“I can’t breathe.”
It’s a horrifying reminder of the way Eric Garner was killed, it speaks of the way many communities of color feel in broader American society, and it sums up the way many of us feel in the first few months of the Trump Administration, especially how it is emboldening the extreme right in Israel.
It just feels hard to breathe these days.
So Pesach comes just in time. What can help most of all in the effort to find your breath, literally or figuratively, is the familiar — ritual, family/friends, and the chance to think about the pressure on your lungs in new ways. Many of us will add new Haggadot and new ideas to these elements of Pesach, but in the end, the festival will hopefully be a time to breathe.
As we do so, we need music to help ensure we can continue to breathe throughout Pesach, and beyond. So for this playlist, we choose all artists of color – African-American, African, and Asian – whose music speaks of the difficulty of breathing in our society (in a couple of cases, literally focusing on the phrase “I Can’t Breathe”) and the relief that comes when you can.
May these artists and their struggles guide you through your own.
Kadesh — Lyrics Born, Calling Out: As we seek to catch our breath for Pesach, we need to set a tone for the Seder this year and bless the proceedings as ones that neither Trump nor Netanyahu nor anyone else can bring down. There is a lot to discuss and deal with, but we need to set our own terms.
In 2003, Japanese-American hip-hop/funk artist Lyrics Born packed his debut record with this track that has an irresistible bass-and-drum interplay and these very appropriate lyrics: “People, are you ready?/Let’s start the show/Don’t worry about the President/He can’t stop us now.”
Karpas — Jamila Woods, VRY BLK: A multi-talented artist (poet, singer, rapper) known best for her work with Chance the Rapper, Jamila Woods produced a brilliant album in 2016 that hits the hardest issues in the African-American community of Chicago in some of the most innovative ways. In this track, which also features brilliant rapping from NoName (who we hear from later in this playlist), she riffs off of the “Miss Mary Mack” game that kids play with lines like: “Hello operator/Emergency hotline/If I say that I can’t breathe/Will I become a chalk line?” and “I’m very black, black, black/You send me back, back, back/You take my brother, brother, brother/I’ll fight back, back, back.” Jamila ends the track by saying “That is all I know.” As we search for ways to breathe, we always need to come back to what we know, no matter how bitter.
Rachtzah — Mick Jenkins, Drowning: If screens are permitted during the Seder, I recommend stopping the program and watching this video, which is an arresting film about a black slave who is nearly killed by his masters and then has a chance for revenge. Jenkins is a young Chicago rapper who put out a brilliant record in 2016 called The Healing Component (which is what he calls love, but subtly refers as well to THC, the active chemical in marijuana). This track is a haunting departure from most of the record, led by BadBadNotGood’s music and a repetition of the lyrics “I can’t breathe/I can’t breathe/When the river holds you down/You’re supposed to drown, right?/Wait/Wait a minute, that don’t sound right.” It feels like none of what we hear these days sounds right, and this track can show you not only how hard it can be to breathe in, but how hard we have to try;
Maggid – NoName, Yesterday: After the direct punch from Mick Jenkins, it’s time to settle in to the Pesach story and breathe in with a softer and smoother track. NoName is a remarkably deft and versatile rapper, and in this song, she breezes back and forth from remembering her time with her grandmom as a child to contemplation of fame, but along the way, she hits on a line that sums up the story of Passover better than most for me: “When I remember/memories don’t last forever.” Here’s a story we all know, that we’ve heard ourselves for many years and told as a people for thousands more, yet we come back to it each year as if we’ve never heard it before. We take our first breaths of freedom — remembering our memories — from the story each year.
Maggid – Alsarah and the Nubatones, Ya Watan: It is essential that every Seder this year wrestle with the question of how we respond to President Trump’s targeting of refugees and immigrants, whether we remain complicit, and what we truly understand about the countries they come from. Not just the tragedies, but the families, the homes, the dreams of those who come from Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere. This track from Sudanese (by way of Brooklyn) musicians explores the meaning of home, of time, of identity, and forces the listener to engage, to breathe, and to decide what the story of our own Exodus really means to those seeking freedom today.
Maror — MIA, Borders: MIA has been a leading voice for women, people of color, and marginalized voices for more than a decade. She’s been quite controversial as well, but beneath the headlines, she always makes hard-hitting and envelope-pushing music.
If the screen can stay on after Mick Jenkins, check out the video for this song. It is a powerful indictment of those who would close off their borders to those in need, and a reminder that all of our peoples have sought freedom in the past. So, we need our communities – our “we’dom” – as much as anything else. Admittedly, there are some silly lyrics in this song, but the music will keep you focused, and the opening lines fit perfectly as a way to breathe in the collective meaning of Pesach: “Freedom, ‘I’dom, ‘Me’dom/Where’s your ‘We’dom?/This world needs a brand new ‘Re’dom/We’dom – the key/We’dom the key’dom to life!” As hard as it can be to breathe amid so much tragedy, it is much easier to breathe when you feel freedom, and we’dom, than when alone.
Korech – Bad Brains, I and I Survive: Bad Brains broke all boundaries when they transformed from a jazz fusion/reggae band into the progenitors of hardcore punk. And until this legendary DC band burst on the punk scene, it was more or less (and to some extent largely remains) a genre dominated by white men. Bad Brains demanded to be heard with how fast they played, but in this track, they went back to their reggae roots and the familiar theme in that genre of the Exodus. The lyrics revolve around survival, around freedom: “And what did Jah show them/I and I survive/They tried to stop this nation but/I and I survive/To chant down creation/I and I survive/An Israeli nation/I and I/Try to live that way!” As we bite into the Hillel sandwich and revel in its sweetness, we find a moment of breath.
Concluding Songs – Aye Nako, Particle Mace. Aye Nako breaks down boundaries, and as the Seder concludes, it’s time to do the same. The band’s members are multi-racial, multi-gender, queer, and play a brand of punk that draws in any number of styles. That’s what make for the best songs at the end of the Seder – taking the evening in a different direction but back to the same theme of struggle, of freedom, and this year, of breath. As the track hits one of several crescendos, singer Jade Payne observes, “House in the distance/It’s a sigh of relief/That we’re finally safe here/That’s what I want to believe.” Believing we’re safe, that we can breathe, that we have a home. That’s the essence of Pesach and the struggle that so many of us here and around the world face today.
Hold On, Alabama Shakes: This playlist began with Lyrics Born, and an instantly catchy bass and drum line that catches hold of you. And it ends that way, too. This track from the young Southern band fronted by the inimitable Brittany Howard also begins with an infectious hook, and then channels the feeling that every young person has: how did I get here, and what will I do now? This time in history has many older people asking those questions as well. In the song, Brittany sings: “So, bless my heart and bless yours too/I don’t know where I’m gonna go/Don’t know what I’m gonna do/Must be somebody up above saying come on Brittany/You got to come on up/You got to hold on/Yeah you got to hold on.”
In the end, that’s what breathing is all about – holding on.
May we all find ways to keep breathing, keep finding the safe house in the distance, keep seeking “we’dom,” keep holding on, until we tell the Pesach story again next year.