This was inevitable. DJ Spooky, working with Chuck D., put together an “update” of the classic Public Enemy protest song, “By The Time I Get To Arizona,” to go along with Arizona’s controversial recent immigration law. The new rule requires police officers to demand proof of an individual’s citizenship if there is “reasonable suspicion” to suspect s/he may not be a legal citizen, a mandate that opponents claim is legislating racial profiling.
All in all, the song doesn’t differ to much from the original. It takes most of the earlier vocals and lays them over a funk guitar riff that sounds more like a summer beach jam than a political outcry. Spooky describes it as “a 21st century look in the rear view mirror,” but it’s also supposed to be a look in the regular mirror, asking if the state has changed at all. When the original song was penned as a response to the state government’s decision to not celebrate a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., I reckon few imagined that we would now have a Black president. Yet here we are, and this nearly 20-year-old track hardly needs much updating to describe current politics.
Which is a problem. The legislative action in Arizona is certainly offensive. It’s racist, xenophobic and has the potential to do serious damage to a number of the civil rights that we, as a nation, hold dear. But I don’t know if the way to protest is to keep repeating the same divisive vitriol.
Last time, individuals and organizations started to boycott the state in protest, which eventually brought the legislature around to instituting MLK Day. But we’re here again, and maybe we need to think about why. And no, it’s not because Arizona is a state full of hicks, racists and old people. It’s decades of the other kind of alienation — feeling disenfranchised and forgotten — that created SB 1070. It’s the same reason that we have Tea Parties and, to some extent, Public Enemy.
That’s not an excuse for racism. But it’s a plea for understanding. As the Awl’s Cord Jefferson writes, “If this new immigration law is proof of anything, it’s that more rational people are needed within Arizona’s borders…” I grew up in Arizona. It’s really a gorgeous state. It’s home to some of our most forgotten histories, deepest legends, and proudest landmarks. Many of the people are actually very friendly, I promise you.
Download the song at DJ Spooky’s site.