Theory Teacher's Blog

Hip Hop and Arizona’s SB1070 — Tear Down That Wall

This post is coming a couple months late, but oh well. In April this year, Chuck D — arguably the intellectual and political leader of hip hop at the close of the Reagan era — released a new single protesting Arizona’s bill SB1070. This bill is still very controversial. As the New York Times reported [here], the bill appears to legalize and encourage the racial profiling of Hispanics in order to seek out and deport all illegal immigrants, and Chuck D’s song “Tear Down That Wall” not only attacks the bill but also goes after the entire system of exploitation that the recently constructed wall between the U.S. and Mexico represents, including sweatshop labor. You can read the lyrics and Chuck D’s public statement to this effect [here].

Chuck D’s new song might remind us of an earlier historical moment: his group Public Enemy’s role in successfully reversing the Arizona government’s opposition to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1991. Back then, Public Enemy’s song “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” together with their refusal to perform inside Arizona, supported a broad-based protest movement. And did so successfully. And so, in my view, Chuck D’s efforts in 1991 and his work now speaks to the power of art and music to achieve positive political action.

But Chuck D is not the only artist to protest Arizona’s bill this year. For instance, so have younger artists such as Kanye West and Talib Kweli, as Chicago Now reported here. And perhaps more important than the world-famous artists heralding from hip hop capitals such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, there are also local Arizona hip hop artists who all unified against this bill. It is important to pay attention to the local as well as the national level. As one of my fellow bloggers Amy noted last year [here] and [here], important new voices in hip hop have emerged from cities such as Minneapolis and Toronto, so the old East-Coast-West-Coast hegemony has been superceded. Phoenix hip hop and Arizona beats have grown, and they have also produced a terrific song in response to SB1070.

What impresses me is how fast and how furious hip hop’s response to the bill was. Indeed, the artistic reaction was almost instantaneous, and I think this speaks to hip hop’s emergence as one of the dominant and most relevant art forms today, though we should also strongly acknowledge the decades of work on this issue by poets, novelists, painters, etc. What all this reveals is one of cultural theory’s basic arguments — how interconnected art and social organization are. Art emerges out of socio-economic relations.

But one important question for us as cultural and literary theorists might be which of the many artistic statements will be most remembered. In other words, which song will make it into the “canon” of classic hip hop? As my fellow blogger Amy might rightly ask, will it be the big-name Chuck D (just as before when Public Enemy’s protest against Arizona in 1991 became the signature song of a much larger movement) or will it be the local Pheonix artists? And given that the big name artists are clearly supporting the local — just as national organizations have supported local political resistance to Arizaon’s bill — this raises important theoretical questions about the relationship between the national culture and the local.


June 26, 2010 - Posted by | music, race

1 Comment »

  1. I forgot to mention something that probably most of you already noticed — that local Arizona rappers name their coalition and their song after the earlier Public Enemy song, and they also sample the music from it. And this not only suggests the “classic” status of that earlier song but also raises the question of what “local” culture means when it so obviously takes its cue from culture produced in other locations.

    Comment by steventhomas | June 28, 2010 | Reply

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