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Musicians Don’t Like Immigration Policy; Disagree On Approach

June 30, 2010

The Arizona immigration bill signed into law last month quickly became a lightening rod for criticism from the music community.   While it appears recording artists universally oppose the law (or at least those who are making their opinions publicly known), there are conflicting opinions on what role musicians should play in order to most effectively convey their message.

The law, commonly referred to as S.B. 1070 (because of the bill from which it was passed), contains two provisions that are particularly controversial: (1) Law enforcement officers are required to demand proof of citizenship if “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the U.S.;” and (2) Even if the person is a legal alien, if they do not have their registration card with them, they are guilty of a crime.

Less than a week after S.B. 1070 was signed into law, Stereogum reported on a Twitter battle between two bands, Stars and Fucked Up, which began when the former tweeted, “We love AZ.  But until its racist new immigration law is repealed, Stars (and many others) will boycott this state.”   Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham fired back, suggesting that a boycott may not be the best way of conveying a message: “Do Stars honestly think that by denying the state their brand of dreamy pop that they’re going to force the governor’s hand?”

After Stars responded with an in-kind but equally G-rated diss, the two bands engaged in a surprisingly intelligent debate regarding which method is most likely to effectuate repeal of the law.   On one hand, boycotting can have a significant impact on the state’s economy, thereby depriving the government of the very resources it believes are wasted on illegal immigrants.   Living in touristy Nashville, it is easy to see how even modest drops in visitors can do serious damage to the city’s budget.   However, Abraham takes the position that engaging the Arizona fan base and encouraging them to get involved is the way to go: “Use press ops before the show to talk about what is going on in the local media, donate some of the guarantee to or other such groups that work on the front lines.”

Shakira is on the Fucked Up side of the fence, opting for personal action over boycott.  She reportedly met with Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon to discuss S.B. 1070, which he also opposed.   Shakira tried to see Governor Brewer while in town but her staff told the pop star she was “too busy.”   Dominican tropical music star Juan Luis Guerra also thinks that engaging Arizona is the right approach.  “We have to go there now more than ever,” he told Billboard.

Some artists are being active from a distance.   Ricky Martin, as well as Mexican pop singer Paulina Rubio and Larry Hernandez, who won Latin Artist of the Year, spoke out against the law at the Billboard Latin Music Awards last month.   Meanwhile, Mexican rock acts Molotov, Jaguares and Maldita Vecindad played a protest concert in Mexico City, which reportedly drew 85,000 people to the capital city’s main square.

Nevertheless, there is a very large and growing number of artists sharing Star’s philosophy that boycotting is the way to go.  Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine issued a press release in late May asking for artists and fans to join in a boycott of Arizona, calling the group The Sound Strike.   Artists who have signed up to participate are varied; some notable examples include Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket, Sonic Youth, Rise Against, and two different Ds – Chuck and Tenacious.

While Chuck D may be participating in The Sound Strike, he is hardly approaching the issue passively.   Together with DJ Johnny Juice, he reworked Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get to Arizona” into a new track, “Tear Down That Wall.”   The original version, written in 1991, was Chuck D’s response to Arizona officials (including John McCain) who refused to recognize the federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   “Tear Down That Wall” is an in-your-face attack on the state’s immigration policy.

Several artists did not wait for a formal gathering of their peers before deciding to boycott Arizona.  Conjunto Primavera canceled a June 19 show at Phoenix’ Dodge Theatre in protest of S.B. 1070, while Cypress Hill and Pitbull also canceled dates there.   Latin artists Jenni Rivera and Wisin & Yandel are similarly avoiding Arizona in protest.

The tours for Pitbull, Rivera and Wisin & Yandel are all promoted by AEG Live, one of the world’s largest promoters.   While it would seem that promoters might object to the cancellations and rerouting of tours, it appears AEG is sympathetic.

Randy Phillips, the company’s president and CEO, is critical of the new law and believes that it ultimately will be struck down on constitutional grounds.  “Until that time, however, the economic impact on the state from losing even a couple of tours might be enough for the legislature and the governor to realize that there is still a political concept called the tyranny of the majority, which is just as dangerous to our democracy as illegal immigration, maybe more so.”

Arizona radio station KCMT, which is based in Tucson, postponed a June 6 concert billed as “Tusa 2010.”  Among those scheduled to perform were La Arrolladora Banda el Limon, Banda MS, K-Paz de la Sierra and Julion Alvarez.  However, KCMT’s actions were not taken as a protest but rather as a necessity, due to extraordinarily poor ticket sales for the event.

The station has already experienced weak ticket sales at events taking place after the law passed.  At a May 7 concert in Tucson where the station anticipated around 2,000 people, far less than 1,000 showed up.   According to Billboard, general sales manager Tara Hungate thinks the locals are afraid to come out to shows.   “Whether they’re legal or not, they don’t want to jeopardize their paperwork.   The tendency is, ‘I am not going to go out because I don’t want to have one beer and get stopped.’”

Update: The debate between strategies continues, as Arizona indie concert promoter Charlie Levy writes an open letter to Sound Strike, challenging the wisdom of a boycott, and Conor Oberst responds in defense with an open letter of his own.

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