(Cover depicts a nice type of pop art mural that uses pictures of the four guys with their with fists in the air. The words Rage are spelled out with letters from the slogans Liberate Chiapas! Justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal! Fight Censorship! Free Leonard Peltier!)
Rage Against the Machine fights the power and storms the pop
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune Rock Critic
Transcribed by Jonathan Ashley
Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll—this is the universally accepted language of pop, the mother tongue of artists ranging from Jerry Lee Lewis and Mick Jagger to Kid Rock and Marilyn Manson.
Mumia, Zapatista, Sendero Luminoso—this is the language of blood, rebellion, and CIA files. These are words rarely heard in a high school classroom, let alone on MTV. To most Americans—rock ‘n’ roll disciples and non-believers alike—they are abstractions at best, annoyances at worst. Yet they are central to understanding the message behind the music of Rage Against the Machine, which last week stood as the most popular rock band in America.
"My panther, my brother/ We are at war until you’re free," Zack de la Rocha raps in one of Rage’s new songs, "Voice of the Voiceless," which denounces the imprisonment and impending execution of Black Panther Party member Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981.
"So long as the rope/ Is tight around Mumia’s neck/ Let there be no rich white life/ We bound to respect."
That’s not exactly the stuff of Limp Bizkit’s "Nookie", Puff Daddy’s "Satisfy You" or Christine Aguilera’s "Genie in a Bottle"—hits that embody the vacuousness of pop, circa 1999.
But this month, Rage has topped them all. In its first week in stores the Los Angeles quartet’s third album "The Battle of Los Angeles" (Epic), sold more than 400,000 copies, making it the No. 1 album on the Billboard pop charts. The success is not entirely unexpected—the bands first two albums have sold nearly 5 million copies combined—but at a time when political content or serious consciousness-raising commentary of any kind has been all but obliterated from rock and pop, Rage is clearly swimming against the mainstream tide.
On one level, Rage resonates simply because it rocks harder than almost any band with a MTV profile. In the past the quartet has sounded heavy-handed, but now Rage swings, with drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford blasting Godzilla funk beneath the otherworldly soundscapes conjured by guitarist Tom Morello. And de la Rocha has improved dramatically as a rapper, playing with the music of the words rather than just their meaning.
But political meaning remains central to the band’s aesthetic and with the rock comes a worldview far enough to the political left to rub elbows with Mao Tse-tung and Argentine revolutionary Che Guevera. "There is no such thing as apolitical music," says Morello, the Harvard-educated biracial son of schoolteacher Mary Morello and a Kenyan diplomat.
Morello’s parents divorced a year after he was born, and he lived with his mom as one of the few black kids in the northwestern suburb of Libertyville. There he learned firsthand what it felt like to be an oppressed minority—he entered his garage one day to get his bike and found a noose hanging from the ceiling.
De la Rocha was similarly politicized at an early age; his father was a radical Chicano folk artist and he heard the taunts of "wetback" in the classrooms and playgrounds of suburban Los Angeles, where he grew up. The singer is described as "painfully shy" by those who know him best, and his lyrics never address his personal life. Love songs? Forget about it. Who’s got time for that when there are millions of poor worldwide fighting for bread, jobs and a voice against a vast capitalist conspiracy of businessmen, politicians and generals?
If that sounds slightly alarmist, it should. Rage views its music as a wake-up call, a musical tradition that stretches back centuries to the griots of Africa and troubadours of Europe, the working class folk songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and the protest rock of the ‘60s. With the Vietnam War splitting the nation down the middle along generational lines, a rock band’s credibility often hinged on its ability to engage social issues.
Now, the societal stakes are seemingly much lower. "Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll—at one time, those were fighting words," says Bill Adler, former publicists for the politically minded rap group Public Enemy. "Now, 30 years later, that war has been won. There is nothing revolutionary about that message even though you keep hearing it. But the same people who ran the country 30 years ago continue to run it today. There is no massive anti-war movement—there are no massive dissident movement of any kind in American society today—but many of the same issue are still there. That’s what makes Rage a vanguard force today—they’re alone among rock bands talking about these things in their music."
Says Wayne Kramer, of ‘60s rebel rock band the MC5, "The stuff that Rage Against the Machine is talking about is essentially what the MCT5 were talking about that all liberals and revolutionaries have talked about in this country going back to Thomas Paine. And it’s not glamorous or sexy or exciting. We’re talking about justice, education, health care, and jobs—the fundamental building blocks of civilization. In the abstract such subject matter makes great subject matter for rock songs. It’s when a band gets down to specifics that the political rock waters become more muddled. In the case of Rage, their support of Mumia Abu-Jamal is firm and unwavering; they’ve written songs that cast the former radio journalist as a political prisoner who did not receive a fair trial, and they’ve contributed funds to the legal effort seeking to overturn his conviction. Yet in the nearly two decades since the killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner for which Abu-Jamal was convicted, no new witnesses have ben brought forward and no recantations tendered to suggest the jury’s original ruling was grossly unjust, and the burden of proof in the case has shifted to the defense.
Perhaps even more controversial is the band’s support of Peruvian rebels Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path. Morello has a Shining Path sticker on one of his guitars, and he contends the group is part of peasant uprising against centuries of cruel dictatorship. That’s true as far as it goes, but Shining Path is also responsible for slaughtering tens of thousands of people, many of them civilians. Before the group was eviscerated by government forces, it was among the most feared terrorist organizations in the world, according to numerous international human rights agencies.
Question Morello closely about such issues, and he veers away from specifics about Shining Path atrocities and points the finger back at government oppressors: "It’s a case of Peruvians standing up against the U. S. corporations dominating their economy and directing the vast resources of Peru not toward the Peruvian people but toward U. S. pocketbooks. That is the context in which the demonization of the Shining Path can be explained in the U. S. press. 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 [critics of Rage’s stance] be as vehement about the U. S. bombing Belgrade, the Sudan and Afghanistan? It’s shocking that people can rationalize one sort of violence but not another."
It is suggested to Morello that advocating violence of any kind should make people upset.
"But our country was born of violent revolution," Morello responds. "The reason there is a United States of America is because there was a violent revolution. It’s insane for people in this country to get upset when oppressed people use violence to attain their freedom. We’d be a British colony were it not for violent revolution.
Even as his voice rises, Morello remains affable, relishing the conversation and enjoying the opportunity to make his points. One can practically see him debating the teachings of Chairman Mao with some of the future business leaders of America in his Harvard political science classes. The skeptic in me wonders how Morello would feel if he were parachuted into a Peruvian jungle and had to deal with the Shining Path guerrillas on their terms, instead of from his vantage point as a rock star in the wealthiest country in the world.
Yet, Morello and Rage do more than just talk the talk. Morello has been arrested and jailed for civil disobedience in a California march against sweatshop labor. Del la Rocha has spent considerable time in Mexico, living with and supporting the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas who are spearheading a peasant revolt. Besides Abu-Jamal, the band has devoted time and money to causes as diverse as those of imprisoned American Indian dissident Leonard Peltier, human rights organization Rock for Choice and Tibetan freedom. On its current tour, which brings Rage to Allstate Arena in Rosemont on Friday, the band will contribute $2 from each ticket sold to local charities, including food banks and homeless shelters.
"Our only responsibility," Morello says, "is to tell the truth as we see it, to weave our music with our convictions."
It’s difficult to disagree, particularly when the music is as spellbinding and powerful as it is on "The Battle of Los Angeles."
Another longstanding rock ‘n’ roll tradition is shock appeal. And there are elements of that in Rage’s music and political views, and in Morello’s engaging but forceful responses to an interviewer’s questions. Like Public Enemy’s Chuck D, the Clash’s Joe Strummer or the MC5 before him—great political rock and rap acts—the members of Rage leave themselves open to criticism because their philosophies aren’t bulletproof. In the tradition of liberal mavericks such as Abbie Hoffman, they enjoy using the media, the capitalist system they so love to decry, as a vehicle to get their own message through. And sometimes that message, in its certainty, can ignore some of the complexities that political and social issues embody.
But Rage doesn’t claim to be the sole authority on any subject. Their latest album provides mailing and e-mail addresses for a dozen organizations from Amnesty International to the National Committee for Democracy in Mexico, where curious fans can learn more about issues that aren’t often discussed in school, let alone by other rock bands.
"The testosterone-maddened youth who are Rage’s fans are at an age where they’re ready to jump out of their skin no matter what you call it—Satanism, Maoism or Christianity—as long as its rocks," Adler says. "it’s not a rock band’s job to teach people revolutionary precepts. Their job is to wave a flag and create anthems and to infuse people with a spirit of rebellion—things that Rage does very well. Anyone who is moved to consider social change by a rock band, you hope will read some books and meet some people they never would have otherwise met, join an activist organization and make some connections in their daily lives. No rock band is going to lay down an entire social program. Most of them will be content to talk about cars, money and whores—as most of today’s great pop culture heroes are doing. So to channel people into at least thinking about social change, as Rage is doing, is a noble thing.