This past February, musicology doctoral student Hannah Strong presented a paper at the Harvard Graduate Music Forum’s Conference 2021 – To Begin Again: Music, Apocalypse, and Social Change. Participating in a panel on Apocalyptic Voice and Breath, Strong presented "I Can’t Breathe:" Contextualizing George Floyd’s Last Words in Hip Hop.”
“George Floyd was an activist. He was also a rapper. He may only be remembered for his murder and not for his music. On 06/29/20 The New York Times reported seventy cases of people in police custody that died after saying “I can’t breathe.” More than half are Black people. Black Lives Matter has been intricately connected to rap and hip hop since its advent, and as police brutality continues despite protests, those three words are increasingly featured in songs. This paper will contextualize multivalent phrase and sentiment of “I can’t breathe” and the Black Lives Matter movement in rap and hip hop, analyzing the timeline of both police brutality and the increasing presence of the phrase within songs. Works by Loren Kajikawa, Brittney Cooper, and Noriko Manabe will accompany analyses of songs by Run the Jewels, H.E.R., and Lil Baby. My paper will demonstrate that rap and hip hop artists are responding swiftly to police brutality, creating music to enact social change. The most popular genre in the world, these hip hop songs can function as a megaphone for these calls for a change in policing tactics, and systematic change can take place.”
Congratulations to Hannah for much deserved recognition for her research of this very timely and critical subject matter.