Pussy Riot Pen Eric Garner Tribute for First English Song

Band recruits Richard Hell, Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner and Miike Snow's Andrew Wyatt for "I Can't Breathe"

By

Russian punk protesters Pussy Riot have made a surprising foray into U.S. politics with a new music video dedicated to the memory of Eric Garner, the African-American man whose death at the hands of NYPD officers sparked protests across the country last December.

"I Can’t Breathe" shows Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina lying in a freshly dug grave wearing Russian police uniforms as they are slowly buried alive. The song, their first sung in English, was recorded in New York during the protests following a grand jury’s decision not to indict any officer over Garner’s death.

The activists, who spent two years in grueling Russian prisons for a performance attacking Vladimir Putin, managed to bring legendary punk pioneer Richard Hell temporarily out of retirement. Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner and Andrew Wyatt of Swedish electro outfit Miike Snow also contribute to the track, while the group enlisted singers from Russian bands Jack Wood and Scofferlane for additional vocals.

Hell repeats Garner’s "I can't breathe" statement that became the slogan of the protests condemning police violence against African-American men.

The participation of Hell, who hasn’t performed musically since the 1990s, was impromptu, Pussy Riot member Masha Alyokhina tells Rolling Stone. The group arrived at Hell’s apartment a couple of hours before they were due in the studio without ever having met him.

"We just went to his house," says Alyokhina. "We invited him to go with us and he abruptly stood up and sat with us in the taxi. There’s not many people who you could say, 'Come with us, we're writing a new political song,' and fewer who would respond, 'Yes, of course.' But he and we did that — that’s how punks can recognize each other."

In a statement released with the single-take video, the two Pussy Riot members explained how they’d been inspired to use Garner’s words as an international expression for all those who suffer state violence.

"Pussy Riot’s first English song is dedicated to those who can no longer breathe," said the band. " Those words are his, but we hope they can also stand for us and for many around the world, for all who can’t breathe because authorities act with impunity in using power to humiliate, intimidate, hurt, kill and oppress."

The group said the video was an attack on the war in Ukraine, where Russia has been arming separatist rebels in a bid to split the country. By fostering the conflict which has prompted harsh Western sanctions, the band wrote, "Russia is burying itself alive in terms of the rest of the world. Committing suicide. Daily."

With mordent, soulful vocals over slow beats, the song is a departure from Pussy Riot’s usually raucous, homemade punk.

"The genre of this isn’t like other Pussy Riot songs. It’s an industrial ballad. Dark and urban," the band wrote. "The rhythm and beat of the song is the beat of a heart before it's about to stop. The absence of our usual aggressive punk vocals in this song is a reaction to this tragedy."

Garner died after police officers put him in a chokehold as they arrested him. A video of the incident showed the 43-year-old surrounded by officers and violently pushed to the ground; one of the officers then sits on Garner as he repeats that he is suffocating. The failure to indict the officer, coming in the wake of the Ferguson shooting of teenager Michael Brown, prompted an outpouring of anger over racial injustice in American society.

Other musicans have also condemned the lack of police accountability, including Nicki Minaj in a Rolling Stone cover story interview. "It's gotten to the point where people feel like there's no accountability: If you are law enforcement and you do something to a black person, you can get away with it," Minaj said. Paul McCartney recently said he had struggled fruitlessly to write a song about the protests.

x