The Public Enemy song inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.
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The Public Enemy song inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.

Public Enemy is a renowned New York hip-hop crew. Predominantly known as a product of the 1980s, the collective changed hip-hop in many ways and shifted the culture lyrically. When the six-piece ensemble arrived, they were different from their funkier predecessors. Akin to N.W.A. and many other groups that emerged in the mid-’80s, Public Enemy’s music from their inception was innately political and incendiary.

Born out of frustration and a disdain for governmental figures such as Ronald Reagan, Public Enemy mobilised African-Americans in a fashion that almost mirrored the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The 1980s saw New York hip-hop diversify. The electro scene was flourishing and taking hold of the underground. However, crews such as Run-DMC and, most definitely, Public Enemy were running the city in the mainstream. While Run-DMC had a broader appeal and was slightly more palpable to White America, Public Enemy had a firm grip on African-American social consciousness and wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. From album titles alone, one could tell that the crew was ready to address controversial issues such as race. In 1991, Public Enemy released their fourth studio album, Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black, and one song in particular, is exceptionally intriguing and deserves a closer look.

Recorded at The Music Palace in Long Island, the 1991 project was a 14-track body of work boasting one particular cut that caused a media firestorm entitled, ‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’. The song was released as the B-side to the album’s third single, ‘Shut Em Down’. However, it received more attention than the A-side song.

Public Enemy was very socially conscious and kept their eye out for what they perceived to be injustices, and that’s what they did with ‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’—made in defence of Martin Luther King Jr. The track was directed at the governor of Arizona, who, in 1991, chose to cancel Martin Luther King Jr. Day in his state.

Martin Luther King day is a national holiday honouring the civil rights activist. After a state-wide vote in 1991, Arizona decided to ditch the holiday, making it one of the only states in America (aside from New Hampshire) actively disregarding King. The decision was an insult to the late revolutionary and a slap in the face for African-Americans who regarded King as a hero and an exemplary black man.

However, not only did the song contain some extreme and cutthroat lyrics such as, “With a gun cracker Runnin’ things under his thumb” and, “What’s a smilin’ face/ When the whole state’s racist?!” but the video created a lot of problems. The track’s visuals depicted Public Enemy attacking the governor with a car bomb. The video incited so much hate, annoyance and shock in the US that it was removed from MTV rotation.

Hip-hop has been and always will be a vehicle for the marginalised to express themselves, whether there happy, angry or sad. That is why it was created. To give the voiceless a voice. With that being said, you can watch the visuals for ‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’ in the video below.