(Sevens, a new feature on Aquarium Drunkard, pays tribute to the art of the individual song. From now through the election, Sevens will focus on political songs)
November 2nd of this year will be the 25th anniversary of President Regan’s signing of the bill that officially made the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday a federal observance. But the signing of that bill, contentous as it already was, would only pave the way for further animosity over the implementation of the holiday in different states. In addition to senators’ opposition to the initial bill (including the traditional stalwarts such as Jesse Helms, but also the more mavericky John McCain), individual states found ways to undermine the holiday either by combining it with others (Virginia celebrated it as the Lee-Jackson-King holiday up until 2000) or by ignoring it in its entirety (New Hampshire and Arizona).
Arizona in particular took a lot of heat over their refusal to acknowledge the holiday. When a bill to finally recognize the holiday failed to pass in 1990, the National Football League pulled out of their decision to host Super Bowl XXVII at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. The continued opposition by Governor Fife Symington III finally drew down the ire of Chuck D and Public Enemy. Not a smart move.
“By the Time I Get To Arizona” would prove to be one of Public Enemy’s most controversial songs. From the album Apocalypse ’91..The Enemy Strikes Black, the song and its video replicate the threat of assassinating the governor of Arizona in retribution for his refusal to acknowledge the holiday. The video uses a series of recreated scenes from the civil rights movement – dogs and water hoses on protesters; harassment of lunch counter sit-in protesters; the assassination of King himself – to create a sense of what is being honored in the King holiday. The irony of the governor being assassinated for not recognizing a holiday for a man who was assassinated is obviously not lost. Too the irony of violence advocated in the name of a decided proponent of non-violence.
The song itself is a powerful piece of vintage Public Enemy – production by the Bomb Squad that is funky, riotous and harsh; Chuck D.’s legendary, booming pulpit vocals – and ranks among their best. The bridge is a haunting bit of work, especially within the context of the video as screams and ominous bass thumps are juxtaposed with images of people being mauled by dogs and blown down by fire hoses.
And here is where the true worth and understanding of the song is created – with a history of violence against Black Americans, including assassinations, lynchings and disenfranchisement, all things being equal, how radical is the idea of regenerative violence? It’s a powerful question that yields an unsteady and uncomfortable answer, especially for people who believe in justice. King would have admonished the use of violence in all cases, but by using the idea of said violence and shocking listeners both new and old, Public Enemy was able to call attention to the reality of the holiday’s mistreatment. Call it black satire. Pun intended. words/ j. neas
MP3: Public Enemy :: By The Time I Get To Arizona
Video: Public Enemy – By The Time I Get To Arizona
Amazon: Public Enemy – Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black