Silence For Arizona

Silence For Arizona

Kanye West. Massive Attack. Tenacious D. Sonic Youth. Joe Satriani. On the surface these artists might not have much in common. But on May 25th, all joined on with the latest wave of outrage directed at Arizona's draconian new immigration law.

It's called the Sound Strike. Initiated by Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha with help from Michael Moore, it is a petition calling for the immediate repeal of SB 1070--the vicious bill signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in April.

It's no news by now that Brewer provoked a hurricane of anger when she effectively codified racial profiling into Arizona law. Marches and demonstrations have taken place across the country in the weeks since. Their message has been simple: we won't stand by while the undocumented are turned into criminals.

Nor is the Sound Strike the first musical expression of this renewed movement for civil rights. In the days following 1070's passage, Chuck D of Public Enemy released a statement protesting the law with his wife Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson along with a new single, "Tear Down That Wall." Public Enemy's "By the Time I Get to Arizona" has found itself into several remakes too--most notably by the collaboration of Phoenix-based emcees "Back To Arizona."

But the Sound Strike represents the first collective of high-profile artists to publicly pledge their intention to withhold their art and their labor from the Grand Canyon state. "We are not going to play in Arizona," the manifesto reads. "We are going to boycott Arizona!"

That's right. No "Jesus Walks" for Phoenix. No "Guerilla Radio" in Tucson. No performances from Cypress Hill, Ozomatli, Rise Against or the Coup anywhere in Arizona until SB 1070 is taken off the books.

The Tea Party and other uber-conservatives have predictably gotten themselves in a twist over the Sound Strike. Looking up the campaign on the Free Republic discussion forum will reveal lovely little gems of racism like "the only business in AZ that will suffer from this boycott will be dope dealers." Far more trot out the tired line about privileged musicians out of touch with mainstream America.

Naturally, the artists who signed the petition see things differently:

"Fans of our music, our stories, our films and our words can be pulled over and harassed every day because they are brown or black, or for the way they speak, or for the music they listen to," reads the statement. "This law opens the door for them to be shaked down, or even worse, detained and deported while just trying to travel home from school, from home to work, or when they just roll out with their friends... Some of us grew up dealing with racial profiling, but this law (SB 1070) takes it to a whole new low."

Significantly, the petition has also gained support from artists whose music has brought them north of the border. Norteno ensemble Los Tigres del Norte, though originally formed in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, have been based in San Jose since the 1960s. "We've had occasion to travel there twice since it was approved," says band leader Jorge Hernandez, "and you can feel a chilly climate from the moment of arrival at the airport."

Some have questioned how effective the Sound Strike is going to be in bringing down 1070. Ed Masley, a pop music critic for the Arizona Republic, told that "supporters of the bill aren't likely to become supportive... The right-wing rhetoric is so ingrained and it's pretty easy to marginalize anyone who's speaking out against it as a celebrity pet cause type of thing."

Masley misses the point. The Sound Strike's aim is hardly to win over the Minutemen and Teabaggers. Calls for boycott have come from activists within Arizona, and are part of a larger effort to isolate the state's government and economy. Arizona-based companies like PetSmart, Fender guitars and even the Diamondbacks baseball team have faced demands to renounce the law and divest from the state.

Veterans of the struggle against South African apartheid will surely remember "Sun City," the song released in 1985 by Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, DJ Kool Herc, Joey Ramone and a slew of others who joined together as Artists United Against Apartheid. As they declared in the song, none would play in South Africa until the racist regime was struck down.

If "Sun City" were a lone voice in the wilderness, then its affect may have been negligible. But by the time it was recorded, there was already a global movement in swing urging boycotts, divestment and sanctions against South Africa. By 1994, both internal and external pressure was enough to bring apartheid to its knees.

Today, the boycott appears to be regaining its currency among the most socially aware artists and musicians. Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron and Carlos Santana recently pulled out of scheduled performances in Israel to protest that country's own apartheid treatment of Palestinians. And here in the States, where the lessons of Jim Crow clearly haven't been learned, the Sound Strike represents how sometimes, the best weapon at an artists' disposal is their silence.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (, and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts.  His articles have also appeared in Z Magazine,, the International Socialist Review,, and New Politics.

He can be reached at