Controversial Arizona immigration law inspires hip-hop artists, including Talib Kweli

Talib Kweli's new song "Papers Please" addresses the controversy over Arizona's strict new immigration laws.
By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; 5:07 PM

Arizona's controversial new immigration law has inspired a round of hip-hop political activism -- most recently from Brooklyn emcee Talib Kweli, who is expected to talk about the law during a performance Friday night at the District's Hip Hop Theater Festival.

Old heads like to remember hip-hop's early days as a time of political consciousness, an era that has given way to shallower fare -- thug life, flighty pop.

It's not quite that simple.

Kweli's protest song "Papers Please" is evidence that socially conscious hip-hop has continued. In fact, protests of the law have parallels in hip-hop history.

Rap group Public Enemy released the song "By the Time I Get to Arizona" in 1991. At the time, the state was at the center of another debate. The song -- part social commentary, part threat -- captured the collective will behind a boycott of Arizona launched in the early 1990s to oppose the state's refusal to approve a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Public Enemy's Chuck D called anew for a boycott of the state after the immigration law passed.

Kweli, who had two tour dates in the state this spring, said he heard from fans on Twitter asking him to stay away and honor the boycott. Others in Arizona begged him to come.

He chose to keep the dates but wrote the protest song calling the Arizona law the "new Jim Crow" and got in touch with activists in the state.

"I grew up with my mother telling me . . . you are never supposed to leave your house without ID," Kweli said in an interview Friday. "This is something I'd grown up used to as a young black person. I've been stopped and been detained."

His song "Papers Please" is at least the third hip-hop song targeting Arizona. Chuck D released "Tear Down That Wall," and Toki Wright's "By the Time I Get to Arizona 2010" asks what an illegal immigrant looks like.

"Our country is in crisis," Kweli said. "It has always been whether we have a black president or not. I've grown up as the type of artist that I've always felt responsible to uplift the people."

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