Public Enemy have always been on the right side of history and used their voice to stand up for the voiceless. Sometimes, their political stances got them into trouble and even made them at war with Arizona.
The unlikely feud dates back to 1983 when Ronald Reagan announced that America would have a national holiday in honour of Martin Luther King. Initially, Arizona was one of the driving forces behind the campaign, but unforeseen political changes would later alter their stance.
Although the notion was initially tabled in 1983 by President Reagan, it took several years to be officially brought into law. Unfortunately, by the time it was introduced, Arizona had a new Republican Governor, Evan Mecham, who didn’t want the state to commemorate King.
He was elected just weeks before they were due to celebrate the event in 1987, and his decision backfired hugely on the state’s reputation. This move made it seem like they resented the Civil Rights Movement and triggered a cultural boycott that saw artists refuse to play there. In fact, the Super Bowl was even moved by the non-partisan NFL from the state.
In 1990, Arizona voted on the matter and repugnantly decided against celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which forced Public Enemy to write ‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’.
The video caused a backlash because it contained violent scenes of assassinations and recreations of violent abuse from the Civil Rights Movement. It was also condemned by King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and banned from MTV.
The powerful track is a lesson in political hip-hop, and the collective doesn’t hold back against the Governor. Chuck D raps, “Yeah, he appear to be fair, The sucker over there, He try to keep it yesteryear, The good ol’ days, The same ol’ ways, That kept us dyin’, Yes, you me myself and indeed.”
In an interview with SPIN in 2011, Chuck reflected on the track’s origin, and he explained: “I was writing a lot of songs. My anger was focused on Arizona and New Hampshire refusing to honour the King holiday. It was so much of a smack in the face that I said, well, this needs to be addressed.”
Chuck also spoke about the controversial reaction ‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’ received, which didn’t surprise the Public Enemy founder but he didn’t regret his decision to release the track in the slightest.
“We knew it would get attention,” he explained. “The question is, What am I making a song for? Am I making a song for high school kids? [laughs] So I can be popular? When it came to Public Enemy, those weren’t our reasons for writing and doing songs. We weren’t trying to make a song to climb the charts.”
Although Public Enemy made themselves the nemesis of Arizona with this release, they couldn’t bring themselves to stay silent. Their prevalence to shine a light on crucial political matters that need to be heard is precisely why they remain so vital.