It started with a statement
from Chuck D. And even at that early date you could tell that it had legs. Ever since the Grand Canyon State passed the racist and repressive SB 1070, the law has become a focal point for social justice activists, and has reactivated the immigrant rights movement. Calls have gone out for actions and boycotts against the law in every segment of society, from labor to sports to yes, music. And, unsurprisingly, it seems that once again hip-hop has lead the way.
Nobody can deny that one of Chuck and Public Enemy's most infamous songs has received an uncanny new lease on life in the aftermath of 1070. Almost as soon as the news broke that Governor Jan Brewer signed the bill into law, activists from all over the country could be heard quoting "By the Time I Get to Arizona." Of course, the irony wasn't lost on Chuck:
"In 1991 I wrote a song criticizing Arizona officials (including John McCain and Fife Symington) for rejecting the federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The same politics I wrote about in 'By the Time I Get to Arizona' are alive and well in Arizona today, but this time the target is Brown people."
Along with the statement, Chuck also released "Tear Down That Wall," a rebuke to anti-immigrant scapegoating that samples "Arizona" during the opening. Nor was the relevance lost on the younger generation of artists. Recently, Minneapolis rapper Toki Wright released an online version of the song with lyrics updated to include the bill. Perhaps more impressive was the collective of emcees--Black and Latino, male and female, all based in Arizona--that came together to produce the eight-minute "Back to Arizona." It went live on May 6th, and has gone viral in the days since.
Like Wright's version, the beat is pulled straight from PE's original. The buzzing bass and thumping drums are all intact, and one thing that's immediately apparent is how fresh it still sounds. And the impressive performances from every one of the dozen diverse emcees make it near-impossible to set any one apart.
More broadly, the bevy of artists on "Back to Arizona" reveal the depth of anger that 1070 has unleashed among young people. Upon closer examination, though, it also shows the possibilities that exist for a real and palpable unity among Black and Brown. Anti-immigrant bigots have always sought to use the Black community as a wedge in their campaigns, seeking to depict Latinos as out to steal jobs from a population that already suffers the affects of racism itself.
The content of "Back to Arizona" makes clear what utter bollocks this is. Throughout the song, both Black and Latino artists are heard making reference to the racism, the profiling, the harassment and degradation that both communities have put up with. It's a prescient statement to make seeing as how allowing cops to pull people who "look illegal" (read: "are Brown") can only open the door for more harassment of African Americans.
And that's the crux--that the only people to benefit from 1070 are the politicians and officials who pushed it. The rest of us--Latino, Black, Asian, Arab, white--are the ones who get screwed.
While the call for action has definitely come from the state itself, there has been no shortage of artists from around the country willing to oblige. Miami-based emcee Pitbull was the most recent to cancel his tour stop
"I am canceling my concert in Phoenix on May 31," said Pit on his Twitter page. "How is the country we enjoy and love bcuz of its human rights, freedom, opportunity and that has been built by immigrants, now start 2 deny them??.. It is contradicting 2 everything the USA stands 4…"
Days before, Cypress Hill announced their intention to pull out of their May 21st date in Tucson. Currently on tour in support of their recently released Rise Up, the group stated that "[t]his decision was made in an effort to show support and solidarity with those, undocumented and otherwise, being directly affected by this unconstitutional law. Cypress Hill recognizes those living in the struggle for their basic civil rights."
What bears saying, however, is that without the steps taken by countless outraged people in the days following 1070's passage--without the organizing, the protests, the marches--it's doubtful that any of these would have happened, much less found traction among fans and supporters. But the space for these kinds of artistic statements to thrive has been carved out in shockingly little time by the street-level actions in communities and campuses alike.
From Katrina to Sean Bell, hip-hop has certainly had its hands full over the past few years. The craven racism of Arizona's law is only the most recent in a litany of crimes that the art-form has had to face head-on. With a national day of action against 1070 coming up on May 29th, we may yet see the vibrancy that the "CNN for Black (and Brown) people" might achieve with a grassroots movement under its belt.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com
), and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts. His work has also appeared in Z Magazine, New Politics, SocialistWorker.org, CounterPunch and PopMatters.com
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.