A Musician Sampled the Dying Words of Eric Garner
I spoke to the artist who created “I Can’t Breathe” and asked: Is it unethical to interpolate the voice of a deceased victim of police brutality?
If you have never heard the name Eric Garner then stop reading now. Please spend some time educating yourself about the tragic death of Mr. Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, which occurred at the hands of police officers in Staten Island, NY on July 17, 2014. Without understanding the circumstances surrounding this incident, and the grief and public outrage that followed, this article will have significantly less meaning.
I was looking for music to include on Cuepoint’s New 11 when I came across “I Can’t Breathe,” a song that samples audio from a YouTube video of Eric Garner desperately pleading with the NYPD, along with protesters shouting his now infamous final words. Amid waves of reverb-heavy synths, Garner’s voice emerges, “I did not sell nothing…” you hear him say. He begins to struggle with the police and then a beat drops, fading again when the struggle ends — like Garner, the song no longer has a pulse. Mark Roberts uploaded the track to SoundCloud on December 11, 2014. I already knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t a native New Yorker—in fact, when I heard the song I still thought he was a New Zealander who had temporarily immigrated to New York.
Mark Roberts is a German-American, he grew up in Germany and New Zealand and now lives in New York. For the past decade he has been creating electronic music and digital art; he runs an independent record label, and in March he’ll work as a stage manager at SXSW. Despite his experience, Roberts’ music has always flown under the radar, in fact that is where I recently rediscovered him, on New Zealand independent music website undertheradar.co.nz.
When I first heard Mark’s song I immediately thought it was controversial. Eric Garner’s death had triggered protests across America, largely within black communities that have endured conflicts with police for decades. As a white male, was Mark being opportunistic by using the audio and an image of Garner to make an artistic statement? Does his song address the issue of police harassment of minorities, or does it desensitize us to the issue by decontextualizing the video footage?
I went searching for articles about the song online but discovered that only a few media outlets had covered it. The Village Voice premiered the song but somehow it hadn’t stirred much of a debate.
Several hip-hop artists had expressed their outrage about Garner’s death, both musically and publicly—but hip-hop, like folk music, is a genre well associated with activism. Ambient electronic music, or “darkwave” as it’s sub-classified, is not.
Mark has taken an unorthodox approach to address a highly politicized issue. Using a dark production style he provokes feelings of mortality and melancholy. As a eulogy the song is beautiful, but it’s also heartbreaking and deeply troubling.
Before passing judgment on the song’s artistic integrity I wanted to give Mark the opportunity to explain his motivation. Below is a transcript of our conversation to help you make up your own mind.
You sound like you've got an American accent now after all these years of living in New York.
Well I've always had some sort of fucked up accent, it was never really Kiwi. I had a German accent when I moved to the states when I was 19 and it took years to get it out of my system.
Do you have American ancestry?
Yeah, my mom’s American. I grew up with her, so more or less a single child. I didn't meet my dad and my New Zealand family until much later in life.
I wanted to talk to you about “I Can’t Breathe.” You told the Village Voice that you hadn't seen the video until after the grand jury decision. You must have heard about what happened before that though, right? When did you first hear about Eric Garner’s death and when did you first watch the video?
Oh yeah, you couldn't miss it if you lived in New York City. I’d read a lot about it but I hadn't seen the video. It’s just one of those things, I always read about these things but I don’t really like watching the videos, I have to say, so I usually put them off. But for whatever reason, I don’t remember who it was, but someone posted the video [online] and I watched it.
It was very chilling.
Yeah, I was struck by it. I felt really bad for the guy; it made me really angry. Especially since I live in New York and hearing about this sort of thing is pretty common. I hear about it from a lot of people.
“This recording had been watched millions of times, I honestly feel like that makes it fair game for art.”
Have you personally witnessed or been a victim of police harassment in New York?
I have been fortunate enough, by and large, to live in affluent neighborhoods in Brooklyn, so I haven’t seen much of it. They are very diverse neighborhoods, but they are also not the pressure points in New York. I do have a lot of friends of color and those kinds of stories are a dime a dozen. I have a lot of friends that live up in Harlem and Washington Heights, where it’s a whole different world. When you go to these neighborhoods it’s a completely different vibe.
But the current tension between the public and the police seems pretty widespread.
I see it everyday, there are protests in little tiny parks and you can just feel it. It feels like everyone’s on edge, including the police. It’s not a good vibe right now.
New York City Mayor de Blasio also said a few things that provoked some police officers into taking their own protest action. Has that increased the tension?
I don’t think he’s said anything controversial. The police have reacted and a lot of conservative people have too, but he has a wife of color and a mixed-race child. I think he’s handled the situation remarkably well, with a lot of honesty during public discourse. I think he’s come out as a father and not just a politician and that’s a remarkable thing, but the police have definitely not been used to politicians not taking their side and I think they've acted like petty children. Honestly, this whole turning your back on the mayor, I find it so outrageous. I think to some degree, people have reacted even more strongly to that than they did to the police brutality. Police brutality is usually isolated incidences, but this is way more systematic now. It’s a cultural thing; I find that really infuriating.
You told the Village Voice that you played the song to a few friends before you released it. Do you think they were able to give you a good indication of how different people might react to the song?
I didn't want to send it to all my friends of color to be like ‘You’re black, what do you think?’ I’m still struggling with this. I didn't grow up in New York high schools, I grew up in a very racially homogeneous German society. I feel unsure sometimes how to approach these things and I feel a little bit like an outsider in America, so I’m sometimes a little timid to talk to my friends about it. So I did make a special effort, because I felt like it would almost be like, ‘find your token black friend to make you feel good about it.’ I realize it’s a sensitive issue around appropriation, and not just with the music but also with the artwork. I've had a few friends who have written to me since who were very deeply offended by it, and wrote me long letters about it. Many, many more were appreciative of it, but I took the criticism proportionality seriously.
You mention the artwork, can we talk about that for second,
I knew when I did the artwork—putting those crosses over the photo of Eric Garner—I knew that was a sensitive decision. I guess in the end why I did do it was because I have a theme in my artwork where I put crosses over people who are dead. Usually they are people from my family, but no one had ever written to me saying that it was morally wrong. So I felt that if I was going to treat this piece differently because he’s black, then that’s another way of potentially being paternalistic and saying, ‘Well, you know what? Black people can’t handle that.’ That is, in a way, another form of racism. Eric Garner is dead, he was an organism that is now dead, like my grandparents were organisms who are now dead. There’s no difference in that, we’re all beings, so I made the decision to not treat it differently even though I knew it was way more sensitive.
Did your friends tell you why they found it offensive? You said they wrote long letters, so there was obviously quite a lot of dialogue between you.
There were a few different points that came up. The artwork that I mentioned was one, certainly the iconography with the crosses. A lot of lynchings by the KKK were done on crosses, and I have to say that did not occur to me until someone pointed that out. I don’t use crosses to signify religious faith. I use them to demonstrate relativism and non-theism, so yeah, that’s a pretty strong connotation which I just overlooked—not that it would have changed my mind.
As a member of the majority white middle-class, do you think the song could be viewed as an attempt to draw attention to yourself, rather than address the issue of police intimidation?
I’ll call it white guilt, but usually that term is used in a mocking way towards white liberals. I don’t want to use it in such a way; I think it’s a serious thing that people don’t talk much about. I do think white people, or people who have not experienced intimidation in America, do feel guilty and should feel guilty about it. There’s a very high level of sensitivity among non-minorities, and this fear of championing a cause for a minority in such a way where it seems you’re trying to wrestle the issue away from them and trying to make it about yourself is a real problem. I was trying not to [do that]; I tried to make decisions in the music that avoided that.
Talk me through some of those decisions…
I didn't want to sing, that was quite a deliberate choice. A lot of the music [I used in this song] I had already performed as a different song with vocals, and that could have worked [here], but I made a conscious decision to avoid that. I took the liberty to give space to the recording, when Eric Garner speaks the music sort of falls away and in that section it’s largely unedited. I really hope the music strikes a serious tone, I didn't want to turn it into something that it wasn't for me, which was sadness, which is what a lot of people felt when they saw that video—sadness and fury. There were a few sensitive issues for sure, but I don’t think there’s any way of shying away from that. If you’re in a majority position, whenever you’re partaking in a debate then you’re going to face these sorts of criticisms. I had two friends tweet about it who said they felt deeply offended by it. I said ‘Please just write to me and tell me why, I don’t want to argue, I just want to know why.’
The video was replayed by hundreds of news organizations, and you used the same video to create art. Did you think the audio was fair game to use because it was already in the public domain?
I did. To me it felt like the recording and the story was all in the public space. Had this been the kind of video that had not been out there, I would have felt extremely uncomfortable using it. This recording had been watched millions of times, I honestly feel like that makes it fair game for art. I don’t think one can be that sensitive about things if one wants to be an artist and talk about issues that are relevant. It’s not always that way for me; a lot of the stuff that I write is egocentric, it’s inward-looking on my life, but with something like this you have to be a little bit of a devil’s advocate. You have to do what you think will work, and it obviously wasn't going to work for everyone—nothing ever will.
“One of the things I noticed when I was working on the music was just how childlike his voice was.”
Did you ever question your right to make the track?
I think one thing in relation to that was, am I the right person, as a white privileged person, to write a piece about this issue which first inspired black people? That was not necessarily my goal, I never thought about it like that. I think the issue of racism, although people of color are the victim, if you really want to solve or work towards solving the problem you can do it in one of two ways: you can either try to empower the repressed or you can try to create empathy and repress the majority—both are very valid. One of the things I’m noticing in America is that one has a hard time forming empathy for people who are not in their immediate family or friends, or who don’t have obvious similarities to them socially. I think what people often need is film, theater, books or art—they need something that personalizes something to the point where they can feel something, and I think the song does that. It certainly does for some people, and I think that in itself is a valid enough reason to do it.
When I first heard the song I felt like I was going to cry and I hadn't necessarily felt that way when I watched the video—and I’d seen the video several times. Did you have a similar reaction?
When you’re watching the video there’s so much to take in that it can be distracting. There are numerous figures in the video and there’s a lot of people talking in the background. There’s a lot happening visually but when you’re listening to the music, as with contemporary music of any sort, it changes your emotional response. It makes you a little bit more receptive to things. When you just hear his voice it blocks out the fact that he was an extremely imposing figure, he was very tall and there was a physical struggle happening. One of the things I noticed when I was working on the music was just how childlike his voice was. It was heartbreaking. There was something about just removing the voice from the picture that really hit home for me.
You’re donating all the profits from the song to the American Civil Liberties Union. Have you been in contact with anyone from the ACLU?
No, I didn't contact them because I didn't feel like my contribution would be significant enough. I guess I was too cynical to think anyone would care.
Have people been donating or have they been downloading it for free?
Very, very few people have paid, but those that have have made contributions that surprised me. But I would say that I haven’t pushed it too strongly. I mentioned that people should feel happy to download it for free and if they’re willing to make a donation then they should consider making one to a charity of their choice, because I know that things like that are quite personal. The ACLU is not a controversial organization, they've been around for a long time and it’s a charity that I personally feel comfortable donating to, but it’s very possible that other people will have reservations about the ACLU. I think they've done incredible work—they were one of the first organizations in the states to support minorities in this country.