Arts preview: Hanif Abdurraqib at Gramercy Books

Erica Thompson

In the year leading up to soul singer Marvin Gaye's 1984 death, he was plagued by drug use and other personal problems. However, during that same time, he won the first Grammy of his career and sang a unique rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the NBA All-Star Game. The performance has since become canonized in popular culture.

It also frames “They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us,” a new collection of essays by Hanif Abdurraqib, released earlier this month. The local writer describes Gaye's performance in installments between sections of the book, published by Columbus-based Two Dollar Radio.

“I'm fascinated by the end of [Gaye's] life, when he was kind of often in a haze and very much obsessed with his own death,” said Abdurraqib, who will visit Gramercy Books for a reading on Tuesday, Nov. 21. “In that slog of grief and really self-inflicted misery, he pulled off this one brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime performance. … [And] I think the book is really about … finding pockets of joy in an unrelenting misery.”

With essays both new and previously published by MTV,TheNew York Times, Pitchfork and other outlets, “They Can't Kill Us” often tackles difficult subjects such as racism, police brutality and death through a pop-culture lens. For example, Abdurraqib's piece on a Bruce Springsteen concert delves into a deeper analysis of survival, magnified by a trip to Ferguson, Missouri, to see the memorial of Michael Brown, who died at the hands of police in 2014.

“The air in Ferguson still feels heavy, thick with grief,” Abdurraqib writes. “Yet it is still a town of people who take their joy where they can get it, living because they must.”

And those who have ceased living can be brought back, Abdurraqib considered after seeing a sign reading, “They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us,” hanging above Brown's memorial. “I thought about memory as a type of resurrection, or memory as a type of way to breathe a person into a room,” Abdurraqib said. He put that theory into practice regarding his personal life with his essay “Fall Out Boy Forever.”

“I was trying to figure out why this single band was so important to me even now when I don't really love their music anymore,” he said. “It's because they're connected to a friend that I love dearly who died. … I was able to grieve through the writing of that piece that I would've never been able to get out of myself any other way. And that was vital.”

Also important to Abdurraqib was structuring the book in the correct way; he intentionally opened with an essay on Chance the Rapper, whom he called “2016's greatest optimist,” and closed with a piece called “Surviving on Small Joys.”

“I wanted to start and end on joy,” he said.

7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 21

2424 E. Main St., Bexley

Gramercy Books