink from your cupped hands. Inside Terminal 5, under the spell of Carly Rae Jepsen, love is simply love. It is not war. It is not something you are thrown into and forced to survive. It is something you experience, and if you’re lucky enough, time slows down.
Abdurraqib is not interested in imploring the reader to follow recommendations or the zeitgeist, but instead speaks to the experience of music.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is in many ways an exploration of authenticity in a time of Fox News and fake news, of war and hate. It is a marker of this time in America, in the aftermath of the war on terror and the Pulse nightclub attack and in the reign of Trump. When I think of the most astute commentators of this time, I don’t think of journalists – I think of artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Solange, and I think of music videos for ‘Formation’ and ‘Norf Norf’. Abdurraqib sets this same course from the very first sentence of the collection’s opening essay, ‘Chance The Rapper’s Golden Year’:
This, more than anything, is about everything and everyone that didn’t get swallowed by the vicious and yawning maw of 2016, and all that it consumed upon its violent rattling which echoed into the year after it and will surely echo into the year after that one.
In a time where everything can be viewed in a political lens, when a performance is ‘as political as you want it to be’, Abdurraqib frames music that has often been painted (predominantly by white listeners) as money-hungry and shallow – due to the colour of the skin and the language of those performing – as aspirational and significant because of the colour of the skin and the language of those performing. ‘I grew up too poor to admire the fantasy of the slow-rise of the working class’ Abdurraqib writes in ‘Ric Flair, Best Rapper Alive’. ‘When I started making my own money, I bought all the of the sneakers I saw rappers wearing in their videos because it seemed like a way to separate myself from the times I opened an empty refrigerator.’
Abdurraqib shows a dexterity with form in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, within music criticism, within the essay, and within the form of a collection. ‘Death Becomes You: My Chemical Romance and Ten Years of The Black Parade’, formatted in five acts, reads as a tragedy, as does the story of Marvin Gaye’s Super Bowl performance, which ties the collection together in form and tone, and is used as a marker throughout the book.
There are times where Abdurraqib’s writing seems to physically overflow with emotion and urgency as he breaks into a style reminiscent of text messaging, such as in ‘There Is The Picture Of Michael Jackson Kissing Whitney Houston On The Cheek’ and ‘Defiance, Ohio Is The Name Of A Band’. Used sparingly, this format demonstrates Abdurraqib’s poetic practice and his ability to push music criticism into compelling experimental literature. From an academic perspective, it is an astute take on demonstrating the urgency of music criticism ‘in the age of the insta-release’. But rather than alienating readers by over-intellectualising, it relays the power of the message by utilising a variety of techniques to connect to a variety of readers: we don’t all read the same way, we don’t all speak the same way, but we all deserve to have our voices heard.
There are times where Abdurraqib’s writing seems to physically overflow with emotion and urgency, [pushing] music criticism into compelling experimental literature.
While writing this essay, I rewatched the video of that Rage Against the Machine set in Adelaide in 2008. As Zach de la Rocha sang the reworked lyric ‘Some of those that burn crosses / are the same that hold office,’ in a song about police brutality and Rodney King, I looked back down at my desk and the wolf on the cover of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us stared back at me. Seventeen kids and teachers were killed last month by a student wielding a semiautomatic weapon at a Florida high school, by a student wearing a backpack covered in ‘racial slurs and hate symbols’. When I read Abdurraqib’s essay ‘Tell ‘Em All To Come And Get Me’ about Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, I was sitting in a cafe in a leafy street in Adelaide, picking at my salad while I listened to two white businessmen banally talk about their house renovations and complain about their wives. The juxtaposition of it all made me feel sick.
Our streets and suburbs and towns and cities are complicated places that mean different things to different people. Music gives us a soundtrack to our experiences no matter where we’re from or where we’re going, and good music criticism gives a frame of reference to the music in the moment and a record that lives on beyond the zeitgeist. But Abdurraqib takes the form of music criticism even further, into experimental fiction, into political commentary, into whatever it takes to show the urgency that people are dying around him. Music, of course, can never be the answer; but maybe it can begin a conversation, or give us a window into a life beyond our own – or maybe, just maybe, it can bring us all on to a dance floor for a brief moment in time where, even just for the length of one song, we’re all listening.