H.E.R., 'I Can't Breathe': Protest Music In 2020 : We Insist: A Timeline Of Protest Music In 2020 This song, part of our 'We Insist' timeline of 2020's noteworthy protest music, was released June 19.
NPR logo H.E.R. Questions Indifference To Black Agony On 'I Can't Breathe'

H.E.R. Questions Indifference To Black Agony On 'I Can't Breathe'

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"I can't breathe." That phrase has become ubiquitous during the movement for Black lives. Often chanted as a reference to the last words of Eric Garner, and now George Floyd, the words were uttered by at least 70 others in their final moments before succumbing to excessive police force, according to a report by The New York Times. On H.E.R.'s 2020 single titled those same three weighted words, she asks how we got to the point where a plea for mercy has been met with inhumane indifference time and time again.

When H.E.R. debuted "I Can't Breathe" during an iHeartRadio performance in June, she described the song as being "very painful and very revealing." Not only is this apparent from the track's acoustic, bluesy sound, but also the topics that it addresses — namely, the lack of empathy shown by cops who kill unarmed Black people and the hypocrisy of those who defend them but criticize protesters.

The third verse is what truly gets to the gut-wrenching emotions felt by those who are part of the movement. There, the Grammy-winning musician trades her buttery vocals for an assertive spoken word piece in which she's no longer asking how we got here — she's telling us. Cops are "desensitized to pulling triggers on innocent lives / Because that's how we got here in the first place," she says, citing America's history of oppression as the root of today's violence. H.E.R. ends by pointing out the revolution's restraint to those who oppose it: "Be thankful we are God-fearing / Because we do not seek revenge / We seek justice."