"I'm not a lecturer," said Nadezhda "Nadia" Tolokonnikova, one half of the founding duo of Russian punk-political activists Pussy Riot.
Despite such claims, they did lecture eloquently — mostly in Russian.
Tolokonnikova, alongside Maria "Masha" Alyokhina, the pair are the leaders of the Russia-based, all-female, feminist musical protest collective (fans of Netflix's House of Cards might recognize them from their recent Season 3 appearance, disrupting a White House dinner), and Pyotr Verzilov — Tolokonnikova's husband, who also served as translator — came to the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, March 17, for a free screening of their first-ever English song "I Can't Breathe" and a discussion on art, politics and protest.
Famously imprisoned for two years in 2012 for an anti-Putin protest at the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour — depicted in the video "Punk Prayer," also shown at the event — Pussy Riot rely heavily on their ability to educate and empower through visuals and music. And such productions extend beyond the scope of Russian issues and politics.
After spending time in New York City to record in late 2014, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina spoke on the inspirations that followed their witnessing and involvement in the protests following the grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. "I Can't Breathe," a drum-heavy, minimal no-holds-barred track, containing the lyrics "It's getting dark, New York City/I need to catch my breath" and a transcript of Eric Garner's last words, was the result.
The one-take video, which features Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina wearing Russian riot police uniforms being buried alive in a shallow grave, was the group's first time utilizing a production team for a video.
Despite the variances in production value in the two screened videos, Alyokhina reinforced Pussy Riot's goal in their actions. "Punk is what we want," she said.
"Punk is a situation where you're always surprised. If we came from prison and did the same stuff, that's not punk," she explained of both the conceptual and topical deviance.
While the video touches closely on stateside issues, "I Can't Breathe" also draws on comparisons that police violence exists in both Russia and the United States — and beyond — and is used as a pseudo call-to-action for closer media monitoring of law enforcement.
"Law enforcement agencies, they think they cannot be touched … they should be touched," they said.
Through all of their recognition and celebrity (a strange thing for the pair, who feel the effect of star power strongest in the United States), the group is steadfast about their message: blending boundaries between politics and the masses through meaningful music in order to incite change — especially in millennials.
"Your description about your own decade is I live in the decade of nothing," Tolokonnikova noted on their efforts to bring value to music. "What if you open the new Lady Gaga video and it's about Eric Garner?"
Their reach isn't exclusive to solely young people, politicians or musicians, they said, but a wider audience. "We feel like we are connecting people in various thoughts and fields," Alyokhina said.
The lecture was sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's Slavic Languages Department and the newly formed Perry World House, a space for students to engage in international discussion. Officially opening in January 2016, according to William Burke-White, director of the Perry World House, the facility aims to host similar events, welcoming international guests for local spotlights.
Kevin Platt, professor of Slavic languages and literatures and graduate chair of the comparative literature program at the University of Pennsylvania, moderated the event with the help of his students, who helped prepare conversation topics.