FIGHT THE POWER
Juice, Feb. 2000
War is Hell. But through the inherent contractions of political rock, and the constant turn of trend, Rage Against the Machine are still rolling.
Interview with Tom Morello by Simon Wooldridge
Homebake, Sydney, the end of 1999, Rage Against the Machine serves as a backing while the final preparations for silverchair's headline performance take place. In the twilight, RATM vocalist Zack de la Rocha's well worn refrain is building to a crescendo. And as the band inexorably winds up the intensity, the crowd, across the world from the social injustices and political environments which inspired the song in the first place, starts to pick up the chant. "Killing in the Name" has little to do with the average Homebake punter as it did with white middle America when it was released. But it's an undeniable hook. In the end this message which still forms the core of RATM. Nine years into their career, latest album, Battle of Los Angeles is their best yet. The songs are more specific, more artful, and the music has greater depth and groove. But it's the spirit of protest that really drives this band. When fans first start up the chorus in the audience, it sounds a little farcical, more like pre-packaged teen rebellion sold by multinational Sony Music. But by the time comes to match de la Rocha's intensity, it's a powerful display. On this level, no matter how privileged you may be, no matter how far the audience stands from the homeless and disenfranchised people RATM hope to represent, there is a connection.
"Even if it's as simple as, "Fuck you, I won't do as you tell me," that's at the core of all rebellion, that indignation against illegitimate authority," says guitarist and band spokesman Tom Morello of the lyric.
"When we wrote that song, and Zack wrote those lyrics, we had no idea that eight years from now a field somewhere halfway around the world would be chanting those lyrics," Morello recalls. "I came up with that riff," he continues, "and at the time I was teaching guitar lessons and I was showing someone how to do drop D tuning. That riff just happened to spill out of my fingers. I had to stop the lesson and go and record it. I feel very lucky that I did."
He is lucky. It was that song which launched RATM into the wider world, and levels of popularity and influence its members - de la Rocha, Morello, drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford (aka Timmy C or y.Tim.k) - didn't dream of at the band's inception, when they thought the combination of a multi-race line-up, politically charged melange of hip-hop and riff rock would leave them on the distant outer in rock music. (Morello relished the fact that one powerful manager who told them to give up is now vying for their attention.)
The riff is still one of the best RATM has ever pumped out. But it's the "FUCK YOU!" that really counts. As a band, RATM are one of the few which manages to stomp on that agit-pop tightrope. They're still saying "fuck you" at all opportunities. And, when pressed, they're more impressively sticking to their guns. The most recent furore revolves around the band's outspoken defence of Mumia Abu-Jumal, a political activist on death row. A former Black Panther and radio journalist, Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1981 for the killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Their calls for Mumia Abu-Jumal's retrial, and a subsequent tour to raise money for his defence, angered the law to the point where the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) launched a nationwide campaign against the band.
Late in November, a show near Boston, Massachusetts, was disrupted when 400 off-duty police confronted Mumia supporters outside the sold-out venue. Those who refused to take anti-Abu-Jamal flyers were threatened, 35 concert goers arrested. The Boston Globe reported that one woman had her arm pulled out of its socket by police. Police spokesmen claimed that none of this harassment had anything to do with the police protest. De la Rocha defended the band's stance from stage, saying, " Cops have been following us around all over the country saying we support cop killers. let's make it completely clear. We don't support killers, and especially not killer cops. We do support innocent brothers and sisters being framed up in prisons all over this country, people like Mumia Abu-Jamal.
At a RATM show in Nassau, Long Island, in December, fans spotted with Abu-Jamal flyers were kicked out of the venue and physically assaulted by uniformed cops. Elsewhere, the FOP shied from direct conflict over the issue. RATM offered to join the FOP on ABC TV news to debate the issue, but the FOP cancelled, also backing out of a radio debate with a Uni-based Mumia supporter in Nashville. In response, RATM took to ordering dozens of Dunkin' Donuts to be delivered to the protesting cops outside shows.
Perhaps the most insidious move by the police was an attempt to boycott NBC to stop a scheduled RATM appearance on third rate Yoof late night talkie Late Night with Conan O'Brien. The show went ahead, including an incendiary rendition of "Testify" as a highlight.
The issue's not so cut-and-dried, of course. RATM have written songs that cast the former radio journalist as a political prisoner who did not receive a fair trial. But in the 18 years since Faulkner's [sic] conviction, no new witness or changes to existing testimony have been produced to suggest the jury's original ruling was a miscarriage of justice. The facts surrounding the activist/journalist's case have been deemed questionable since he was arrested. But his lawyers' attempts to by-pass the appeals process in the hope that the Supreme Court would end the case once and for all were soundly denied. There are four witnesses who place Abu-Jamal as the shooter in an incident which involved him defending his brother, William Cook. But the defence argues that key witnesses were too susceptible to police pressure to be trusted. (One prostitute who testified was picked up twice in a week before she agreed to point any fingers.)
Abu-Jamal's lawyer, Leonard Weinglass, called Rage's support "indispensable in reaching the youth and legitimising his case. When I travel and speak, there is more recognition now of Mumia's name. I think they've had a major part in that." But on the flipside, Morello had to face Faulkner's widow on Howard Stern's shock jock radio show, where she accused him of making the man who shot her husband Cause of the Month, and "duping his fans" into supporting a cop killer.
Activists claim his case is simply a court ordered execution of a political dissident. Abu-Jamal has protested his innocence consistently. In a statement from Death Row, he derided the latest blow to his cause. "[The Philadelphia courts] have ignored all evidence of innocence, overlooked clear instances of jury taint, and cast a dead eye on defence attorney's ineffectiveness," he wrote. "What they have done is par for the course. This is a political decision, paid for by the FOP on the eve of the election. It is a Mischief Night gift from a court that has a talent for the macabre."
"They're trying to put Mumia on a fast track to be executed," says Morello. "In 1995, the last time Governor Ridge signed the death warrant for Mumia, it was largely [due to] the huge national and international outcry to stop the execution that put the breaks on it at that time. It's going to be quite a battle because they're intent on killing him this time.
"The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal is a mainstream human rights case," Morello continues. "they try to paint it as something different, but everyone from Amnesty International to Bishop Desmond Tutu, the European parliament to the Pennsylvania Bar Association has said, "you must not execute this guy because there are horrible discrepancies in this trial." The one thing that the police and the prosecutors and Rage Against the Machine agree on, and that's why [Governor Ridge] is in such a hurry to silence Mumia, is that if he did receive a new trial, he'd be acquitted. If they were so certain [of his guilt], why not put to rest all doubts ? Why are they so afraid of it ? For a simple reason : they know he would be found innocent."
In a world where dragging true conviction from an environment filled with pop-culture creations and visibly outdated rock poses, it's becoming harder and harder to stand up as a righteous rock artist. If Rage Against the Machine are one of the few bands allowed to rock most unashamedly, that honour has come through long term commitment to their causes. "One of the cornerstones of rock is ego posturing," says Morello. "But because we're fueled by deeper underlying convictions, it makes it resonate with us. We don't just play shows ; you're playing for something that's more than just self-glorification. If feels like you're playing for your life."
But the band's more-PC-than-thou stance has come under fire. RATM's support of the notorious Peruvian rebel group, the Shining path, has drawn criticism. Morello turns a blind eye to the fact that the group was seen by many as a terrorist organisation, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands-many of those civilians.
They've been criticised as champagne socialists, Morello in particular for his large home in the Hollywood Hills, and his penchant for muscle cars. They're giving money back to the communities they're playing in at each stop. donating money from every ticket for homeless shelters and food banks ("It's not just about being active," says Morello. "It's about serving the communities that you play in and not just going in like a robber baron and walking of with a big cheque from each city"). According to Morello, the band has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to leftist causes, and le la Rocha estimates he gives away 10 to 15 percent of his income. But that still leaves a pretty penny after sales of some 9 million albums, and so there's still some guilt in material gain. Morello's not worried, de la Rocha isn't so sure; "There have been times when I've felt removed from the community I'm struggling for," he says.
So there are inherent contradictions. But exhaustive research (Morello's even tone and persuasiveness underline his Harvard graduate status) and a genuine interest in the issues they address does serve the bad well. As far as Shining Path is concerned, Morello is adamant. "It's a case of Peruvians standing up against the US corporations dominating their economy and directing the vast resources of Peru, not to the Peruvians but toward US pocketbooks. If there were instances in which the Shining Path committed atrocities, we're absolutely opposed to that. That is something to be condemned. But would [critic's of Rage's stance] be as vehement about the US bombing Belgrade, the Sudan and Afganistan ? It's shocking that people can rationalise one sort of violence but not another."
RATM have been outspoken in their support of imprisoned American Indian dissident Leonard Peltier, human rights organisations Rock for Choice and Tibetan freedom. They've played benefits for and publicised the causes of the Anti-Nazi League. Morello has even been arrested and jailed for civil disobedience in a California march against sweatshop labour.
But by far, the most pressing issue is the concern of half-Mexican de la Rocha. His support of the Zapatista-rebels who are spearheading a peasant revolt in the largely Indian state of Chiapas, Mexico-has lead him to make four trips to the area to support and work with them. It's rare that the 29-year-old singer and lyricist speaks to the media, leaving that job to the well spoken, affable Morello. But he has spoken at length about the Zapatista, who are fighting the government's attempts to privatise their collective farms.
"That really remained in my heart, because I also feel Mexican," he told Mexican paper Reforma. "That's why I'm interested in spreading those ideas through art, because music has the power to cross borders, to break military sieges and to establish real dialogue. Our purpose in sympathising with the Zapatistas is to help spark that dialogue."
In another Mexican interview, he expanded on the issues. "it is important for me, as a popular artist, to make clear to the governments of the United States and Mexico that despite the strategy of fear and intimidation to foreigners, despite their weapons, despite their immigration laws and military reserves, they will never be able to isolate the Zapatista communities from the people of the United States.
"We act as facilitators so that they can participate. We put them in contact with the organisations and Zapatista support committees here in the US. And the interest and involvement of the young people of the United States in the struggle of the Chiapan indigenous people is greater each day. For this reason our music has become a bridge."
De la Rocha attributes his interest to his roots, via his grandfather, who fought the law in the Mexican Revolution, and his father, Beto de la Rocha, a Chicano muralist who tried to build bridges between the artists in LA, the workers, and Chicanos against Vietnam. Beto's marriage with de la Rocha's German-Irish mother ended when Zack was four. But Zack still credits Beto with guiding him towards the National Liberation movement.
"in 1996 I visited civil camps for peace, in La Garrucha," he says of his time spent with the Zapatistas. "There, I experienced the terror the people felt : the intimidation by the soldiers, the isolation in which the communities had to subsist, the military camps between the houses and fields. We saw how the soldiers burned and razed the fields, threw the children out of schools, and turned schools into barracks.....And each time we became more familiar with the Zapatistas' form of organisation, communal work and cooperation. And I realised that the motives behind the militarisation were to break down the community, to keep the people from organising in an autonomous manner in order to overcome poverty and isolation.
"That starvation practice against the people has the same effect as throwing bombs on the population, but it is more comfortable for the rulers because it maintains Mexico as a stable place and as a suitable place for investments, and it doesn't place the Free Trade Agreement at risk."
Likewise, Morello's past is framed within a pre-history of dissent, thanks to his father Nethe Njoroge's involvement in the Kenyan independence movement that followed the Mau Mau guerilla's attempts to break free of British rule in the '40s and '50s. Tom Morello was born after his Irish-American schoolteacher mother and his father relocated to New York, following Kenya's independence in 1963. The couple divorced a year later, leaving the developing reactionary to take more influence from the trials of growing up in the white Chicano [sic] suburb of Libertyville, Illinois, than from his father who he didn't meet again until 1994-they haven't kept in touch.
These are solid bloodline credentials for a band based in artistic protest. But the band's strength comes through the fact that they really only point fans towards issues. No matter how didactic de la Rocha tries to be within his lyrics (they're becoming increasingly, if violently poetic by this stage), these are just pointers...to the many websites which will be found on any search for Mumia Abu-Jamal, to the contact addresses they've listed as prominently as the lyrics on The Battle of Los Angeles' inner sleeve.
Morello calls the music "the means by which this virus is spread". In answer to the many questions about just how much of the political activism is even digested by a mosh-orientated, beefy boy crowd, he speaks of the response to the stalls which the band arranges for each show, and to the fan mail he gets outlining how RATM has influenced fans in the direction of causes, and most importantly, knowledge. Any issue RATM picks up may well be marked as Cause of the Month, but you can bet the awareness about the issue in the band's demographic increases exponentially.
If the history of American protest rock runs alongside the birth and eventual sell-out of hippidom, then RATM are true stayers. Where their peers may have submitted to the temptation to settle and solidify their lives, to get paid, rather than continue the self sacrifice of protest, Rage Against the Machine have stuck to their guns. But hasn't the human fallibility and the complexities of political and social wrangling within the organisations Morello deals with ever generated cynicism within the band ? In a word : no.
"On this current tour we have booths at all shows from local activist organisations," he says. "That daily interaction with them makes me very optimistic, and not cynical all. The WTO riots really give you a feeling there is a real level of dissatisfaction with the status quo. And that's why our music translates in the numbers that it does. It's not just that they like the grooves, they also tap into that indignation that you hear in Rage Against the Machine songs. That's felt by people in their everyday lives."
"People are apathetic about the political process because they realise that neither of the two major political parties represent them," he says of the US (and by large the Australian) political system. "the second that you had a real party that represented normal working people you'd see them flock to the polls. But they realise that in the United States only 4% of the population donate money to any political campaign. So when these people are in office, who are they beholden to? Not the schoolteachers and carpenters and rock musicians and music journalists and homeless people. They're beholden to people who tend to be rich men who work at corporations."
Musically, too there's no sigh of the band faltering. The conversations with Morello came just as 1999 concluded with Rage Against the Machine being awarded Band of the Year by Spin and Time magazine alike. They've remained a critic's fave, and they're still selling buckets, after debuting at #1 in US Billboard charts and #2 in Australia, staying there for over 11 weeks nationally so far. It's a fine balance.
"It's music that combines the ferocity of the best hard music and intelligence and an artistic and political bent," says Morello. "We just play music that comes naturally to us. there's a content to Zack's lyrics and the band's general philosophy which is lacking in a lot of music at the top of the charts."
The top of the charts isn't limited to Britney Spears and boy band pop/rap. How does Morello feel about the New Metal movement, which bassist Commerford says is heavily influenced by Rage Against the Machine. (He suggested that bands like Korn were simply signed to fill a gap left by Rage's refusal to pump out an album a year.) if Commerford is crying rip off, Morello is the mediator saying, "live and let live." "I'm a fan of bands like Korm, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock," he says. "But clearly they're coming from a different philosophical standpoint. each of those bands are a product of their influences and convictions, and our convictions just happen to be different."
But de la Rocha is less forgiving of bands like Korn, who, he says, "aren't really screaming about anything. it's just this fabrication." he is also unhappy with the direction taken in new rap. "It's 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, "if Ronald Reagan was a rapper, he'd be in Puff Daddy's crew. the materialism and individuality-"I'm taking mine-it's Reaganism."
Considering these convictions, is it fair to say RATM feel like they're in a battle for the hearts and minds of these fans, leading them toward more external, self-less issues than those pumped at them by Korn's latest album?
"Oh heavens no," Morello concludes. "That would be an uphill battle. the thing that we're fortunate to have within the pop music continuum, is there's a different set of choices. Rage Against the Machine is a band that speaks to the silent majority, the alienated, the disaffected, the disenfranchised. There's two things to do : you can either take an escapist pill, or you can deal with music which deals with the realities of the situation."