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'An imperfect weapon': How the musicians' boycott of Arizona over SB 1070 fought the power

Ed Masley
Arizona Republic

Salvador Reza recalls the first time he heard someone mention the thought of musicians boycotting the state of Arizona. 

It was the spring of 2010 and the local community organizer was walking in Phoenix with Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. They often talked while demonstrating with Puente, a Valley-based human rights organization.

De la Rocha is a pretty laid-back guy, Reza noted. "Except when he senses injustice."

And he clearly sensed injustice as the two discussed the recent passage of Senate Bill 1070, the controversial legislation Gov. Jan Brewer signed on April 23, 2010, requiring police to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they felt might be in the country illegally.

There was excitement in the singer's voice as he shared his plan on how to fight the power.

"He said, 'You know, Sal, I have a great idea. Tell me what you think. I wanna call all my musician friends and ask for a boycott of Arizona.' I said, 'Well, that's a great idea.'"

That idea would evolve into the Sound Strike, a boycott de la Rocha organized in May 2010with Marco Amador, a fellow activist.

Known for being vocal and politically engaged, the singer had been working with Puente and Tonatierra, an Indigenous peoples community empowerment movement, in the fight against the policies of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

LISTEN: Valley 101 podcast series takes a look at SB 1070

Why they felt a boycott was necessary

Chris Newman, who was on the litigation team for the civil rights case against SB 1070, feels it was due to his involvement with those groups that de la Rocha became so heavily invested in the fight.

"He went above and beyond, I'll put it that way," Newman said.

In a statement announcing the boycott, de la Rocha wrote, "Fans of our music, our stories, our films and our words can be pulled over and harassed every day because they are brown or black, or for the way they speak, or for the music they listen to."

"It brought attention worldwide to the situation in Arizona at the time. To SB 1070, to racial profiling, to Sheriff Joe's antics," says community organizer Salvador Reza about the Sound Strike campaign.

It's been a decade since the Sound Strike made national headlines, drawing even more attention to the human rights debate over SB 1070 while touching off a backlash among Arizonans —including a second group, Artists for Action — who believed those artists could've had a bigger impact by performing here.

But looking back, it's hard to argue that it didn't have an impact.

As Reza said, "It brought attention worldwide to the situation in Arizona at the time. To SB 1070, to racial profiling, to Sheriff Joe's antics."

In 2010 when then-Gov. Jan Brewer signed the controversial SB 1070 into law, giving police immigration-enforcement powers, it immediately set off a firestorm of protest. Zack de la Rocha of the band Rage Against the Machine organized a boycott called the Sound Strike, urging artists not to perform in Arizona.

The Valley concert scene of 2010

Ten years ago, touring acts and local artists faced a drastically different Arizona concert scene.

This was a year before the opening of Crescent Ballroom, the first of three key music venues with which concert promoter Charlie Levy repositioned downtown Phoenix as the center of the metropolitan area's music universe, with Valley Bar and the Van Buren still to come.

The Marquee and Celebrity theaters were — and remain — two of the Valley's go-to venues for artists most likely to draw between 1,500 and 2,500 people, including two prominent acts that cancelled shows to boycott Arizona: My Chemical Romance and Pitbull.

Other rooms that helped define the local music culture of 2010 have closed since then, from Hollywood Alley in Mesa to such Tempe venues as the Big Fish Pub, the Clubhouse and the Sail Inn.

Modified Arts in downtown Phoenix changed hands in 2010 and started booking fewer bands. And the Musical Instrument Museum opened for business that year. 

Local artists of note included Jimmy Eat World, Mega Ran (then performing as Random), the Maine, Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, Authority Zero, Scary Kids Scaring Kids, Gin Blossoms, Willy Northpole, Miniature Tigers, Mr. Miranda, the Love Me Nots and Andrew Jackson Jihad.

Levy,who declined to speak to The Republic for this story, wrote an open letter to the Sound Strike artists, asking them to reconsider and to use our stages as a platform to encourage opposition to the law.

"The truth is," Levy wrote, "a boycott is an easy gesture that doesn't require much more than a statement and removing a date from your tour schedule."

That letter drew a response from singer Conor Oberst, who wrote, "A boycott is, inherently, a blunt instrument. It is an imperfect weapon, a carpet bomb, when all involved would prefer a surgical strike."

How the Sound Strike played out

The musicians who joined the boycott wanted to do more than make a statement. They wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves.

"If you have that high profile, you should use it and stand up for others that don't have that," Sen Dog of the Latino hip-hop group Cypress Hill told The Republic. He joined the boycott because he sees the role of musicians in society similar to that of athletes — they're people with the power to affect change.

"At some point or another, you have to be about something more than just what you are. And in my situation, it's a musician. So I thought it was the righteous thing to do."

Sen Dog (left) and B-Real of Cypress Hill were among the musicians who chose not to play Arizona venues in 2010 as part of the Sound Strike boycott. Sen Dog felt musicians should use their high profile platforms for change.

There was one man tasked with getting more of Sen Dog's peers to see the Sound Strike as the righteous thing to do: Javier Gonzalez.

"I just signed up for (email) alerts at all the Arizona venues," he said. "I'd wake up in the morning, check my emails, see who was announcing concerts and then call the agencies that represented them."

By late May, the Sound Strike had recruited Oberst, Kanye West, Rage Against the Machine, Rise Against, Cypress Hill, Serj Tankian, Joe Satriani, Sonic Youth, Tenacious D and Michael Moore.

Within a month, they'd added Nine Inch Nails, Chris Rock, Maroon 5, My Morning Jacket, Ben Harper, Ry Cooder, Pitbull, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Anti-Flag and Throwing Muses.

Not everyone he contacted agreed to take part.

As Gonzalez recalls, "There were a couple artists that I was surprised just told me straight out 'I got my career to think about, you know?'"

Still, he had some big successes.

Lilith Fair pulled out of Phoenix while performers including Los Lobos, Cypress Hill, Hall & Oates and Pitbull canceled shows. My Chemical Romance accidentally booked a Tempe date and canceled when the band realized what had happened.

Stephen Chilton, a local promoter, feels some artists simply chose to skip the state.

 "There's definitely artists that never publicly signed on to the boycott but made sure they didn't play in Arizona so that it wasn't an issue," he said.

A Sound Strike backlash took hold 

The boycott wasn't universally embraced by everyone who had a problem with the bill, which had been spearheaded by Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce and was seen by opponents as encouraging and codifying racial profiling.

Among the more outspoken critics of the Sound Strike's efforts was the music editor at Phoenix New Times, Martin Cizmar, who assembled "A Line in the Sand: A Collection of Protest Songs by Arizona Artists Opposed to SB 1070."

Chilton and other promoters joined Cizmar in clashing with the Sound Strike representatives in Austin, Texas, at the South By Southwest music & media conference.

"Our message was 'Come to Arizona and protest,'" Chilton said.

"My thought was, 'I fully agree with the politics of the people boycotting. The goal I agree with.' I just didn't necessarily think not being present in Arizona was the best way to advocate for that.'"

It also cost local businesses money, a point the Celebrity Theatre's Alycia Klein made in an interview with National Public Radio when Pitbull canceled in 2010. 

"With the economy as it is, this is the last thing that people are thinking about doing with their money, is going to spend it to have fun, if they're just still trying to pay their bills," she said.

"So when I do have artists that will attract people to come out, and now they're unwilling to come out, it's devastating."

Isabel Garcia of Tucson's Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a grassroots organization that promotes the civil rights of all migrants, said she understands that local businesses were hurt.

"What they must understand is that there is a lot of pain and sacrifice in boycotts," she said. "I'm a daughter of a copper miner and a union organizer. One thing my father taught me was that there's very few things that poor people can do. And boycotts is one."

Artists for Action had a different point of view

Joey Burns of Calexico gets the power of a boycott. He just didn't feel it was the time to silence artists' voices.

That's why he joined with other musicians and concert promoters in Artists for Action, whose goal was to reach out to artists to come to Arizona to perform, where they could educate, inspire and get out the vote.

"As much good as the Sound Strike did in calling attention to some really surprising and damaging legislation and just full-on racism," he said, "I felt it was important for certain artists to come to Arizona to inspire locals."

Joey Burns (right with Calexico co-founder John Convertino) joined with other musicians and concert promoters in Artists for Action to reach out to artists over the fight against SB 1070.

Calexico headlined an Artists for Action Voter Registration Concert and Rally at the Marquee Theatre with Miniature Tigers, Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta and Sam Means of the Format.

Artists for Action were just taking a different approach to the same goal as the Sound Strike, Burns said.

A decade later, Gonzalez remains convinced that the Sound Strike backlash was unwarranted.

"Artists for Action wouldn't have been formed if it wasn't for us," he said. "And they ended up actually starting to lobby for changes in 1070. That's the thing I used to tell Martin. 'All you have to do is overturn the bill. Why are you focused on us?'"

At a certain point, the Sound Strike and Artists for Action started seeming more like they were on the same page.

In September 2011, the French-Spanish musician Manu Chao played a benefit concert for Alto Arizona, a campaign to nullify SB 1070. He also staged an impromptu concert on the corner outside then Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office. 

Artists for Action and the Sound Strike both supported that appearance.

Two months later, East Coast rapper Immortal Technique returned to Arizona after boycotting to play a benefit for Puente.

'We've already given them a black eye'

From the start, de la Rocha, who declined to speak for this story, was under pressure to end the Sound Strike. He held firm as long as he could, until some artists started questioning the long-term impact of continuing the boycott.

At a certain point, the energy around the boycott had subsided and the energy around engagement was increasing.

By September 2011, Alabama had passed the even tougher anti-immigration legislation HB 56, and somewhat similar measures had been passed in Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina. 

"We could not boycott every state," Gonzalez said. "So one has to adapt."

Gonzalez said at that point he and de la Rocha weighed their options.

"We sat down and said, 'Look, are we gonna form a hard line or are we gonna understand that this is probably gonna wither away?" Gonzalez said.

"And I told Zack, 'Look, people are just looking for a way to get out of this thing. We've already given them a black eye.'"

After talking it over with local activists, a statement was issued — "Not saying that it was the end but that they were going to be exploring other ways of helping," Reza said. 

"They never said, 'It's an official end.' But if you read between the lines, it was the end."

What the Sound Strike meant for Arizona

So did the Sound Strike have an impact?

Garcia thinks it did.

"It not only helped us to nationalize it but brought in the arts in a way that demonstrated the deep connections between our identities, our art and our social situation," she said.

Despite all that attention and court rulings weakening many of the bill's provisions, the controversial "show me your papers" clause remains intact.

Still, Reza feels the Sound Strike and other boycotts "created the conditions that basically ended Arizona passing anti-immigrant bills. And it was the beginning of the end of Russell Pearce, because it showed him for what he was."

A year after SB 1070, five immigration-related bills were voted down in the state Senate after 60 top Arizona business leaders made the case in a joint letter to Pearce that "unintended consequences inevitably occur" when Arizona goes it alone on immigration.

Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told The Republic the business community was wary of boycotts and more negative publicity.

That's why Reza doesn't buy the argument that touring artists who opposed the legislation could've had a stronger impact had they come to Arizona and used their platform to speak out.

"You can shout all you want to," he said. "But the powers that be, if they're not economically affected, they're not going to react."

Although they disagreed on how to fight the legislation, Burns sees the Sound Strike as an important first step in rallying the artistic community to stand up and be counted.

"And in doing that," he said, "it showed a lot of people in the Hispanic community and people worldwide that hey, you matter. And I think that's at the core of the importance of something like Sound Strike. It says, 'You matter.'"

In a video produced to call attention to the boycott, de la Rocha said, "By passing SB 1070, a handful of extremists within the Arizona state government have set the country on a dangerous and hateful course."

A decade later, those words seem especially prescient, given the role anti-immigrant rhetoric played in the rise of President Donald Trump, whose political rallies often erupt in chants of "Build that wall!"

As Burns said, "Back then, SB 1070 and a couple other states seemed like an isolated thing. But now, look where we've come."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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