I learned about 1-800 Happy Birthday on my birthday. As this birthday marked a year — to the week — of sheltering in place in East Oakland, a Black and Brown neighborhood that’s the epicenter of COVID-19, I wondered if I had it in me to listen to an audio installation with the tagline, “Voicemails for Lives Lost.” But as soon as I opened the website, its familiarity welcomed me. The rich black background with gothic and cursive fonts in white and red evoked tattoo art, Los Angeles’s vibrant murals, family reunions in city parks, and the memorials that crop up on these streets all too often: stuffed animals, bouquets of roses, and Hallmark cards lashed to telephone poles.
The names of Black and Brown victims of police killings and systemic racism, many familiar, many not, filled the bottom half of the screen. A few appeared in red, and I clicked on Oscar Grant, murdered by transit police at the very BART station I use, on New Year’s Day 2009, the year I moved to California. His birthday would’ve been recently, and I was given the option of leaving or listening to a birthday voicemail. I pressed play and gasped to hear Grant’s mother, the Reverend Wanda Johnson, speaking intimately: “Tomorrow, in five minutes, would have been your 35th birthday…”
1-800 Happy Birthday takes a simple yet ambitious approach to the epidemic of racial violence, sort of a people’s companion piece to the recent Grief and Grievance exhibition at the New Museum. After working on a film series with families of three victims of police killings, filmmaker Mohammad Gorjestani found himself frustrated by the media’s sensationalism of Black and Brown suffering. “They politicize the martyrdom, then it’s onto the next news cycle,” Gorjestani told Hyperallergic. Even/Odd, his production company, partnered with communities and families to solicit narratives that humanize loved ones and celebrate their lives and legacies, because, as he put it, “Just because you don’t know someone’s name doesn’t mean they weren’t loved.”
As communities are usually traumatized in the wake of killings, making community participation accessible drove the project’s every decision. Gorjestani and designer Luke Beard strategized ways to “democratize access.” Gorjestani elaborated, “If you don’t live in a city and can’t participate in a protest or if you have a physical barrier, all you need to participate is a phone.” Community collaboration determined everything, down to font and color choice. “It’s not a database. It’s a community vibe.”
As a result, hundreds of family members, friends, and strangers from all over the country have left birthday voicemails for the slain, creating a living archive of joy and sorrow. The website invites survivor families to request their own page, and the volunteer team is actively fundraising to expand the project into a book of transcribed voicemails and a traveling audio booth where the public can record messages.
I listen to a tremulous voice that eventually identifies as a 13-year-old white girl: “I just want you to know that I call the Kentucky state attorney general every single day for Breonna Taylor. And I call the Minnesota state attorney general every single day for George Floyd. I call so many people,” she sighs. “I march (with my mask on, because Coronavirus!) … I hope you know that I’m fighting for you.”
Gorjestani explains that the project attracts people of all ages, backgrounds, and motivations. “If you’re not from this community, it can galvanize you, and if you’re from a surviving family, you now have a tool to use and share.” A poignant example is the mother of Mario Woods, the young man shot 27 times by five San Francisco police officers in 2015. “She told me she didn’t have time to grieve, because right away she had to defend her son’s character in the court of public opinion. So, this is a bit of a safe space. She goes to these voicemails and gets a little pick-me-up.”