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Pussy Riot Pays Tribute To Eric Garner With Their First Song In English

Pussy Riot enlists some rockstar help in their controversial new protest song “I Can’t Breathe”

Pussy Riot Pays Tribute To Eric Garner With Their First Song In English

image via youtube screen capture

Eric Garner’s July 2014 choking death, and the subsequent decision to not indict the New York Police Department officers who were responsible, sent thousands into the streets to rally against the biases and brutalities seen as commonplace in not only law enforcement, but society at large. Among them were Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of the Russian political-punk collective Pussy Riot. Inspired by the protests, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova this week released “I Can’t Breathe,” their first song in English.


Named after Garner’s now-famous last words, “I Can’t Breathe” was written and performed with the help of punk elder statesman Richard Hell, Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, and others. As the video’s Youtube description states:

Pussy Riot's first song in English is dedicated to Eric Garner and the words he repeated eleven times before his death. This song is for Eric and for all those from Russia to America and around the globe who suffer from state terror - killed, choked, perished because of war and state sponsored violence of all kinds - for political prisoners and those on the streets fighting for change. We stand in solidarity.

Pussy Riot's Masha and Nadya are being buried alive in the Russian riot police uniforms that are worn during the violent clashes of police and the protesters fighting for change in Russia. A pack of "Russian Spring" brand cigarettes is on the ground at the beginning. "Russian Spring" is a term used by those who are in love with Russia's aggressive militant actions in Ukraine, and the cigarettes are a real thing.

Like much of Pussy Riot’s music, the song itself is focused more on message than melody, extrapolating out Garner’s death as being part of a larger conflict between citizens and states around the world. It’s that extrapolation which has lead some to wonder whether Pussy Riot, comprised of white Russian women, are perhaps more focused on their own experiences fighting against–and being jailed by–the Russian government than they are with the ostensible subject of the song. As The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber points out, in doing press for “I Can’t Breathe,” the band hardly talks about the specifics of Garner’s death, or the larger racial elements at play: “Instead, they skip over most everything that makes this American cause American, and speak instead about a universal struggle against state-sanctioned violence, and about Russia.” It’s an understandable lens through which the band sees the world, but one which also deserves to be named out-loud as people think about the song, the video, and the context in which it was created.

Ultimately, in their switch from Russian to English, it seems that none of Pussy Riot’s ability to provoke thought, as well as controversy, has been lost in translation.

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