Bill Wolff: Welcome back to Protest Anthems, the podcast about all things music, social justice, and protest. In this episode, we will hear Laura talking about H.E.R’s Grammy award winning song “I Can’t Breathe” and the cultural, social, and political impact the song had on the BLM movement and protests. She will also discuss the historical background of what led the singer to make the song, and what brought people together to go marching in the streets demanding justice and change. 

[OPENING: New York Times ]

Ainara Tiefenthäler: It’s a Monday evening in Minneapolis, police respond to a call about a man who allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. 

NARRATOR: 17 minutes later the man they are there to investigate lies motionless on the ground, and is pronounced dead shortly after. 

Ainara Tiefenthäler: The man was 46 year old George Floyd, a bouncer originally from Houston who had lost his job at a restaurant when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Floyd’s death triggered major protests in Minneapolis and sparked rage across the country. 

NARRATOR: One of the officers involved, Derek Chauvin, has been convicted on one count of second-degree murder, one count of third-degree murder and one count of second-degree manslaughter.

NARRATOR: The death of George Floyd was an impactful event that shook the country, H.E.R. is included in this group of bystanders. After Floyd’s death, the world decided enough was enough, and H.E.R. decided that she needed to put her outrage and emotions into a song that would auditively show others how it is that she, alongside her community, felt about these racial injustices.  

Lyrics: Starting a war, screaming, “Peace” at the same time

All the corruption, injustice, the same crimes

Always a problem if we do or don’t fight

And we die, we don’t have the same right

What is a gun to a man that surrenders?

What’s it gonna take for someone to defend her?

If we all agree that we’re equal as people

Then why can’t we see what is evil?

I can’t breathe

You’re taking my life from me

I can’t breathe

Will anyone fight for me?



NARRATOR: H.E.R is known as Gabi Wilson, an artist who got her record deal at 14, and dedicated her art to the experiences of women. H.E.R is short for “Having Everything Revealed” which she hopes to do with her music. She uses her platform to discuss important issues that affect her and those around her. With this first part of “I Can’t Breathe” the message that enough is enough is out into the context of the song. How many innocent lives have to be lost? How much corruption is enough for it to be obvious that there has to be a change? What will it take for everyone to realize that we are all created equal and deserve equal treatment from those that are meant to protect us? 

Lyrics: How do we cope when we don’t love each other?

Where is the hope and the empathy? (Yeah)

How do we judge off the color?

The structure was made to make us the enemy (yeah)

Prayin’ for change ’cause the pain makes you tender

All of the names you refuse to remember

Was somebody’s brother, friend

Or a son to a mother that’s crying, singing 

NARRATOR: This part of the song is crucial to the understanding of the deep emotions felt by many involved in the BLM protest and marches, how many names have to be in a long list of lost lives before it’s time to make a change? It’s important to note that she points out that all of these people have loved ones, just like we all do, all of the innocent lives lost are someone’s reason for happiness, by taking their life unjustly, you take away a piece of a community’s happiness. 

Lyrics: Trying times all the time

Destruction of minds, bodies, and human rights

Stripped of bloodlines, whipped and confined

This is the American pride

It’s justifying a genocide

Romanticizing the theft and bloodshed

That made America the land of the free

To take a black life, land of the free

To bring a gun to a peaceful fight for civil rights

You are desensitized to pulling triggers on innocent lives

Because that’s how we got here in the first place 

Video Audio: 2020 BLM Protests in Saratoga Springs, NY (Black Lives Matter, All of Us) (Canon XF705 & C200)

Say Her Name: Breonna Taylor!

Say Her Name: Breonna Taylor!

Say Her Name!

Video Audio: How Can We Win Kimberly Jones Video Full Length David Jones Media Clean Edit #BLM​ 2020 What Can I Do

“I think that as long as we’re focusing on the what, we’re not focusing on the why, and that’s my issue with that. As long as we’re focusing on what they’re doing we’re not focusing on why they’re doing it.” -Kimberly Jones

NARRATOR: That was Kimberly Jones in a now famous interview during the protests talking about the legacy of institutional racism, the reasoning behind the chaos in the streets, and the importance of being able to make the distinction between protesting, rioting, and looting.

NARRATOR: The peaceful protests that took place in 2020 during the peak of the pandemic were a necessary show of support for the BLM movement and the black community, the message? We see you, we feel your pain, and we care. In this part of the song she’s calling out the massive killing sprees that have continued to go on by the police and bring sup how despite the fact that slavery isn’t around today, the same fear lives in people’s hearts, the feeling of possible death in every corner for minor crimes or no crimes at all. 

Lyrics: These wounds sink deeper than the bullet

Your entitled hands could ever reach

Generations and generations of pain, fear, and anxiety

Equality is walking without intuition

Saying the protector and the killer is wearing the same uniform

The revolution is not televised

Media perception is forced down the throats of closed minds

So it’s lies in the headlines

And generations of supremacy resulting in your ignorant, privileged eyes 

NARRATOR: The public outrage at the media coverage of the BLM protests was something that a lot of people were very upset about. The black community deserved some respect and deserved to be heard by all, something that not necessarily was the case. Despite some protesters getting angry and breaking property, the bigger picture wasn’t being shown, that people were going to the streets and risking their lives to be heard and seen. ‘Fake News’ being such a taboo subject, turned out to be a reality, something that scared people almost as much as the injustices happening at the moment.

Video Audio: Martin Luther King Jr. ‘I have a dream’ speech

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” -MLK Jr.

NARRATOR: Through the song H.E.R. makes multiple references to the history of the civil rights movement and the oppression her and many others ancestors had to endure. The fight for equal rights has been a long one, since the abolishment of slavery, black citizens still couldn’t vote or were still separated by what they were allowed to do in regards to their white counterparts. The civil rights movement has been a long one with historic events such as the Civil War, the “Jim Crow” Laws, the Civil Rights act of 1957 which made it illegal to keep anyone from voting, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which guaranteed equal employment, and so many more. Not to mention the brave efforts of people such as Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nice, Martin Luther King Jr, the Freedom Writers and more.

Video Audio: Young girl delivers tearful speech to Charlotte City Council

“We are back people and we shouldn’t have to feel like this. We shouldn’t have to protest because ya’ll are treating us wrong. We do this because we need to and have rights.” -Zianna Oliphant

NARRATOR: That was the testimony of a young Zianna Oliphant during the Charlotte City Council meeting. The same emotions she gives in her speech are what inspired H.E.R. and many others to speak up and express their emotions towards the racial injustices in the country. Her’s is just the first of many speeches that embody the helplessness many feel in regards to finally being granted equality in all facets of life.

Video Audio: H.E.R. Shares Message Behind Powerful New Song ‘I Can’t Breathe’

“I have a responsibility as an artist to talk about what’s happening around me, and my perspective and how emotional that is, and put it in a song.” -H.E.R.

NARRATOR: H.E.R. felt it was her responsibility to get her voice out there and speak for those who may not have a voice. In her song there are parts that directly pay tribute to the civil rights movement. Some Examples being lyrics such as “Always a problem if we do or don’t fight, And we die, we don’t have the same right” or “Stripped of bloodlines, whipped and confined, This is the American pride”, and even “To swallow the strange fruit hanging from my family tree”. All of these lyrics speak about how regardless of what black people do to retaliate or get rights it’s never good enough or always seen as wrong. The last lyric also refers to the “strange fruit” which is a tribute to Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit” which talks about the lynching of African Americans in the first half of the 20th century. 

Video Audio: Billie Holiday – “Strange Fruit” Live 1959 [Reelin’ In The Years Archives]

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root” – Billie Holiday

NARRATOR: With “I Can’t Breathe” H.E.R. does like many before her and uses her platform, voice, and emotions to present others with the truth of the inequality in the country. She, alongside those who were a part of the protests, made sure that the names of those fallen were not forgotten, just like Billie Holiday did with her song, and just like Martin Luther King Jr. did in his speech. By having a song that talks about the history of the civil rights movement and pays tribute to those who have fought for the progress we have today, is the ultimate way to create a song that will be sang in future decades ahead, when other fights arise, this song will be an anthem, and everyone shall say their names.