In 1991, Public Enemy released a song called “By the Time I Get To Arizona,” an angry, incendiary track in which Chuck D described a fictional assassination of then real-life governor of AZ, Fife Symington, III. The anger originated from AZ’s failure to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as an official state holiday. In 1990, a referendum supporting the recognition of MLK Day failed, due in no small part to the governor and other legislators’ staunch opposition to the citizen’s ballot initiative.
Almost twenty years later, AZ is in the news again for similar reasons: a hot-button political issue has again raised the ire of hip hop artists. This time, governor Jan Brewer has signed an immigration law that allows police officers to detain people they suspect to be undocumented immigrants, and demand to see official documents. Many have called this law “legalized racial profiling” against the Latino/a community, an ethnic group that makes up a large percentage of AZ’s population, as well as a growing percentage of America’s population as a whole.
And like in 1991, hip hop has responded. Artists Queen YoNasDa, DJ John Blaze, Tajji Sharp, Yung Face, Mr. Miranda, OCean, Da’aron Anthony, Atllas, Chino D, Nyhtee, Pennywise, Rich Rico and Da Beast have remade Public Enemy’s historic song in a show of opposition to the law, reigniting the anger and political atmosphere that Public Enemy’s song helped create almost two decades ago.
It’s easy to forget that hip hop used to be one of the more convincing and necessary hydraulic levers in our culture’s socio-political system. Hip hop often addressed a lower economic strata, and with that context came a demographic that statistically had less formal education, less political activism and overall less general awareness of personally relevant domestic issues. For the ’80s and early ’90s, hip hop admirably filled this gap, and spoke in a way that made that demographic not only want to listen, but also act on the things they were being educated about.
And so, when crack/cocaine was on the rise in the ’80s, Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow released “White Lines” as an anti-drug dance anthem. When AIDS became an epidemic, KRS-One released “Jimmy,” informing kids to use condoms. And when police brutality was on a rampant run, Ice-T released “Cop Killer,” bringing the issue not only to the attention of an already angry population, but also straight to the doorstep of Washignton, D.C. Artists like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul helped spread a positive message to an angry youth, while the X-Clan and Public Enemy helped spark the Afrocentric movement that put a generation in touch with its heritage for the first time. Politics have always been present in hip hop, and the convergence of the two things often produced important and meaningful results, even if those results were often bathed in controversy and contention.
As Chris Richards of The Washington Post succinctly put it:
But isn’t that the beauty of both hip-hop and American politics? Opinions run hot. Mud gets slung. In a crumbling music industry where survival often depends on playing nice, hip-hop is not afraid to push envelopes.
In an era where popular music is so utterly devoid of importance and meaning (including currently popular hip hop), never before has there been such a staggering gap between the upper ends of meaningless pop drivel and the lower dregs of obscure, socially conscious music. Music and message used to be one and the same, whether you were Woody Guthrie in the ’40s or Neil Young in the ’80s. It was possible to be successful while contributing a substantive message to those who only wanted to turn on their radios to ignore. The message was there, ready for acceptance when you chose to notice.
Hip hop is no different. There was a time when Public Enemy was both one of the most popular groups around as well as one of the most respected because they were a group that had something important to say. Today, it’s almost impossible to even conceive of an artist succeeding solely on the fact that he or she has a message to say. The AZ law is just one of a multitude of reasons why it’s more important than ever that we get our medicine with our spoonful of sugar on the radio.
In a genre of music that actually forces you to say something before you can say anything, it’s heartening to see some hip hop artists using their talents and clout to speak out on an issue that is completely worthy of a debate from all people, most notably those who it affects the most. Music doesn’t always have to be important; I appreciate a good party track, I like to have mindless power pop to sing along to in the shower. But one look at the Billboard, one scan of the radio, you’d go hungry looking for anything substantial to chew on, other than a choir of country artists singing about how great ‘Merica is. We deserve more than that; and music deserves more from us.
And as for the law itself, you know how I feel.
Eugene records & performs hip hop under the alias Adam WarRock.