May 11 2011 10:13 AM

A year after Arizona’s anti-illegal-immigrant law was passed, local musicians are divided over a boycott

For decades, a local band’s first tour of Arizona was something like a rite of passage: a sign of maturation and likely one of the first times they’d performed outside of California. The drive isn’t too long (that is, if you have an air-conditioned vehicle), and there are plenty of young music fans and venues from Tucson to Tempe willing to take a chance on an out-of-town act.

But, last year, things got—well, heated. On April 23, 2010, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” (aka SB 1070), giving local law enforcement new powers to stop and sometimes arrest those they suspect were illegal immigrants. High-profile acts like Los Lobos, My Chemical Romance and Kanye West boycotted tour stops in the state; former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha started an organization called Sound Strike, a coalition of artists committed to boycotting the state; and a number of local musicians also joined the boycott.

“At the end of the day, I would have felt like a complete sellout contributing, even in a miniscule way, to that state’s economy,” says Brandon Welchez, a member of Sound Strike and frontman for local indie-rock band Crocodiles, who wrote the song “Kill Joe Arpaio”—referring to the controversial sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County—in response to the bill’s passage. “I am the son of a Latin immigrant, and no part of me feels comfortable participating in anything in a place where racism is officially sanctioned by the state.”

A year after the passage of the law, however, local musicians have mixed feelings about the boycott.

“I haven’t played there in any band since our last show when this was all coming to a head, and I’m not opposed to continue on with that boycott,” says Justin Pearson, a member of The Locust and All Leather, who spent his formative years in what he described in his memoir as “Shit Creek Phoenix, Arizona.”

“I wouldn’t want to go to Phoenix and buy their gas or buy their groceries,” he continued. “The money you spend there, you’re indirectly supporting the government. That’s what the musicians are protesting.”

But Bobby Bray, Pearson’s bandmate in The Locust, thinks the boycott will do more harm than good.

“A possible result of the Arizona boycott is people moving out, leaving only those that support politics aligned with the SB 1070 law,” he says. “So, a question we should be asking ourselves, as a loosely connected subculture of musicians and artists, is whether or not continuing the trend of polarization is what we want to do.”

In Phoenix, promoter Charlie Levy says he doesn’t understand the argument for the boycott.

“There are different ways of going about it,” he says. “Michael Franti played here a few months ago and he got criticized, and he said, ‘If I didn’t play in every single place where I thought there was social injustice, I would never play anywhere.’ There are laws in every state where you can look and say, ‘That’s not correct.’ Texas passed some anti-gay laws last year. I don’t see anyone boycotting Austin or South by Southwest. Is it better to speak out than to mute your voice? Is it better to educate and rally your fans to do something or just have them do nothing?”

Arizona has faced boycotts before. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, musicians boycotted the state for outspokenly refusing to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The state lost millions of dollars in tourism and convention money, but it wasn’t until it lost a Super Bowl in 1993 that voters passed a bill recognizing the MLK holiday. There have been recent calls from SB 1070 opponents that Major League Baseball should move July’s All-Star game to a new venue.

While there are parallels between the MLK and SB 1070 controversies, the main difference between the two is that the MLK ban was approved by voters while 1070 was passed by state government. Lisa Wagenheim, a Tucson attorney who volunteers for Artists for Action, an anti-SB 1070 coalition that encourages bands to keep touring through the state, says Arizona’s music lovers shouldn’t be punished for government policy.

“A lot of these racists, these people who are now in office, they won by a mere few thousand votes,” Wagenheim says. “We try to make people understand that if you want to boycott us, that’s your personal choice, but we think you’d have so much more of an impact by showing up here.”

Some local artists agree. The all-Latino indie-rock band Long Live Logos recently played a show in Tempe. Member Danny Castro believes the boycott does a disservice to music fans.

“I don’t think boycotting would do anything because the Arizona government won’t give a fuck,” Castro says. “All bands should continue playing there. It’s a cool state with a lot of cool people and bands.”

Other artists just don’t see themselves making much of an impact.

“I considered not going to play there, but I don’t think my stand would do much,” says local singer-songwriter Josh Damigo, who recently booked some shows in Phoenix and Tucson. “If I was a larger, national touring act, I may think twice about it.”

So, what’s the right way to go about battling the bill? Levy emphasizes that bands should work together, no matter their opinion of the boycott.

“There are promoters and groups and artists in Arizona that want change just as much as the people who are boycotting,” he says. “Ultimately, the worst thing that could happen from all this is that people with the same goal—and that’s human rights for all of Arizona and making sure laws like SB 1070 don’t happen—have infighting and not work together. To me, that would be the biggest tragedy.”

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