Chicano/O’odham hip-hop crew Shining Soul is most at home on the front lines.
The Phoenix trio — MCs Bronze Candidate and Liaizon, along with DJ Reflekshin — first came up with staunch criticism of Arizona’s racist SB 1070 “papers please” measure in 2010, but on their latest, Politics Aside, they mostly focus on everyday life. Cuts like “Good Times” and “Day in The Life” rumble with laid-back soul samples and scenes from their neighborhoods, the political implications often massaged into quick, funny rhymes about sensitive vatos, cold showers, and the virtue of doing your own “thang.”
But on the War-sampling “All Day,” the duo can’t help but get explicit: “Let’s stop voting for these motherfucking gringos.”
“We can’t be apart from the political,” Bronze Candidate explains. “The personal is political.”
Any doubt about the song’s core message — concerning the immense complications on the border, and how the O’odham people who live there are forced to reckon with the dual interests of the Mexican government and the threat of the so-called “great wall” proposed by President Donald Trump — should be obliterated by the video.
Filmed on location at border checkpoints by director Klee Benally (of Native punk band Blackfire and Indigenous Action Media), the video took more than six months of planning. The end result juxtaposes scenes of protest with the stark desert landscapes and street art. Inspired in part by Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads,” the video aims to illustrate a sense of community, featuring tribal members, activists, and friends from Tucson, Phoenix, Nogales, and the Tohono O’odham Nation.
“When it got to ‘All Day,’ it was like, we need to say something,” Liaizon explains. “All the shit we’ve been saying for the last seven years is [even more relevant] with the election.” If the song sounds like a direct response to the election of Trump, Liaizon explains it’s fueled by more than just that, citing the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, systemic racism, and increased militarization on borderlands.
“A lot of that sentiment was already there from the last administration and the past 525 years [of history],”
The song’s propelled by characteristically sharp wit from the MCs. Neither rapper wastes a bar or resorts to sloganeering, marshaling a dense, literate flow that somehow never feels at odds with the song’s groove. They build up to a unified rallying cry: “So let 'em hate / ain’t no debate / no need for talking points / just let that music play / so we create / and then we transform / all that bullshit / when we demand more.”
But both rappers insist the message they present is bigger than hip-hop. To that end, they invited Wynona Laron, from the Choulic Village, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Pima County, to speak about the proposed wall in her native O’odham tongue.
“She’s someone who lives down there, less than 15 miles from the actual border,” Liaizon explains.
Translating her message was a challenge, but while there’s no word for “wall” in O’odham (the word meaning “fence” or "gate" was substituted) Larson makes her point directly: “This land is very sacred. The president said he’s going to build a big wall and we don’t like it.”
The O’odham have traditionally been a migratory people, Liaizon says. In addition to the representational and psychic oppression of the wall, it's a physical imposition on Native land.
“We’re fighting for our land on both sides of the border,” Liaizon says. “It’s a two-front thing. We’re trying to maintain our inherent right to be there. We’re trying to be who we are.”
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It’s a remarkable film and a fitting accompaniment to a great song. Which, to hear Bronze Candidate explain, might even have a few fans among the ranks of the border patrol.
“I wish I got it on camera,” he says. “We pulled up to one of the checkpoints, and one of the agents was like, ‘Hey, you’re Shining Soul, right?’ He said, 'Yeah, I heard the song. I really like it. It’s got a good bounce to it, I like the tone of it. Y’all are a good group.’ They’d done their homework; it was probably just a way to de-escalate the situation.”
But that necessary cynicism aside, Candidate's willing to entertain the idea that the group’s message reached those unlikely ears.
“Maybe he was being genuine,” he says. “He looked like was 23, blonde hair and blue-eyed, straight out of Nebraska. I didn’t really profile him as a hip-hop fan, but who knows.”