On the surface, it seems almost quotidian. Voicemails of birthday wishes for someone celebrating their special day. “Happy birthday, Oscar! I promised your mom I would call and tell you Happy birthday!” starts one voicemail. Others begin with introductions of who is calling, then launch into birthday messages. Some are just “Happy birthday, Oscar!” It’s ordinary, pedestrian, until the audio of his mother, the Reverend Wanda Johnson, begins to play.
“Oh, Oscar. You are so missed,” she begins, her voice laden with heartbreak. “My heart still aches for you. I think about you every single day. And not a day goes by without you being on my mind.” She laments: “Tomorrow, in five minutes, will be your 35th birthday and I miss you so, so very much. I still now have to get up and turn off my light because you’re not here to turn off my light for me any more. Your life was cut way too short. And I truly love, love, love, love and miss you. My baby boy. Until we meet again. Love you, Mom. Always.”
Her son, Oscar Grant III, was murdered on New Year’s Day 2009 by Bart transit police in Oakland, California, his death caught on camera by witnesses. He was only 22. But on 1800HappyBirthday.com, the people in his community celebrate a milestone, his 35th birthday.
1800 Happy Birthday is an art installation which focuses on celebrating the birthdays of black and brown men and women who have been murdered by law enforcement through birthday voicemails. Volunteer run and community supported, the project focuses on subverting the narrative of the fallen, focusing less on death and more on life.
Visitors of the site are confronted with a large list of names, some familiar, others not. The names are written in a gothic font, their sunrise and sunset dates set in a cursive script. For several names, a play button with celebratory voicemails awaits, filled with well wishes from people who called in via a hotline. Animated by community interaction and embraced by community remembrance, it’s reminiscent of a street memorial, like a mural or a bouquet of roses set on a concrete sidewalk among lit candles and stuffed animals.
Film-maker and co-founder of production studios EVEN/ODD, Mohammad Gorjestani conceived the series as a way to explore the intimate pain of such a loss. It featured the loved ones and families of Philando Castile, Mario Woods and Oscar Grant III on the birthdays of the deceased. “What I kept getting frustrated by in the news and media was that they would always kind of focus on these tragedies in a way that really just focused on the immediate impact on the families, the grief, the anger,” he said. “And then they would move on to the next headline. I felt like that was dehumanizing because to think of people like Oscar Grant and George Floyd as martyrs for a movement, that is dehumanizing. I felt like making something that looked into the more quiet grief and the more humanistic side of people.”
With Covid-19 creating an obstruction for him as a film-maker, Gorjestani pondered ways to bring the series to life and came up with the idea of birthday voicemails. “Voicemails and birthdays are something that have a certain nostalgia to us. Everyone remembers getting a call for their birthdays in the voicemails. There’s something extremely human about that,” he said. After getting approval from the family of Mario Woods, the project launched on the day San Francisco designated as Mario Woods Day, on 22 July. He adds: “Everybody can relate to a birthday. Everybody can relate to people calling you on a birthday. It’s like food. It’s a universal language.”
The murder of black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement is a sensitive subject, often discussed insensitively. Because of this, 1800 Happy Birthday is intentionally more evocative than provocative. The project attempts to close the berth between the humanity and legacy of the fallen and the media coverage surrounding their death. “I don’t actually think about this project as grief as I think it is an evolution of grief, which is to celebrate, to remember, to basically hold people with honor. To remember them. When you listen to these voicemails, they’re very loving. They’re remembering someone for the human that they were, as opposed to the headline that they were. I think it’s important that we transcend simply looking at these tragedies as only failures of the criminal legal system,” said Gorjestani.
Through the site, the victims are preserved in public memory, in the seizing voicemails created by their family, friends and community. “What I think is powerful about audio only, there’s a certain command that I’ve noticed that people [engage with] … You can’t help but listen,” Gorjestani said. “It’s also first person audio. It’s not speaking about somebody in the third person. It’s speaking directly to someone. As a listener, you’re remembering that these individuals were somebody’s son, were somebody’s brother, were somebody’s sister, were somebody’s close somebody, as opposed to a name in the public realm.”
Indeed, there is so much more to one’s life than their death. There was so much more to Oscar Grant III. When asked about her son, Rev Johnson doesn’t begin with Oscar’s murder, rather his love for athletics, his intelligence, his excitement for life, his wit, and his leadership skills. “Oscar was a young man who loved to play sports,” she said. “He played baseball, basketball, football. He loved to be a leader in his very own right. I remember, one year, he was on a baseball team. We had signed him up late so they ended up putting him on the team with some younger kids. Every time he would get up, he would hit a home run. Those kids looked up to him during that season of baseball.”
She went on to recount his interests and aspirations, fondly sharing anecdotes about her son. “As a young man, he loved to do prayer at church, in front of the whole entire congregation,” she said. “He would love to sing at church in the choir and you could hear him being the loudest singer there. I would be like ‘Boy! Shush, not so loud!’ and he’d be louder! He was just that kind of young man who always shined out in front of a crowd.” She added: “Oscar was a father. He was a son. He was a brother. He was an uncle. He was a nephew and great nephew. He aspired to become a barber.”
Grant’s short life presents the question of a life unlived, due to violent means, of dreams, aspirations unfulfilled. Rev Johnson now runs a foundation which bears Grant’s name, where they organize athletic programs and help the community as she believes he would have done – had he had the chance to live out his life. Even prior to the series, she would host community events on his birthday as a way to heal and help heal. Through 1800 Happy Birthday, she is able to hold space for her son even without the community celebration.
“This project sheds a different light,” she said. “It humanizes Oscar. It gives you the opportunity to really get to know who Oscar is and it also gives you the opportunity to share what you thought about Oscar. It has definitely brought joy to my eyes all week. People calling in, wishing him a happy birthday, singing to him … It just lets me know that no matter how long it’s been, Oscar will always be a part of me and he will always be with me. He may not be here physically but he’s still in my heart and he’s in other hearts where they’re able to share that very thing.”
Gorjestani hopes to breathe more life into 1800 Happy Birthday in a similar fashion, as Johnson did with the Oscar Grant Foundation. At the moment, plans to expand the project into a book or physical traveling art installation are notional, dependent on funds and, of course, Covid-19. Even so, Rev Johnson says the project’s existence and community participation is encouraging to her.
“Oscar was a people’s person,” she said. “We had celebrated my birthday the last day together that we had as a celebration. He loved birthday celebrations. It’s this love of birthdays which makes this particular celebration of life so relevant to his legacy. “Oscar always loved to celebrate,” she said, “He loved birthdays. He loved gifts. He was just that kind of young man … Happy Birthday gives me another feeling of being happy and joyful that Oscar was a young man, that people cared about him. He was a young man that had aspirations and goals. He was a young man who was going to be successful in this society had he been given that opportunity.”