For a revolutionary, Tom Morello isnít very imposing. The guitarist for Rage Against the Machine Ė a rock-rap band that sings about and supports far-left causes Ė shows up for an interview at a starched business hotel in Hollywood wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers. Often, when Morello drives his battered red Ford Astro van into the Sony Music parking lot in Santa Monica alongside rows of BMWs and Benzes, a guard surveys him and says, "Pick up or delivery?"
You might expect Morello, a mixed-race 35-year-old Ivy League grad who regards the Black Panthers and Che Guevara as heroes, to resent the quick assumption that heís a messenger. "Iím used to it," he says with a laugh. Plenty of contradictions and puzzles arise when you play Marxist rock ní roll Ė the phrase itself is an oxymoron Ė and Morello often responds to questions about them with a joyful chuckle. Besides, when he pulls his van into a sleek corporate building, heís delighted to be "seen as a menace."
Morello and his band have a hearty appetite for the heroic and disruptive. In the language of rock, political terms degrade because of misuse and hyperbole; bands with retrograde values are routinely deemed radical; and singers who champion cozy liberal causes such as environmentalism or voter registrations stand out as activists. Rage has played benefits for convicted murderers and applauded the efforts of rebel forces in Mexico and Peru. The music translates Noah Chomsky and Karl Marx into the populist roar of rock, disseminating far-left ideas that are rarely heard outside academia or the American political fringe.
Rage Against the Machine has no precedent or peer: U2 was never this radical, the Clash was never this popular, Public Enemy could not sustain its prominence. The first two Rage records have sold 2.4 million copies each in the U.S., making the band not just the most popular leftist rock group but also the most prominent socialists in America. Rage has been the centerpiece of such major rock events as Lollapalooza, Woodstock í99, and the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. The bandís new album, The Battle of Los Angeles, is even more potent and scorching than the bandís first two and will expand Rageís influence when the CD is released on November 2. "We are unapologetically revolutionary in our music and in our intent," Morello says with typical bravado.
Although the group is in the thick of the cultural mainstream, Rage sits uneasily among its innocuous company there. Zack de la Rocha, 29, the bandís vociferous dreadlocked singer and lyricist, bristles at comparisons to rock-rap bands that superficially sound similar Ė especially current MTV favorite Korn, who, he says, "arenít really screaming about anything. Itís just this fabrication." And heís even more disgusted by the state of rap. "Itís a shame the way most popular hip hop is so void of real commentary. I look at Puff Daddy or Jay-Z, and I think, ĎFuck, man, if Ronald Reagan was a rapper, heíd be in Puff Daddyís crew.í" He laughs. "The materialism and individuality Ė ĎIím taking mineí Ė itís Reaganism."
Rage songs arenít polemic tracts: The Marxist vocabulary of elites and cabals, which the band members use freely in conversation, rarely appears in their songs, which deploy combative imagery, especially fire and war, to describe oppression, "with the hope of regenerating interest in politics among young people," de la Rocha says. Some of the songs peak with simple, defiant declarations: "Fuck you Ė I wonít do what you tell me," he chants in Rageís best-known song, "Killing in the Name."
In the Ď60s, John Lennon sang, "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ainít gonna make it with anyone anyhow." In the Ď80s Ė during Reaganism, de la Rocha might remind us Ė the song was turned into a Nike ad, which demonstrates how readily American culture defuses radicalism by absorbing it as a commodity. Lennonís point still stands: Subtlety, subterfuge, and seduction all ease the spread of propaganda, and Rage Against the Machine ably uses the spotlight to promote its political goals.
In accord with Lennonís warning, Morello has often hesitated to reveal his political philosophy to the press. "Words like socialism and Marxism have been so demonized that itís difficult to have intelligent discussion about what they mean." Although Rage is proudly socialist, it disavows totalitarianism and doesnít always trust music writers to understand the distinction. "You canít distance yourself from Stalinism when you proclaim in Guitar World magazine that youíre a Marxist," Morello jokes.
"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord/None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord," de la Rocha spits in "Guerrilla Radio," the first single from The Battle of Los Angeles. In this election, donít expect Rage to endorse a Democratic or Republican candidate. De La Rocha says heís amazed that George W. Bush (the "son of a drug lord" in those lyrics) is taken seriously as a candidate, "because of his past as a corporate criminal in savings-and-loan scandals," and Morello flatly calls Bill Clinton "a war criminal" for the continued bombing of Iraq by the U.S. In 1996, Morello voted for Ralph Nader, de la Rocha has never voted for any candidate. To them, the two parties are indistinguishable. "Iím opposed to endorsing any political candidate," de la Rocha declares, "so long as their agendas donít include living wages, health care for everyone, homes for everyone." Donít expect these goals to appear in party platforms anytime soon.
In 1986, after Morello graduated from Harvard with a social studies degree, he moved to Los Angeles to start a band. During the day, he worked for Senator Alan Cranston, whom Morello calls "as good" Ė meaning progressive Ė "as a senatorís gonna get." Before Morello was promoted to scheduling secretary and saw that even Cranston had to "pander to rich folk" for campaign funds, he answered phones at the California office and talked to constituents seeking help with problems. "This woman Ė her Ďproblemí was that Mexicans were moving into her neighborhood," Morello recalls with an amazed laugh. "She wanted the senator to do something about it. I let her have it. She said, ĎWell, how would you like it?í I said, ĎIíd prefer it to having loudmouth racists living next door.í" Morello expected Cranston to praise him; instead, he says, three staffers "chewed me out over what I had said to this constituent. That was a big lesson there."
During this time, Morello placed an ad in a local music paper, soliciting a "socialist front man who likes Black Sabbath and Public Enemy." Not surprisingly, he couldnít find one. Later, through mutual friends, he met de la Rocha, who didnít like heavy metal but was otherwise ideal. Morello brought in a drummer friend, Brad Wilk; de la Rocha added his high school friend Timmy Commerford on bass; and they christened themselves Rage Against the Machine, inadvertently echoing Marxís complaint that industrial capitalism leaves workers "enslaved by the machine." Morello didnít see much chance for mass success: "I thought the politics of the band would be alienating. I thought the music of the band would be alienating. I thought the racial makeup of the band would be alienating." But their 1992 debut caused an immediate sensation, generating debate and promoting leftist causes without pandering to rich folks or racist constituents.
Struggle as it may, Rage draws plenty of fans who are apolitical, apathetic, or even Republican. Many cherish the band for the sonic caffeine of Morelloís inventive metal riffs or for de la Rochaís visceral venting; Rage has a hard-won reputation as one of rockís best live acts. But for other fans, the band is like a prized web site, offering information and views rarely expressed in the mainstream media. Michael Goldstone, who signed the band to Epic Records and is now an executive at DreamWorks, recalls when Rage played Detroit, during the bandís first tour in 1992. After the show, a few dozen fans gathered around de la Rocha in the parking lot as he elaborated on the political themes of the songs. "If you can get 30 out of 4,000 people to listen, they become ambassadors and spread the word," Goldstone says.
"Weíve tapped into a vein of indignation the same way the Clash and Public Enemy had a resonance you were not getting on the news," Morello insists. Although de la Rocha says, "Anger has always been at the center of music," and cites Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and John Coltrane as examples, anger has recently grown from an element of rock into its core. Yet beneath the volume and the venom, de la Rocha spies a sentiment most listeners donít perceive: love. "Ultimately, every revolutionary act is an act of love Ė itís about love for people. And so I think every song Iíve ever written has been a love song."
On the new record, de la Rocha likens politicians to "the priest who fucked you as he whispered holy things." Progress comes not from voting, he contends, but from "massive mobilization and struggle and sacrifice." In this century, civil rights and womenís rights "were won by the kind of activism that Rage practices and that we encourage people to practice."
The band has played benefits for or publicized the causes of the Anti-Nazi League; the garment workers union; Native American dissident Leonard Peltier, who allegedly killed two FBI agents; and Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and former Black Panther on death row after his conviction for murdering a Philadelphia police officer. Amnesty International, among other groups, has called for a retrial for Abu-Jamal. Rageís support was "indispensable in reaching the youth and legitimizing his case," says Abu-Jamals lawyer Leonard Weinglass. "When I travel and speak, there is more recognition now of Mumiaís name. I think theyíve had a major part in that."
De la Rochaís dearest cause is the Zapatistas. Based in the largely Indian state of Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatistas are resisting the governmentís bid to privatize their collective farms and rebelling against the national armyís human rights abuses.
When Rage played Saturday Night Live (on a show hosted by Ė the irony is almost too much Ė Republican candidate Steve Forbes), it tried to hang American flags upside down to protest NBC owner General Electricís role in arms manufacturing. The band members have also stood silently onstage during a Lollapalooza show, with tape over their mouths, to symbolize opposition to the Parents Music Resource Centerís drive to police music.
Three years ago, Morello praised the Shining Path, the Maoist guerrillas who attempted a cultural revolution in rural Peru and have reportedly killed thousands of innocent peasants. Violence, he said, was sometimes necessary to overthrow an oppressive regime. That belief distinguishes liberalism and Marxism, and itís one that Rage has since broadcast less frequently.
After Rage organized the January benefit concert for Abu-Jamal Ė an event that New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman denounces as "deplorable" and that prompted the dead officerís widow to accuse Morello of "duping his fans" into supporting a cop killer Ė the band was the target of a "boycott" by the Fraternal Order of Police. "Theyíre obviously very misdirected," FOP president Gilbert Gallegos says of Rage. "Itís incomprehensible to me how they can continue to think Abu-Jamal is innocent, because the facts donít show that." Still, the band seems to crave more action, more conflict, and maybe even martyrdom. As Morello sits on the patio outside a Hollywood hotel room, adjusting his Chicago Cubs hat (a symbol, perhaps of the ultimate lost cause), a manís head suddenly appears over a ledge on the roof. "Hotel security is keeping an eye on me." He spreads his arms wide, puffs his chest defiantly, forming a target. "Right here, bro," he says, laughing.
"Anger is a gift," de la Rocha sings in "Freedom," from Rageís first album. His own, quite ample gift, he says, resulted from the conflicts between politics and culture during his youth.
His father, Beto de la Rocha, was a talented painter, part of Los Four, a Chicano collective that incorporated identity politics into its art. Beto also served as art editor of Cesar Chavezís farmworkersí magazine. When de la Rocha was four, his parents split up, and he and his German-Irish mother moved from East Los Angeles to Irvine, "one of the most racist cities imaginable," de la Rocha says. "If you were a Mexican in Irvine, you were there because you had a broom or a hammer in your hand." His "extremely alienating" experiences there confirmed what his father had told him about "the Mexican experience in the U.S." De la Rocha cites an inadvertently educational incident in high school geology class, when a teacher referred to a California border checkpoint as "the wetback station," de la Rocha says. "I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember being very silent and feeling as if I could do nothing to raise my voice. At that point, I decided that when I started a band, I would never be silent again."
There are dramatic parallels between de la Rochaís and Morelloís backgrounds. Mary Morello, an Irish-Italian schoolteacher, met husband Ngethe Njoroge in Kenya, where he was a prominent member in the movement for independence from British rule that rose in the wake of the Mau Mau guerrilla movement of the 1940s and Ď50s. After Kenyaís independence in 1963, the couple moved to New York and soon divorced, just a year after Tomís birth Ė proving, once again, that revolutionaries donít always make the best dads. (Morello met Njoroge in Nairobi in 1994 but hasnít stayed in touch with him. "Heís the chief beneficiary of neocolonialism," Morello says, laughing at the ironic turns history can take. "Heís got the big tea plantation now.")
Morello, an only child, was raised by his single, socialist mother in Libertyville, Illinois, a white Chicago suburb unaccustomed to darker-skinned residents. "I integrated Libertyville," Morello has joked. And as usual, the integration wasnít peaceful; at 13, he found a noose hanging in his garage. "The second you have brown skin and you walk out on an interracial playground, your political education begins," Morello once said. He was constantly aware of his blackness and says he only "realized I was half white" at the age of 22.
The similarities in their lives are too thematic to dismiss as coincidence. Divorce and biracial marriages are sparks for gender and racial conflict, the two greatest issues in postwar America. Morello and de la Rocha, both multiracial, both raised in divided families, both full of alienation as well as idealism Ė are compressed products of the cultural pressures of our era, much as extreme compression transforms coal into diamonds.
Rage Against the Machine played Woodstock í99 in July on the second of the three nights. As the rioting, looting, and bonfires flared on the last day, Morello watched it on TV in a hotel room in New York. He enjoyed the scenes of MTV broadcasters cringing as kids hurled cans and bottles at them, angrily "exacting their revenge for another Road Rules rerun. Thatís so funny."
Later he wrote an essay for the New York Times, suggesting that the violence may have been a "healthy riot." Rage doesnít exactly endorse the vandalism, which was less righteous class warfare than bratty outbursts of privileged thugs who were upset about the price of Coca-Cola, and Morello vehemently denounces the four reported sexual assaults. He wrote the essay, he says, because he was "pissed off at the vilification of a generation," in the media, which "sold to America the impression that youth has run wild. Per capita, adults commit far more crimes than teens and far more sexual assaults than teens."
When police arrived on the scene, it was reported, some of the rioters chanted a Rage lyric they had heard the night before: "Fuck you Ė I wonít do what you tell me." Both Morello and de la Rocha are tickled by this citation ("God bless their little hearts," Morello says). But setting aside their pride of authorship, the riot is a clear illustration of how audiences can misunderstand and misapply a bandís lyrics. They didnít write the song as a defense of infantile vandalism.
One of Rageís media tactics is to redirect a discussion from the specific to the general, to cast a stronger light on the causes of a particular newsworthy problem. Consider its advocacy of Abu-Jamal, convicted by a nearly all-white jury and sentenced to die for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer. De la Rocha and Morello both strongly believe that he is innocent, though they concede they canít be certain about it; both are unconcerned that they might be working to free a guilty man. The well-documented debate over whether Abu-Jamal received a fair trial is too extensive to repeat fully here, but the fundamental issue, Morello says, "is not cop killers Ė itís killer cops." Abu-Jamalís case is an opportunity for Rage to challenge the police, the judicial system, and the death penalty all at once. "When you talk about the experiences of blacks in America in the courtroom, itís very difficult to even use justice and system in the same sentence," de la Rocha insists.
Morello says Rage has "generated hundreds of thousands of dollars" for leftist causes, including the release of Abu-Jamal, and de la Rocha estimates that he gives away 10 to 15 percent of his income. But thereís still a lot left over Ė both men are rich. "I donít have any guilt about it, quite frankly," says Morello, who has a big, stylish home high in the Hollywood Hills. "And I employ a guitar tech as well," he adds with a regretful laugh, "which may disqualify me for membership in the Wobblies."
De la Rocha also owns property ("a small house," he specifies, more uneasy about his wealth than Morello is). But private property, Marx said, was "the final and most complete expression" of class exploitation. When theyíre pressed about being wealthy Marxists, Morello mentions growing up by his motherís modest teaching salary, and de la Rocha talks about his previous jobs in a glue factory and loading scrap wood for contractors. The singer does worry that "having money affects my art. There have been times when Iíve felt removed from the community Iím struggling for." And when this happens, he often visits the Zapatistas in Chiapas.
Advocates are rarely saints, as comprehensive biographies keep reminding us, and neither Morello nor de la Rocha considers it his duty to redistribute all his wealth. They campaign for revolution, but until it comes they participate in capitalism. Still, I wonder, if the revolution came tomorrowÖ "Oh dude, Iím the first at the barricades," Morello enthuses.
He misunderstands the question. The revolution might come for you, I tell him.
"The gates will be wide open," he says. "Iím happy to turn my Rhodesian ridgeback loose on the rich white neighbors around me. Iíve got no problem with that."
I press him: When the revolution progresses to your gates, I say, the tribunal might mistake you for one of the rich, white neighbors.
"I look forward to standing before that tribunal," Morello says with a final laugh. "Thatís the kind of problem I wish I had."