Before he passed away, civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis wrote a final eloquent and hopeful torch-passing editorial for the New York Times entitled “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” Among many key lines is this gem, incorporating the trademark phrase that defined his life: “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Every era of that good trouble needs a soundtrack, an anthem to keep things real, speak truth to power and continue to inspire people to continue to take action. In the year when enough was finally enough, and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked an unprecedented reaction to injustice and call for racial justice across the globe, we are blessed to have a voice speaking for millions of us. Echoing Floyd’s dying words “I Can’t Breathe” and putting them eloquently into song, Los Angeles based pastor and veteran gospel singer/songwriter Deitrick Haddon acknowledges the tragedy and turns the phrase into an impassioned, prayerful plea for all of us everywhere to keep breathing so that we may live to achieve the redemption Mr. Lewis spoke of.
As we feel our hearts and spirits lifted and empowered by Haddon’s wide-ranging, otherworldly lead vocals (accompanied only by piano and an ethereal backing choir) on “I Can’t Breathe,” we find a bridge linking present to past struggles in the song’s legendary co-writer William “Mickey” Stevenson. As Motown’s first A&R man, he worked with all the label’s mid-60s legends (The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Four Tops, a young Stevie Wonder) and – to our eternal appreciation – organized and established the company’s in-house studio band, which came to be known as The Funk Brothers. He also co-wrote (with Gaye and Ivy Joe Hunter) the enduring classic “Dancing in the Street,” a celebratory song which on the surface highlighted the concept of having a good time in whatever city the listener lived.
While the original idea struck Stevenson while watching people in Detroit cool off in the summer from opened fire hydrants, the track took on a more purposeful meaning when riots in inner city America led to many young black demonstrators citing it as a civil rights anthem to social change. For many, the tune its singer, Martha Reeves, called a “party song” became a call to reject peace for the chance that unified unrest could bring about the freedom that suppressed minorities in the U.S. sought.
While “Dancing in the Street” become something of an accidental civil rights anthem, “I Can’t Breathe” is a much more poignant, heartfelt and direct reflection on the moment that sparked the current widespread movement for systemic change. Not surprisingly considering Haddon’s background as both a minister and recording artist, it sounds from start to finish like a dynamic emotional church performance, opening plaintively before the passion of his plea soars with his vocals.
He begins with a narrative flow about Floyd’s murder and words Haddon and Stevenson imagine he was thinking while gasping during his ordeal: “The brother’s name was George and he walked into the store. . .When I tried to explain, they responded with the knee/I can’t breathe/Your hate is choking the life out of me/This is supposed to be the land of the free/Look at me. . .Just like you, I’m trying to raise my family/Remove your knee/’Cause I can’t breathe.” The song jumps quickly into its ultimate intent as a call to action, complete with painful historical context: “And we demand a change/we demand it right now/And the blood of the innocent is crying from the ground/400 years of slavery/Clinging to a dream/When will reparations come/When will freedom ring…”
Smokey Robinson and William "Mickey" Stevenson
The latter breakdown element of “I Can’t Breathe” draws inspiration from the geographical expanse of “Dancing in the Street,” yet in a more soulful, urgent way – with Haddon telling people in various cities and states across America and beyond that he’s praying for them and that they have to “breathe, you gotta breathe.” Among the name checked are “our brothers and sisters in Detroit City” as well as NYC, Louisville, Boston, Birmingham, Tennessee, Louisiana, Chicago, San Francisco, the UK and Africa. His urgency is underscored impactfully by the voices of the backing choir. The message seems to be, as long as you’re breathing, we can stay in this fight.
As intensely rousing and cathartic as the audio track is, the lyric video of “I Can’t Breathe” really hits home, with its explosive juxtaposition of Haddon’s in studio performance at the piano (which allows us to viscerally feel these emotions pouring forth) and quick cuts of impactful images from the Black Lives Matter driven protests in the wake of Floyd’s death, historical images of Martin Luther King during the original civil rights era and, during the shout out to San Francisco, the enduring image of Colin Kapernick kneeling during the National Anthem.
“I Can’t Breathe” is musical “good trouble” at its finest. Congressman Lewis would be proud.
Listen to "I Can't Breathe" here: https://open.spotify.com/album/3sxKqSe88i7sL0Q98m5Eyo?highlight=spotify:track:7eZez7cHijCG74kM73Cruz