In Wu-Tang Clan’s classic anthem “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me),” Inspectah Deck described Staten Island as a war zone overrun with “stickup kids / corrupt cops / and crack rocks and stray shots / all on the block that stays hot.” About two decades later, in 2012, the block in Tompkinsville, Staten Island, where Gary Nieves Jr. decided to build a recording studio, was still pretty warm. Young men stood outside the studio slipping baggies into the hands of glassy-eyed customers; fights were constantly breaking out among the homeless people who hung out in the park across the street. Still, the block might have been even hotter if not for the presence of an unofficial neighborhood peacemaker who kept an eye on the strip. Soon after Nieves opened the studio, a singer showed up to a recording session saying some asshole had been drunkenly harassing her outside. Nieves and two friends confronted the man. As they exchanged words, a hulking bystander walked over and ordered that man never to bother the woman again. The musicians soon learned to expect this kind of thing from their new acquaintance. In an area where people didn’t have much faith in the formal justice system, this man was a respected figure of authority, a “gentle giant” and a “big teddy bear” who often settled disputes and offered to look after people’s parking spaces. “He was a nice guy,” said Nieves. “Always said hello.” His name was Eric Garner.
On July 17, 2014, Nieves, a 27-year-old who handles production duties for several bands and plays bass for a hip-hop group called the Rising Sun All Stars, was working in the studio when he heard shouting from the street below. He went downstairs and saw Garner pleading with the police to leave him alone. What happened next was captured on a video that has spread far beyond the streets of Staten Island. From Nieves’s vantage point, the incident looked like “a savage gang attack.” Like everyone who has watched the scene play out on their TVs and laptops, Nieves saw Officer Daniel Pantaleo grab Garner around the neck and heard Garner shout “I can’t breathe” 11 times before falling silent. “I wasn’t sure if he was dead or not,” said Nieves. “In my head, I didn’t think he was dead. It looked bad, but because of how nonchalant the responders were, I was kind of assuming, tomorrow he’ll be out here again.”
A month ago, the Rising Sun All Stars released a song inspired by what Nieves witnessed that day, joining the ranks of better-known artists from around the country who have been using hip-hop to express their anger and grief over the mistreatment of black people at the hands of police. G-Unit and J. Cole, Alicia Keys and Killer Mike — it’s a long and eclectic list. Nieves’s song “I Can’t Breathe” is dark and angry, with a rugged boom-bap beat inspired by the distinctive Wu-Tang sound. NenJah Nycist, the band’s emcee, raps from Garner’s point of view, alluding to his peaceful reputation. “I’m no stranger to these streets / everybody know me, I never start beef.” You can listen to the song for free on SoundCloud or Bandcamp, where it has been played several thousand times. The band says they’ll pass along all donations to Garner’s family, though so far they’ve only managed to raise $200. The song has yet to get much play off the Island.
Staten Island is a racially divided place, with the homes of white cops, firefighters, and nurses spread out across the suburban-style neighborhoods of the South Shore and the borough’s growing black and Latino communities concentrated in the densely populated neighborhoods to the north. The Rising Sun All Stars span the divide. Nieves and his cousin Ruben, a percussionist, are of Puerto Rican descent, and NenJah and Ariana Smith — one of the band’s two singers — are black. The other singer, Mike Costello, along with the two guitarists, Pat Nowak and Dave Giordano, are white. Ask about their experiences with police, and you’ll get very different answers.
“I have police in my family,” said Costello. “I have a lot of police in my family. My grandfather, my uncle, my aunt, two cousins. One is in narcotics at the 120, the same precinct Officer Pantaleo came out of. And that’s all great. But my grandfather would be rolling in his grave right now knowing that this shit is going on.”
One evening in early December, before a deadly ambush on a pair of police officers shook the city and diverted attention from the escalating protests against police misconduct, Garner’s family members and their supporters gathered near the spot where Eric died, chanting, “I can’t breathe.” Upstairs, the band members were sitting around on Nieves’s couch cracking open cans of PBR. Costello said he couldn’t understand why the cops would respond so aggressively to something so trivial. (The police say they’d confronted Garner for selling loose cigarettes.) “Before putting your arm around the man’s throat,” he said, “why not open the squad-car door and say, ‘Eric, let’s go’?”
“I’ll tell you why,” said NenJah, a 26-year-old originally from the Bronx. The officer, he claimed, “sees this big black guy — he already demonized him in his mind. People are like, ‘Oh, it’s not a race thing.’” He rolled his eyes. “It’s nothing but a race thing.”
“If they were responding to somebody selling cigarettes in Annadale,” said Ruben, referring to a white, middle-class neighborhood on the other side of the Island, “that guy would not be dead now.”
A few nights later, I met Nieves outside the studio and we walked over to the spot where he watched Garner take his last breath. Nieves is quiet, reflective. As we stood there, looking at the cluster of votive candles and handmade signs that have marked the site since July, I noticed him anxiously tearing a scrap of paper into smaller and smaller pieces. Nieves said he’d had doubts about releasing the song. What if people saw it as a ploy for publicity, a vulgar attempt to become better known outside of Staten Island?
“What pushed me to the point where I knew [recording a song] was something that felt right was thinking about what Eric’s reaction might have been,” he said. “What if the song was about another guy out here? There are other guys serving the same type of role that he did.” Nieves paused and fiddled again with the scrap of paper. “I think he would like the song,” he said. “I think he would like the message.”