New Reels: ‘I Can’t Breathe’ by Pussy Riot

The Russian punk-rock political activists return with a powerful new video and song that deals with the Eric Garner killing as well as taking a broader swipe at state oppression everywhere.

I’m currently engrossed in Clinton Heylin’s excellent Bob Dylan biography Behind The Shades, which in it’s early chapters details a time when Dylan was, whether he liked it or not, giving a great voice to those involved in the struggle against a repressive ideology that dominated American society and regarded non-whites as lesser human beings, unworthy of the same privileges granted those who just happened to be born with white skin. And although Dylan himself would later walk away from that struggle, many others in the coming years of war and violence, both at home and abroad, used the power of song as a means of not only expressing the need for times to change, but also to unite people, to use this wonderful facility humans have for creative expression to solidify thoughts, to crystallize sentiments which many felt but which few had the platform or perspicacity to express.

And so here we are in 2015. It would be nice to think that with a black man in the White House and 50-odd years of historical perspective on those tumultuous, well-documented times that this most visibly mediated of societies would be in a much better place. However, the recent death of Eric Garner – coming as it did after a spate of high-profile killings of black men such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown – showed that America still harbors deep racial problems, and that in some ways not that much has changed at all.

And so where does music come in to all of this? Where are today’s protest songs? Nowhere it seems. The music industry long ago realised that the most anodyne and toothless records and artists are also the easiest to sell. Cold hard commercial gain has ridden roughshod over the kinds of musicians who might actually have something to say and instead we have nubile pop puppets selling sex as a sedative for the masses, or endless X-factor wannabes and nevergonnabes with ‘nice’ voices but absolutely nothing of any interest to say. Either that or the kind of fevered egos (to borrow from Bill Hicks) that populated the recent Grammy awards, people with little to say except ‘hey we’re great, you’re lucky to have us’ (yes Kanye, I mean you).

Which is why I’m so glad that Pussy Riot exist. Their high-profile status as Russian political activists prepared to put their necks on the line and actually serve time for their beliefs in one of the world’s most ruthlessly totalitarian political regimes sometimes obscures the fact that they actually make music too. Their previous songs such as ‘Putin Lights Up The Fires’ and ‘Death To Prison, Freedom To Protests’ have thus far been concerned with their home country and, one imagines, have given a very public voice to those Russians who share their belief that their country is a dictatorship in all but name.

This however is their first English language release, and was recorded in New York itself. It utilises the last words of Garner as the title, and according to them is not only dedicated to him but “all who suffer from state terror – killed, choked, perished because of war and police violence – to political prisoners and those on the streets fighting for change”. Leading members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina have also stated that the song is also about Russia and how Putin’s regime has created a country that “is burying itself alive (and) committing suicide. Daily”. Of the two separate videos released for the song the first shows Nadya and Masha in Russian police uniforms being buried alive, whilst in the second they use footage of the aftermath of Garner’s death and the ensuing protests. Towards the end of the song Richard Hell can be heard reciting Garner’s last words as the musical tension builds to an unsettling climax. It’s powerful stuff and unlikely to win the band any Grammy nominations.

It says something about the state of American popular culture that it’s a Russian band who are speaking up on such issues whilst American artists seem to have nothing of any value to express. Where is this generation’s Bob Dylan, or Public Enemy even? Absent from duty or sitting on the outside of an increasingly broad, homogenised mainstream which refuses to allow them in. It’s a crying shame because in these violent, troubled and uncertain times the world could do with many more voices like Pussy Riot’s. Let’s hope they stay free and keep shouting for as long as they can.

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