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Chuck D premieres 'By the time I get to Arizona' art piece, talks politics and art

March 13, 2011 |  8:12 pm

THE ART OF CHUCK D_1300069603298
Twenty years ago, Chuck D penned the prescient "By the Time I Get to Arizona," a searing tangent aimed at the state legislators who refused to vote for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

With the passage of April's anti-immigration laws, the state once again became a center of attention for racial tensions and political debate. In response, the always-outspoken Public Enemy frontman has collaborated on an art piece with Ravi Dosaj, the man who just last year successfully recast the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA as George Washington

The result of their union, a limited-edition series restricted to just 300 canvasses, finds D standing in front of a blood-red backdrop, packing with different types of people standing glumly behind bars. According to the artists themselves, the concept details "a future Arizona border created in a sophisticated collage utilizing a cache of recognizable figures (created over the last 100 years) to show how our 'nation of immigrants' has been lost to legislation."

To promote the art piece and (as always) to impart knowledge, Chuck D spoke to Pop & Hiss about his latest venture.  

What made you decide to get involved with doing an art piece based on "By the Time I Get to Arizona?"

It was a mutual decision. I was familiar with [Dosaj] from his RZA portrait and his work with Bootsy Collins. Plus I come from a visual art background. I graduated with an art degree from Adelphi in 1984, and I've been influential in various art departments since the 1980s and 1990s. I've always believed that art and culture are intertwined with the human race and wholly diametrically opposed from government, who categorize you based on how old you are and how you look.

My song was nominally about finger pointing in Arizona and the hypocrisies there, but it was as much about Reagan telling Gorbachev to "tear down that wall." Really, what’s the difference between anti-immigration and anti-communism? That was why last year I released a song called "Tear Down that Wall" and made a video art piece directed by C4 to convey the artistic forwardness of that point of view. So it was a no-brainer to be associated with them. Most of the developments came when I was in the midst of a 27-country tour with Public Enemy, so we discussed our ideas and they took the ball and ran with it.

What do you think it is about Arizona that makes it such a flash point for these sorts of issues?

Arizona has been there a long time, you can't only look at how it exists in the present day. Some of these people have ancestors down there that were there before there was even an Arizona. That was the Wild Wild West. Look at the history of Tucson — this is the place of "Have Gun, Will Travel." Arizona's sort of like Orange County, it has that lean to it.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that all the people in Arizona are like that, it's just that people in governmental situations may have this manifest destiny with what they consider their territory. They're the types who say that they've had family here for 500 years and want to spend billions of dollars on a wall. But it's not just pointed at them, it's pointed at those in Texas, New Mexico, California and Arizona who are against Brown people, Mexicans and Latinos.

A lot of people are still holding on to what this was rather than opening up to what it is, rather than sharing culture. Art allows people to come together to share the planet. Government has an entirely different point of view. Right now, with technology, art, music and culture challenging old government control and structures, you can see people uniting in their like-mindedness rather than just being from this country or that country.

Have you been following the situation in Egypt and Libya closely?

You can't just point at Egypt and Libya. There's a lot more going on in the world than just that. Of course, I'm following it but not like a box score. I look at it like this is what's taking place in the seventh inning. I look beyond what's being fed to me in the news. I know what's happening runs much deeper than that.

As the man who wrote "Fight the Power," does it feel heartening to see that sort of insurrection and rebellion?

Fight the power is about fighting the powers holding you back from being free. Fight the power doesn’t necessarily mean that they're going to overtake the government by force. It's about being in support of the people. All these things come into question. I'm not an economist, I'm not a person who runs a government in their old way of facing problems. This is the present and technology makes it so that they have to address things in a more gingerly fashion than the old way of rolling violently over you — saying 'we're the law.' I mean, it's crazy what's going on over there, but I always think about how crazy it is here. We're always lecturing about human rights, but we jail the most people of any nation. That's ... amazing.

— Jeff Weiss

Image: "By the Time I Get to Arizona," by Ravi Dosaj. Credit: theartofchuckd.com 

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