Lyrical Breakdown: “I Can’t Breathe” // How a Man’s Last Words Became A Rallying Cry

As officer Derek Chauvin kneeled heavily onto George Floyd’s neck, Floyd’s gasps of “I can’t breathe” are eerily reminiscent of another prominent death in 2014. Six years ago, the phrase became a potent symbol of the state of race relations in the US, and the Black Lives Matter movement at the time. In a case of history repeating, those three words have reignited racial and class tensions.

Staten Island, New York, 2014. “Neighbourhood peacemaker” Eric Garner was approached by a police officer for selling cigarettes illegally. Officer Daniel Pantaleo proceeded to put Garner into a chokehold (a move prohibited by the NYPD), eventually causing the 6’2″ man to pass out. Garner later died from his injuries and the death was ruled a homicide. The officer was not charged.

The event galvanised black lives matter protestors at the time. Yet another African American male death under the boot of police brutality. Along with Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Philando Castille, Garner became a touchstone reference in political advocacy against police brutality and racial profiling.

As Floyd died in very similar circumstances to Garner, a grim sense of deja vu is undeniable.

“I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry not just in the streets, but also in politically oriented lyrics c. 2015. The phrase captures the frustration and desperation of the marginalised. Nothing is as fundamental as breathing air.

The following is a select list of songs and artists referencing Eric Garner and “I can’t breathe” in the years since.

Kendrick Lamar // “FEEL.” (2017)

The introspective, hallucinogenic track features these politically charged lines about feeling trapped in what is supposed to be the land of the free.

The feelin’, the feelin’ of false freedom
I’ll force-feed ’em the poison that fill ’em up in the prison
I feel like it’s just me
Look, I feel like I can’t breathe
Look, I feel like I can’t sleep

Vince Staples ft. Haneef Talib// Might Be Wrong (2015)

Vince Staples is known for his cerebral approach to songwriting. However, these lines belong to featured artist Haneef Talib.

Justice is supposed to be blind
But continue to cross color lines
Hands up, don’t shoot
You shot. Stand your ground
Blacks don’t own no ground to stand on so we stand on our words.
Black and hooded is the official probable cause for cops to keep weapons drawn
I can’t breathe through the chokeholds and gun smoke
These realities drift and appear to inform black boys and men of the dangers outside their doors
Slain in society by sworn protectors
Protected by their peers, grand juries full of friends
No charges brought against them
They kill and arrest us, transgress and oppress us.
Damn, cuz

Joey Bada$$ // “Babylon” (2017)

On an album overtly titled ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, there’s no shortage of political references. On track “Babylon”, Joey references the most heinous reply to someone saying they can’t breahte – “Fuck your breath”. (Notably, this is an actual quote from an actual deputy chasing a suspect).

I’m sick of holdin’ grudges, I’m loadin’ in all my slugs and
Aimin’ it at the judges, fuck the cops
Fuck the system and the government, you fuckers not
Protectin’ and servin’
You more like damagin’ and hurtin’
And letting off shots ’til you motherfuckers certain
He ain’t breathin’, you made it clear
“Fuck your breath, nigga,” don’t even deserve air
Don’t even deserve shit, don’t even deserve nothin’
If black lives really mattered, you niggas would do somethin’
Instead we mean nothin’, in fact, we being hunted

Joey specifically references Eric Garner later on the track:

Visions from brother man, he seen us all holdin’ hands
Fifty years later, still see my brothers choked to death
R.I.P. to Eric Garner, only right I show respect
Nowaday they hangin’ us by a different tree
Branches of the government, I can name all three
Judicial, legislative and executive

Dr Dre ft. Kendrick Lamar, Justus & Anderson Paak. // “Deep Water” (2015)

Dr Dre’s 2015 comeback project is chock-full with political energy. On this triple feature, Anderson Paak. performs a distressing outro that likens being caught in gang life as drowning.

Help me
Help me, help me, help me
I can’t, I can’t breathe
I can’t wait, help
(Where’s a lifeguard when you need one?)
God, please, please help me, please

Vic Mensa // Shades of Blue (2016)

Chicago native Vic Mensa identifies with Eric Garner, highlighting the absurdity of the fact that he was killed for such a minor infringement as selling cigarettes.

It ain’t enough for police to wear body cams
‘Cause niggas still gettin’ tazed and body slammed
And cigarettes’ll kill you on their own
But they’ll kill you for a cigarette, I honor Eric Garner fam’
I’m a part of him, he a part of me

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Jamila Woods // “White Privilege II”

A slightly different tact here as Macklemore explores his role as a white American – someone who honestly wants to help but doesn’t know how.

Pulled into the parking lot, parked it
Zipped up my parka, joined the procession of marchers
In my head like, “Is this awkward?
Should I even be here marching?”
Thinking if they can’t, how can I breathe?
Thinking that they chant, what do I sing?
I want to take a stance cause we are not free
And then I thought about it, we are not “we”

P.O.S. // “sleepdrone/superposition” (2017)

Minnesota underground rapper raps about both quantum physics and police brutality on this glitch-hop anger-fuelled riff off. In response to the George Floyd murder and ensuing Minnepolis riots, he posted a link on his IG story to a social activist/protest group called Crimethinc.

And I don’t show up, I trash talk
I’m fuck peace
I’m Chris Dorner, I’m Doberman dirty off leash
I’m Mike Brown, I’m Eric Garner I can’t breathe
We face down
Our teeth are touching the concrete
They curb stomping us
Wearing a crown in our streets

Eminem // Campaign Speech (2016)

On Em’s epic 8 minute political tirade, he name-checks both Eric Garner’s and Trayvon Martin’s killers, describing the vengeance he would enact upon them.

You want some? Come and get some, boys!
I’m givin’ Daniel Pantaleo a refresher course
On excessive force and pressure points
And dressin’ George Zimmerman in a fluorescent orange
Dress and four inch heels to address the court
With a bullseye on his back, his whole chest and torso
Are left on the doorsteps of Trayvon’s dad as a present for him

Janelle Monae ft. Wondaland Records // “Hell You Talmbout” (2015)

A bonus track re-do of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” features a roll call of the fallen, reminding listeners to respect and remember men and women unjustly killed like Eric Garner.

Eric Garner, say his name
Eric Garner, won’t you say his name?

Run The Jewels ft. Zack de la Rocha // “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” (2014)

RTJ commissioned this powerful video to accompany their electrifying track featuring none other than Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha.

Killer Mike and El-P raised $40,000 for the families of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, with ongoing proceeds donated to justice groups.

Click here for a Spotify playlist featuring the above tracks.

Kevin Loo

Live, laugh, stare into the existential void, love

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