It takes a very complex person to successfully create a complex piece of art. If you’re lucky you might end up with a “Moonlight” winning the Oscars as a opposed to a “Crash”, but that’s not often the case. Deliberately creating something so nuanced is an incredible tight rope act and the standards of which they are held up to have only become more scrutinized in recent years. Art if after all, a social responsibility and many seem to forget that.
It is not enough that someone posts a black square on their Instagram page and suddenly claims they understand the near 100 years of suffering black and people of color have experienced in this country and the world. Choices like that I refer to as “passive empathy”, whereas active empathy is taking the resources you have at your disposal and your artistic voice and lending it to the cause. Enter multi-Grammy nominee powerhouse Lacy J. Dalton and her newest single “I Can’t Breathe.”
Discussion is often held about who is “allowed” to speak of or tell stories about marginalized groups that the author is not a part of, but I believe empathy is a universal truth, and I think Dalton would agree. Lacy has extensive background having worked in the California prison system as a songwriting teacher for over four years, and in that time she saw the end results of many social injustices brought down upon incarcerated teenagers who never had the opportunity to receive proper defense or let alone be treated like proper human beings. It is that empathy and level of attention that makes her a perfect maestro for this material. The single is very evocative of other classic stripped down anthems against civil injustices. No major percussion, shifting acoustic and electric guitar, and at most an occasional understated cymbal roll accenting Dalton’s effective seasoned vocals. It recalls feelings of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and certainly Dalton’s former collaborators like Willie Nelson and Glen Campbell. The sound certainly harkens back to a more innocent time, but its confrontational lyrics clearly root it in the present.
Whereas other songs of this type may come across as tone deaf or numbingly preachy, this song flexes how delightfully selfaware it is, and I’d attribute that again to Dalton’s firsthand experience working with marginalized people of whom she’s spoken incredibly highly of during her time as a teacher. A major part of what makes a song like this so powerful is the decidedly observant lyrics, at times echoing thoughts and ideas from people of privilege who’ve never experienced the terrifying situations that ended the lives of people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor only for Dalton to remind them and the listener that regardless of how they feel, these people still can’t breathe.
I expect first time listeners to experience a certain level of dissonance with its chilled, laid back aesthetic, but cutting lyrics, and maybe that’s the point. We should be jostled out of our complacency and Lacy J Dalton is helping lead the way. 3) Music found itself at a very interesting turning point in 2020. Hell, even before then we began
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