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Poet and Essayist Hanif Abdurraqib on Optimism, Activism, and Carly Rae Jepsen

The author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us talks about simple and complex joys in advance of his Chicago Humanities Festival appearance.

Photo: Andy Cenci

“My friends say I’ve gotten too cynical, and I suspect this might be true,” Hanif Abdurraqib writes in his latest collection of essays They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio). Abdurraqib finds plenty to bring him down—the title of the book itself is a reference to Michael Brown. But the tone throughout is joyous, and instead of wallowing in cynicism it touts a new, responsible form of optimism. The poet and regarded music critic dives into music from Carly Rae Jepsen to Nina Simone to My Chemical Romance and emerges with snapshots of society that are wrapped in an open-eyed and aware love. A mission statement: “I need something that allows us to hope for something greater while confronting the mess of whatever all this blind hopefulness has driven us to.”

On April 29, the writer will speak with Chicago poet Nate Marshall as part of the 2018 Chicago Humanities Festival.

You’ve said the role of the music critic might be to be wrong. What do you mean by that?

The role is for us to be curious and to allow your curiosity to drive you to a point where you’re unafraid of being wrong. The end goal is not always to be right. Sometimes the end goal is wading in those curiosities and finding your way to the other end of them. Which doesn’t always mean that you are right—it sometimes just means that you have found new ways to articulate your curiosities or your wrongness. Which is kind of freeing when you think of it like that.

Do you “look backward for answers” to people younger than you?

Whenever I’m having talks in colleges or high schools, I’m most interested in finding out what those young people are listening to. Which is sometimes of course what I’m listening to, but sometimes it’s not and sometimes it’s music that I’ve convinced myself that I’m not into, sometimes with no fair reasoning. It’s healthy for me to find myself reckoning with what it is to be growing older as a music fan and hearing music differently than I normally would and reaching back towards the people who may have a different ear than I do. My relationship with music shifts as I age and as other things around me shift, and I want to always be open to loving music malleably.

You’ve talked and written about small joys and their significance. What are some of these small joys for you?

It’s 60 degrees in Columbus right now. My apartment is situated so that my desk is by the window where the sun comes in and there’s a bit of warmth. So perhaps the joy that I’m most excited about is the knowing of warmth. To feel warmth when I’m not outside and knowing that warmth is promised to me when I go out there. That’s a small joy.

The other day I got to hear some of my dear friends read in Chicago and that was a real joy. And to be able to play cards with them after. Even to lose in a game of spades is still a game of spades played with those I love.

You write about a practical optimism, about the necessity of “those willing to drag optimism by its neck to the gates of grief and ask to be let in.” How do you navigate the seeming opposites of grief and optimism?

For me they play into each other. I revel in the joys I have because I’ve seen the other side of them. I think most about grief as a vehicle to hopefully end up in a place of more joy, and not something to be mired in all the time. So I’m often thinking about how these two feed into each other and not how they are separate poles of feeling. It’s necessary to experience grief and to know how to move through it, but if you build up enough small escapes then really what you’re doing is creating a lifetime of escapes with brief intervals of grief.

Why the title “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us”?

The title is taken from a piece of paper found on Michael Brown’s memorial in January of 2016, when I went back to Ferguson for the first time since the protests. On the memorial, which had just gone up, was a small piece of paper that said “they can’t kill us until they kill us.” Of course at the time I did not know that it would be a book title but I liked the presence of it.

And I liked what it felt like seeing that on the memorial of someone who not only was murdered, but his life then became a very small precursor to his death, which then became very large. That was always very confusing and very disheartening to me. To have that there, to have a message that presented him as still alive in some ways, was very positive.

they can't kill us until they kill us hanif abdurraqib
Photo: Two Dollar Radio

What’s the cover artwork?

That was my idea. Two Dollar Radio, the publisher, really executed it brilliantly. I want wolves on all my book covers, and this is picture of a wolf blended with a picture of LL Cool J from 1986.

What are you listening to now?

The new J Cole album just came out so I’ve been listening to that. I revisited Kid Cudi which has been really great. Old pop punk—Hit the Lights, old Paramore. A lot of old Soul Train lines.

Your book opens with an essay about Chance the Rapper, which is also an essay about Chicago. What’s your relationship with Chicago like?

I am back and forth there a lot, especially since I’ve moved home and it’s so easy to get there. Some of my dearest friends live in Chicago and I try to take advantage of going there as much as possible. The vibrant community and the vibrant scenes in Chicago are really vital to me. I’m fed by the collaborative nature of Chicago’s art scene. I see that blueprint being followed in Columbus, so I’m very excited about that. Just the collaborative nature of the way people work in Chicago is really thrilling.

What’s the best way to be an activist in America in 2018?

I don’t know. I can’t answer that for everyone. For me, my current brand of activism is a shifting of resources to those more marginalized than I am so that they can create and they can have platforms that I have already and don’t need as much anymore. I’m thinking about black trans communities and black women. How to build an ecosystem of support, a way for us to uplift each other without looking for validation from spaces that don’t always have our best interests in mind.

What would your theme song be?

Just the drum part in Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”

Who’s an artist that you think is criminally underrated?

Carly Rae! And I’m wondering if Lizzo is going to break out this year because I think she is very gifted and very versatile and has a lot happening, but is perhaps not yet there, and I don’t know why. I hope this is her year.

What’s next?

My biography of A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain, is due out next year.

Hanif Abdurraquib reads his poems “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much” and “A Genealogy":

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