Torn by the USA: How America's divisions are marked in its music

The music critic Hanif Abdurraqib loves Bruce Springsteen—but is troubled by his singular vision

November 28, 2018
The Boss in concert in Toronto, Canada, 2017
The Boss in concert in Toronto, Canada, 2017

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 after your first year of college”—than how it sounds.

The effect of his writing is like the effect of the music: it can be bracing, comforting, uplifting, cathartic. It is an open door into other perspectives. “Fall Out Boy Forever” is a devastating piece. The life, death and funeral of his friend Tyler is entwined with meditations on the beginning, stratospheric success, hiatus and then reunion of US emo/pop-punk band Fall Out Boy. Abdurraqib and Tyler became friends going to Fall Out Boy's earliest gigs.

For Abdurraqib “joy is a weapon” and music is a vital survival tool. In fact, for the writer, music is how black people have gotten free. Yet he isn’t an idealist. Instead he proposes a different kind of optimism, one that spares us fairytales. He writes in the concluding essay: “I want to be immensely clear about the fact that we need more than love and joy.”

For Abdurraqib while music can function as an escape, it is also inextricably bound up with the ideologies of our societies. He details his experience with the discriminatory nature of the punk and DIY scenes he grew up in that replicate the power structures they claim to resist. He eventually gravitates to Afropunk. He writes, “there is something powerful in seeing somebody who looks like you actually seeing you.”

Abdurraqib describes Pulitzer-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar as “an artist who can face their people while rolling out the welcome mat for whoever might choose to sneak in the back door.” They Can’t Kill Us...  addresses specific groups while leaving the door open for others. “I need you to understand…” he writes repeatedly in his essay on Serena Williams’s perceived arrogance.

His goal isn’t to flatten everything into one point of view. Abdurraqib is clear that shared existence does not mean universal experience. Instead he invites us to acknowledge the unbridgeable gaps formed by centuries of history, to observe with respect the moments that don’t include us all, and to cherish all the more the opportunities we have for empathy, which bring us as close as we can get to harmony.