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Pussy Riot's new song "I Can't Breathe" is about Eric Garner

Maria Alyokhina (L) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot speak onstage at the Amnesty International Concert
Maria Alyokhina (L) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot speak onstage at the Amnesty International Concert
DON EMMERT/AFP

Pussy Riot released its first song in English early Wednesday morning. The Russian all-girl punk band famous for wearing neon ski masks and performing its music in religious settings made a sharp U-turn musically with this release.

Not only is "I Can't Breathe" performed in English instead of Russian, but it's a tribute to Eric Garner and victims of police brutality.

"We’ve known, on our own skin, what police brutality feels like, and we can’t be silent on this issue," Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina told Buzzfeed News in an email. This song is an intentional choice to break what has been almost a year of radio silence from the controversial band:

What does this song mean?

The song "I Can't Breathe" examines the response to Eric Garner's death in July 2014.

Eric Garner, a father of six, was killed in Staten Island, New York, after a New York City police officer placed him in a chokehold for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner's death was captured on video, and his last words, "I can't breathe," became a mantra for protests that followed after a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer for using the banned chokehold maneuver.

Pussy Riot's Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova told the Guardian they wrote the song after joining street protests in New York last July and said it was composed and recorded in one night at a studio in the Big Apple.

The video is shot in a single emotionally gripping take: the two members of the band are dressed in police riot uniforms as they are slowly buried alive, symbolizing how police brutality affected their lives.

"We really could not breathe for this whole last year," they told Buzzfeed News. "Our previous ideas did not speak to what was happening in the conflict zone in Ukraine as we were realizing that Russia is burying itself alive in terms of the rest of the world. Committing suicide. Daily."

There's some skepticism to be held here about whether or not Pussy Riot is taking the life and struggle of one man -- and a culture they are not a part of -- and using it as a publicity stunt. But this song is also about Russia, and President Vladimir Putin's bloody war in Ukraine. This burial is not just a eulogy for Eric Garner, but for the hundreds of Russian soldiers who have died in the conflict.

The last line of the song, "Some fairness might be found/From ashes of his death" seems to give protesters hope that Eric Garner's death, which embodies clear racial disparities in the criminal justice system, was not in vain.

The group also released a second video for the song featuring footage from the riots after Garner's death:

Though the Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner, the federal government is launching a civil rights investigation into his death.

As my colleague German Lopez wrote in December, "The federal investigation won't result in murder or manslaughter charges. It will instead look at whether police officers willfully violated Garner's civil rights when they killed him — a more difficult legal threshold to meet than proving an intent to kill."

This doesn't sound like a Pussy Riot song.

That's because, largely, it's not. Though Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova wrote the lyrics and composition for the song, they don't perform the vocals. Instead, two other Russian bands, The Jack Wood and Scofferlane, perform the lead vocals.

Musically, Pussy Riot is a punk-rock, all-girl frenzy of energy. Their songs are fast, angry, and full of rapid guitar riffs and yelling. As a group, the members have focused their energy on creating provocative work that argues lyrically for feminist and LGBT rights. Listen to "Putin Will Teach You How to Love" as a contrast:

Though "Putin Will Teach You How to Love" starts with a soft piano and quiet sounds similar to "I Can't Breathe," it speeds up in the chorus into a more recognizable Pussy Riot sound. "I Can't Breathe," however, has a completely different tone. It's soft-spoken. It's in English. The music is simple and mostly features a thumping bass drum and simple bass guitar lines.

"The genre of this isn’t like other Pussy Riot songs. It’s an industrial ballad. Dark and urban. The rhythm and beat of the song is a metaphor of the heartbeat, the beat of a heart before it’s about to stop. The absence of our usual aggressive punk vocals in this song is a reaction to this tragedy," Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova wrote in a piece published by the Guardian.

Is this song part of the greater Pussy Riot controversy?

Pussy Riot, a rotating group of up to 11 women, rocketed to fame in 2012 after members were arrested and imprisoned for performing a fairly profane song titled Punk Prayer from Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral. The song slammed Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin, and the Russian Orthodox Church. Three members were arrested for the performance, but only two, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, were sentenced to two years in prison. They were released in December of 2013 under a new Russian amnesty law.

What's strange about this video is that after the duo was released from prison, they said they were "not Pussy Riot now," which many took to mean that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova had separated from the original band and weren't planning to release any new music.

In the whirlwind of national media that ensued, the two women became the face of the band, even if they were no longer musically involved in the group. The other band members wrote an open letter declaring that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were no longer a part of the band and refused to have any contact with the remaining members. Pussy Riot the band, however, welcomed the duo back into the group for a performance during the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Now, in 2015, two Pussy Riot groups seem to co-exist separately: the Pussy Riot of 11 punk rock Russian women, and the public persona of Pussy Riot composed of Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova

It’s interesting that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have decided to suddenly release a new song under the Pussy Riot name when its unclear whether they are still a part of the larger group. "I Can't Breathe" is so different from the Pussy Riot discography that it probably won't have the same controversial impact of their earlier work. That might be for the best. The new Pussy Riot, which has traded anger for activism, packs just as big of an emotional punch.