The five-minute 22-second piece includes some of Garner’s last words, as recorded on cellphone video, on July 17 to the NYPD, seconds before one of its officers put Garner in a chokehold and killed him. At the 2:25 mark, the bass and drums cut out as Garner can be heard telling the officers, “I’m minding my business; please, just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone.”
It’s not an easy listen, says Roberts, who’s 35 and lives in Bushwick. “It is a little manipulative. I’m aware of the fact that Garner’s life and the situation might be more complex than the video shows, but I think what I wanted to do is allow the music to create empathy for a person who was dying.
“For me, there’s something really desperate and childlike in ‘please,’ and I wanted that to come across.”
There are three other samples, or “field recordings,” as Roberts calls them, in the song. The first is of Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson reciting his poem, “I Can’t Breathe”; the second is of Esaw Garner telling a reporter, “Hell, no” when asked if she would accept the officer’s apology for the death of her husband. The last audio clip Roberts inserted is from the protest rallies that sprang up (and came to a head on Saturday with the Millions March) after a Staten Island grand jury returned a decision not to indict the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, on December 3.
For his part, Roberts says he didn’t see the video this summer after Garner’s death, but only about 10 days ago, after the grand jury decision. He spent two long nights, he says, from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., putting the piece together.
“It was really important to me that I didn’t approach the music intellectually. I didn’t want to wait weeks and research the audio meticulously. I wanted to start right away from that experience to start writing the music.”
He tested the song on a group of close friends before releasing it, worried the song might come off as a publicity stunt for his career.
“I was afraid it might seem opportunistic,” Roberts says. “None of us wanted to make any money off of it, because that just seems absurd and that would have been the worst thing to do, so I decided as an artist and with [Stars & Letters Records] that anything that anybody wants to give us still goes to the ACLU.”
Sonically, the song lines up with the rest of Roberts’s work: It’s a spacey mix of dark-wave and electronic goth that’s heavy on atmospherics, with effects that sound as if they might just evaporate like paint thinner.
Roberts sums up his hope for the work with this:
“I hope that when people actually hear this recording they will realize that this is a fellow creature,” he says. “It’s not just a statistic. It’s really important to me that hopefully people can hear that. I wanted to create empathy for this person and the experience he was going through in that moment. I guess I hope that’s something people will get out of the song most — is really feeling for this person.”
The song’s officially out Tuesday on SoundCloud and BandCamp, where listeners can download the song and make a donation.