The music critic Hanif Abdurraqib loves Bruce Springsteen—but is troubled by his singular visionby Aida Amoako / November 28, 2018 / Leave a comment
In the second essay in Hanif Abdurraqib’s debut essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, the American poet and critic presents contrasting visions of his country.
Seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert in New Jersey, Abdurraqib envisions an optimistic America where labour is romanticised and red, white and blue promises hang in the air. A day before the concert, Abdurraqib was in Ferguson, Missouri standing in front of the memorial to Michael Brown, the black 18-year-old killed in controversial circumstances by a white officer called Darren Wilson in 2014. After Wilson was found to have acted in self-defence—a decision that provoked protests by African-Americans—President Obama set up a commission which called for sweeping police reform.
The book takes its title from a sign Abdurraqib found in Ferguson. This America, “still heavy, thick with grief” seems worlds away from Springsteen’s—despite Ferguson being in the American Midwest, a place associated with Springsteen’s music. And yet Abdurraqib finds a point of connection between the African-Americans of Ferguson and Springsteen’s 1980 album The River: both espouse the need to “take joy where one can get it.”
That essay shows Abdurraqib’s great quality as a critic: to say that “us” doesn’t always refer to all of us in a way that is frank without being alienating. In ruminating on police brutality, Abdurraqib shatters the image of a “singular America” that he feels that Springsteen still projects.
Abdurraqib has spoken about the expectation that, because he is a black critic, he should write solely about black music and pop culture. But he has always turned his voracious eye on a wide variety of genres and artists. By providing his intensely personal perspective on artists as varied as Fleetwood Mac, Fall Out Boy, Migos, and Marvin Gaye, he blows apart the notion that certain people only listen to certain kinds of music. Like Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir about loving Springsteen and growing up in Luton, which is soon to be a film, Abdurraqib relates a narrative of belonging and isolation soundtracked by artists stereotypically considered outside his cultural milieu.
Abdurraqib blends his critcism with tragic moments from his life such as his friend’s suicide and his own mother’s death. His pieces forgo technical analysis for emotion; he’s more likely to describe how an album feels—“like coming home for summer…