Pussy Riot: ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Music Video Review

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After their protest video, “Punk Prayer,” sent Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina to prison three years ago, Pussy Riot are back with another uncomfortably daring video in regards to the death of Eric Garner. The song, effectively titled, “I Can’t Breathe,” is Pussy Riot’s first English song, as it pays homage and respect to Garner, who passed away after being put in a chokehold by a police officer in Staten Island, NY. The one-shot video, which was directed by Pussy Riot themselves, is an artistic and stark depiction of police brutality against members of their community and the feelings of helplessness from those victims.

Pussy Riot recruited musical help from Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Andrew Wyatt (Miike Snow), and Shazad Ismaily (Secret Chiefs 3). The video starts with a panning shot of dirt, grime, and smoke, which symbolizes the Black Lives Matter protests and the current state of terror between citizens and a brutalizing police force. The opening lyrics are poignant and dig deep into the reality of Garner’s death: “He’s become his death / The spark of the riots / That’s the way he’s blessed / To stay alive.” The protests that happened after his death and after Michael Brown’s death, in a way, keeps their deaths from being in vain. They give a voice to the now voiceless, and through protest and artistic expression, we can hope these travesties never happen again.

As the shot pans up, we see Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, dressed in Russian riot police uniforms, lying down in the dirt while more dirt is flung onto them, which eventually covers them. We see them struggle and move with every chunk of dirt hitting them. Soon, the dirt begins to seep into their eyes, their mouths, and up their nose, as their discomfort and agony peaks. It’s a somewhat difficult piece to watch because you can feel the dirt as it hits them and buries them.

Artistically and socially, the video works in a multitude of ways. The obvious submission of themselves in a dirt, while they become covered and unable to move, is formulating the experience that people face when they fall victim to a higher oppressor. It’s hopelessness and vulnerability at extremes because the people who you once called on to protect you are the ones harming you. In another aspect, by having themselves buried in Russian police uniforms, Pussy Riot is insinuating a call to action against the militant police force. They are hoping and encouraging people to stand up against oppressive powers, and looking to bury that systematic tyranny through the utilization of protest and art.

The most powerful moment of the music video comes at the end, when Richard Hell, punk pioneer and once-manager of the Sex Pistols, recites Garner’s last spoken words. Hell does an incredible job reenacting Garner’s pleas for help. He repeats the words, “I can’t breathe,” nine times as the video pans out to depict Pussy Riot buried, and a slew of shovels over their grave.

With a very dark and powerful ending, Pussy Riot’s “I Can’t Breathe” is a political call to action and a necessary avenue for those who fall victim to careless police brutality. Although the song and video are obviously derived from the death of Eric Garner, Pussy Riot utilize that one instance to point towards a common global crisis for anyone that falls victim to domineering institutions in their own communities.  Their deep-seeded punk ideologies for social progress and humanity are very explicit here, as they push the envelope and demand an answer for these recent diabolical atrocities.

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