The Red-Brown Border Politics of Phoenix Hip-Hop Duo Shining Soul

In May, Phoenix-based hip-hop duo Shining Soul -- Franco Habre, a.k.a. Bronze Candidate, and Alex Soto, a.k.a. Liason -- made a video for their track "No Mercy," off their album, released in September 2013. The video mostly is protest footage mixed with clips of the group performing in concert, but the simple video goes well with the song, and the group's simple message: Smash borders.

The video includes footage from Arizona demonstrations such as 2010's Diné, Tohono O'odham, Anarchist bloc (known as the [email protected] bloc), which was a protest against Tent City, as well as an anti-fascist demonstration that took place in downtown Phoenix in 2009 known as The Inglourious Basterds Bloc, and footage from a lockdown at a Tucson border patrol station.

Also mixed into the footage is video of a 2000 detention center breakout in which demonstrators took out the front gates of a jail while inmates overtook the guards and escaped.

"We showed videos of people getting free and liberating themselves," Habre says.

Soto adds, "In the States, you don't see resistance. You just see people trying to manage the struggle and anything that's a threat to the state. Outside this country, from hearing stories from comrades from Canada or Mexico, the U.S. view of protest or activism is to cry to power, and theirs is very different."

Shining Soul consistently has been pushing its radical anti-border politics for more than four years and has grown a reputation throughout the Phoenix hip-hop scene for being unrelenting when it comes to indigenous and Chicano issues. The group's reputation is getting noticed outside Phoenix as well, as recent features in the Huffington Post and Indian Country News attest.

The group also got a nod from Al Jazeera America when Soto was part of a delegation on his reservation to host a reporter doing a in-depth story on conditions on the Tohono O'odham reservation in southern Arizona. The Tohono O'odham reservation straddles the United States-Mexico border, which makes the militarization of the border a shared issue for both Mexicans and Soto's people.

Habre refers to borders as "arbitrary lines" and says that Shining Soul's music is meant to "fight back in the face of a heightened police state in our city and in the face of a larger military presence. Border to border, Palestine, the so-called United States and Mexico border, and the U.S.-Canada Border and beyond."

While events on the U.S.-Mexico border have always been real for both Soto and Habre, the duo recently was given a not-so-polite lesson on some of the problems facing indigenous people living on the northern border of the United States. While Shining Soul was trying to enter Vancouver via bus, the duo was stopped and detained for nearly three hours by the Canadian border patrol.

The group was heading to a Canadian reservation to perform for the Secwepemc Nation, an indigenous tribe of Canada.

"We had documentation. We had a letter from the tribe that was hosting us on that side formally recognizing our trip as a cultural exchange," Soto says. "So we had all our shit together, and we were still targeted and denied and deemed unfriendly by the Canadian government and barred entry until our friend from that tribe came and got us. And after that three-hour process, we were allowed in."

Soto and Habre both felt profiled by the border patrol agents, as they were the only two brown people on the bus.

"The occupants of the bus were mostly white, older folks," Soto says. "We came to the realization that we were profiled for being brown, and then they found out we were a hip-hop group and started asking us about guns and drugs, and then they found some of our political literature, which they also scrutinized while we were held."

The literature dealt with the CANAMEX Corridor, the anti-South Mountain freeway movement, and a pamphlet called "Accomplices Not Allies," which pictured a burning police car.

The two say that their fellow passengers went through seamlessly, while the rappers were continually asked what their business in Canada was -- they felt the border agents tried to make them confuse their stories, essentially interrogating the pair. Eventually, they were left by the bus driver and given a free ticket to either Vancouver or Seattle, depending on the discretion of the border patrol.

"Apparently, it happens all the time, especially with non-white and natives, in particular. The tribes up there are very fierce about their recognition of their nations, and they don't recognize the Canadian government," Soto says.

Habre adds, "We had a commitment. We said we were going to be somewhere and were going to be there, especially because people are calling for folks to come to their communities and share the struggle. And sometimes music is the best way to communicate that."

The pair was steadfast in its commitment to perform for the Secwepemc Nation earlier this summer and is not letting racial profiling by border patrol agents stop Shining Soul from going back. The rappers already have their return trip to Canada booked, with September dates in Montreal and Toronto, as part of their "Hometown Foreigners" Tour, which also will visit Chicago and Manhattan, Kansas.

Neither rapper is scared of bumping into border patrol again, but they admit it was on their minds.

"The threat is always there whenever artists -- especially hip-hop artists who are brown and who are indigenous, especially with a politically conscious message such as ours -- travel. But I'm ready for anything, because you never know how the state is going to operate with their regulation of movement," Soto says. "I wouldn't say we have any fear, because we aren't doing anything -- except for being who we are and traveling across Mother Earth, and Mother Earth has no boundaries and no borders."

Shining Soul says the focus of the tour is the cultural exchange of music and ideas, and while the pair is out of town is when it plays big club shows. But Soto and Habre also left plenty of space between shows to meet with "communities of resistance," as Soto put it, and share their ideas to make for a "broader and bigger connection."

Soto acknowledges that part of the reason they are going back to Canada so soon after encountering problems with the border patrol is because it's a "fuck you" to the state.

"But at the same time, it's about the music because people on both sides of this so-called line want to be able to hear and be a part of our music," Soto says. "Of course, we deal with militarization on the North American continent, but we don't have any fear, as far as sharing our opinions through our music, anywhere."

Shining Soul is scheduled to perform Thursday, September 4, at Herberger Theater Center.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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Jeff Moses
Contact: Jeff Moses