Spiritual AZ hip-hop bros Shining Soul document troubled times

Alex Soto grips his microphone. He moves around the stage and spits rhymes with purpose and grit. Mothers grab babies from the floor, elders watch from wheelchairs and teens radiate for a music that's speaking to them. Soto's audience, many from the San Xavier Indian Reservation are into it.

In the little recreation center, next to San Xavier Mission, Soto, aka Liaizon, and Franco Habre, aka Bronze Candidate, take turns rapping while their guest DJ holds down the beat. It's Shining Soul's sixth year participating in the O'odham Unity Run Benefit, honoring native peoples' legacy through the tradition of running and carrying prayers of unity and healing.

Shining Soul is Soto, Habre and Lawrence Martinez, their award-winning DJ who's originally from the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico. They create hip-hop that speaks to current political turmoil, systemic oppression of minorities and real life.

Soto's family is from Sells, Arizona, in the middle of the Tohono O'odham Nation. Born and raised in Phoenix, he often visited his family's home on the res. He grew up in a hip-hop-loving household. His parents played stuff like Run-D.M.C., Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and The Sugar Hill Gang.

As a teenager, Soto remembers getting stopped at Border Patrol checkpoints close to the res. He remembers his grandfather, who was never a political man, repeatedly explaining to the agents who he was and that this was his home.

"It hit a chord with me," Soto says. "It just wasn't right."

In middle school, Soto found graffiti and the emerging underground hip-hop of the late '90s.

"That whole culture was really exposed through the graffiti scene," Soto says. "It opened a whole other door. Like, it's not just my mom's music."

Habre also got involved in the hip-hop world through graffiti. By middle school, his grandmother donated a section of wall on her property to his art.

Growing up in Phoenix, Habre's dad worked for the city's Parks and Recreations. As a child, his dad frequently took him to parks in historically underserved neighborhoods, where he came across B-boy park jams.

"The park was the place to go because it was either a refuge from your quote-unquote home or a place for recreation, a place for hanging out," Habre says. "That's where I was first exposed to hip hop. It rocked my world."

Later, in college, Habre studied classical guitar, jazz guitar, music production and studio recording. He had dreams of teaching music one day. In college, he met Soto, and they started playing music together—early incarnations of Shining Soul.

"At the time, I was becoming more politicized, coming from strong Chicano roots," Habre says.

Shining Soul didn't form with political motives. But life forced it that way in the face of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and SB 1070. In response to policies targeting people of color, Soto wrote "Papers," which appears on Shining Soul's 2011 album We Got This.

That song and other political ones got Shining Soul on playbills with big-name, underground acts like Aceyalone, One Be Lo and Myka 9.

"You gotta reflect the times," Soto says. "The politics have always been there, inherently, because we live in this state with all this crazy stuff—and that was before Trump."

He also believes in the importance of native peoples, and all people, finding their voices.

Shining Soul helps youth do that through beat-making and rhyme-writing workshops, which they teach at schools and libraries. They have a four to five-week curriculum that ends with the kids producing their own songs.

Soto and Habre encourage the kids to be themselves and to tell authentic stories through music. Often accompanied by Martinez, aka DJ Reflekshin, they teach the kids that dreams are tangible.

Last Spring, they did a weekly after-school program at the reservation high school.

"I don't wanna hear you rap about something someone in L.A. would rap about, or New York," Soto told the kids. "You're not from those areas. You're from the res. I wanna hear what's happening here."

It was workshops like these that brought them to Germany in 2015 for a week-long youth workshop. It culminated with the kids opening for a huge music festival, playing three songs they produced under Shining Soul's guidance.

Shining Soul played the main stage of the festival, which began a 15-show tour all over central and eastern Germany. Their hosts arranged places to stay and home-cooked food in every town they went.

Their hosts also guaranteed them two vans, which turned out to be one old, beat-up van with a logo of a lawnmower company on the side.

Toward the end of the tour, they got pulled over in Berlin. At first, Soto thought they were being profiled, but the police told them to take out their gear and step away from the van.

"On the spot, they do an emissions test," Soto says, laughing. "Apparently, the vehicle was so shoddy, they said, 'Nope, you can't drive another kilometer. This is ours.'"

So there they were, with all their merch, their turntables and gear. They filled a taxi and walked the rest of the way to the venue.

They ended the tour in Dresden at a citywide fest Soto calls "South by Southwest times 10."

They were well-received in Germany. People there were already dealing with a sharp political divide that the U.S. was building up to. They embraced Shining Soul—their style, their lyrics and their message of resistance.

In February, Shining Soul made a video for their song "All Day." Young people of color hold signs that read "Fight Back" and "End Border Militarization." Behind them, the border fence towers overhead.

At a checkpoint on Highway 86, a mile off the reservation, about 20 people from the res, old and young, hold a sign that reads "Indigenous people for migrants' rights."

In the middle of the video, a woman raises her hand, and the music falls silent. She speaks in O'odham. The native people will take care of their own land. They don't want a wall, she says.

"It's always about speaking to the times that you're living in," Habre says. "Be fierce. Push back, using music, using hip-hop."