It’s hard to believe that November will mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of one of the greatest albums of all time: the self-titled debut by Rage Against the Machine, the Los Angeles-based quartet that fused the radical politics of Detroit’s MC5 with elements of rock, rap, thrash, punk, heavy metal and Parliament-era funk and went on to become one of the most influential and commercially successful bands of the 1990s.
I still have a vivid memory of walking into Tower Records on 4th and Broadway in New York City on a Tuesday, the day when record labels release new product, and purchasing a copy of the album on cassette, a decision based solely on the cover art: Malcolm Browne’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc sitting in the middle of an intersection in Saigon in 1963, his body engulfed in flames, in a sign of protest against the way Buddhists had been treated by the South Vietnamese government.
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The band’s name, printed in white typewriter font across four black strips of tape, was positioned below the image of Duc’s self-immolation and looked like a cross between a ransom note and a news report from an old copy of The New York Times, and made me feel that there was a sense of extreme urgency to the album’s ten tracks.
I tore the cellophane off of the case and popped the cassette it into my Sony Walkman before I exited Tower Records. By the time I got back to my dorm room at New York University, just a few blocks away, “Bombtrack,” the opening song on Rage’s album, ended, leaving me with an entirely different understanding of what social inequality meant. The other nine songs on the album, particularly the first single, “Killing in the Name,” were just as intense – musically and politically – and I credit it with igniting my passion for writing about injustice, a common thread throughout my entire body of work as a journalist over the past 16 years.
Rage Against the Machine did not sound like any other band in 1992. That was largely due to the inventive guitar playing of Tom Morello, who somehow made his axe produce sounds that I mistook for an MC scratching records on a turntable and a number of other instruments until I read the liner notes, which said “no samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this record.” Years later, Morello would be honored as one of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” by Rolling Stone magazine.
In addition to being a vehicle to showcase his musical chops, Morello used his guitar to display social justice messages, such as “Arm The Homeless,” whenever the band performed live and, as a privileged white male who grew up in suburban New York during an era that was dominated by hair metal and decadence, it was an overtly political statement I had not previously seen before from any of the artists I had worshipped.
Morello was my new role model.
Sixteen million album sales and two decades later, Morello is still speaking truth to power and inspiring a new generation of activists. In 2002, he formed the nonprofit organization Axis of Justice with Serj Tankian, vocalist for metal outfit System of a Down, which aims “to build a bridge between fans of music around the world and local political organizations to effectively organize around issues of peace, human rights and economic justice.”
Morello said racist and fascist imagery he saw being openly displayed by audience members at the Ozzfest music festival in 2002 was the catalyst behind the formation of the organization and the group sets up, free of charge, Axis of Justice tents for touring artists, if they request it, to promote social justice issues. Morello and Tankian also co-host the “Axis of Justice” radio show on Pacifica’s Los Angeles affiliate, KPFK.
After Morello’s second band, the multiplatinum, hard rock (apolitical) super group Audioslave, broke up in 2007 he started recording albums under the moniker “The Nightwatchman” and reinvented himself as a “black Woody Guthrie,” he told Truthout in an interview, armed only with an acoustic guitar and his deep baritone voice. He sang songs about corporate greed, class war and workers’ rights.
But on his fourth Nightwatchman album, “World Wide Rebel Songs,” released last summer, Morello plugged back in. Supported by a full electric backing band called the Freedom Fighting Orchestra, Morello has described World Wide Rebel Songs as “troubled songs for troubled times.”
“I wanted to capture a vibe midway between Johnny Cash and Che Guevara, murder ballads and Molotov cocktails,” he said.
But World Wide Rebel Songs is far from another protest record, despite song titles such as “Union Town” and “God Help Us All.” It’s Morello’s most personal album to date.
Jason Leopold: World Wide Rebel Songs sounds so much more personal than previous Nightwatchman records.
Tom Morello: There is a great deal of personal experience woven into all of the Nightwatchman records, but because I am among a handful of “political” artists, that tends to be what the media focuses on. On World Wide Rebel Songs, some songs, in particular “Facing Mount Kenya” and “The Whirlwind” deal very explicitly with my Kenyan heritage and coming to grips with its role in my art. My father [who did not raise Morello], was part of Kenya’s first [United Nations] delegation and my great uncle, Jomo Kenyatta, was Kenya’s first president who led the movement to oust the British from Kenya.
JL: Was it difficult to expose your vulnerability in those songs?
TM: Not really. When I first sat down to write Nightwatchman songs back in 2002, I expected myself to be a more didactic political lyricist and was very surprised to find that the lyrics had changed me and the lyrics that resonated and the ones I felt compelled to craft into song were the ones that mined the deeply personal vein of suburban angst and it’s machinations. So, I’ve never been afraid of the truth on my records, be it political or personal.
JL: You’ve been a great supporter of Occupy Wall Street. What attracted you to it and what would you say in response to demands that Occupy needs to have an agenda as well as some news reports that have written it off as a dead movement?
TM: What initially attracted me to the Occupy movement, while I’ve been involved in a myriad of social justice causes over the course of the last decade, the Occupy movement on a global scale is really the first movement that concisely expresses what I believe is the core problem facing our society which is class inequality; that’s a dirty five-letter word. Despite the police repression that removed the Occupy encampments from the courthouse steps and parks around the country, the idea that this grotesque and relentless economic inequality that is just hammering the globe right now is not ok, and that it’s not an accident, there are criminals responsible who walk freely among us. One bit of evidence of success, ideological success of the Occupy Movement is, when in memory have we had a Republican presidential candidate who’s had his feet held to the fire because he’s too rich? People are taking a harder look at economic inequality in response to the success of Occupy. With regards to criticism about the movement having no focus, I think that the Occupy movement does represent the 99% and in that 99% there are a wide variety of opinions on all sorts of matters from politics, economics to sports and music. It’s not a homogenous bowl and can’t be put into a box and that’s one thing that separates the Occupy movement from previous Left leaning movements that are often divided by ethos factions.
JL: That’s interesting, you said “Left leaning movement.” So, you see Occupy as a “Left leaning movement”?
TM: Absolutely! Its explicitly anti-corporate, its explicitly anti-police repression. It’s a movement that is synced globally with social justice with a social justice network. It goes from Greece, Spain to Quebec to Chile. Those on the lower rung, the 99 lowest rungs on the economic ladder have found a voice.
JL: The reason I asked you about your description of Occupy as a “Left leaning movement” is because when the public hears “Left,” with a capital L, they seem to automatically associate the word with Democrat. Yet, we know that Democrats are also to blame for some of the issues you have rallied around.
TM: I don’t believe that the Democratic party has anything to do with the Left. We have two political parties: a right wing party and a right centrist party. That’s the Democrats. I laugh when people describe Barack Obama as a socialist president. As a socialist musician, I’ll tell you when we have a socialist president. We don’t have one now, not even close. So you’re absolutely correct, Democrats are not blameless. I think they’re all in the same corporate bag. I was the scheduling secretary for [the late] US Senator Alan Cranston [Democrat from California] for two years and I got to see first hand the internal workings of a senatorial office and how beholden it is to big money.
JL: Is that what turned you off from becoming more heavily involved in political campaigns?
TM: I wasn’t ever getting into politics. For me, basically it was a day job. But Senator Cranston was one politician that did a lot. He had a more progressive reputation than Barack Obama had, and still, he spent most of the time on the phone asking rich guys for money. None of that money comes for free.
JL: You recently got behind an initiative called the Robin Hood Tax. Can you discuss what that effort is about and your interest in being involved with it?
TM: The National Nurses Union, they’re friends of mine, we’ve done great shows for them before and they’re spearheading this Robin Hood Tax, which is basically a small tax on the wealthiest financial trading. A small tax on that would generate billions of dollars for the National Treasury and would help tremendously. And basically, what we have now is a system that is a kind of Robin Hood in reverse, we’re stealing from the poor to pay the rich and this tax would address that.
JL: You must be bombarded with requests to lend your name to activist causes. How do you go about choosing the social causes you get behind?
TM: Well the parameters have narrowed pretty dramatically since I have two small children under three years old, so the bar just got higher! The issues that have always been near and dear to my heart are labor issues, issues that deal with the crime of poverty, anti-racist issues…. I performed at the NATO protest in Chicago, the Nurses action in favor of the Robin Hood Tax, the resurgence of the Occupy movement on May Day, the Guitarmy in New York City, and the anti-Wal Mart protest here in Los Angeles [in June]…. for me the music is both a form of expression and I feel compelled to wield my guitar in the name of justice and so wherever injustice rears its ugly head you gotta’ be careful cause’ you might get flattened by the Nightwatchman!
JL: Since you mentioned the NATO protest that took place in Chicago in May, what do you think about the domestic terrorism charges against three protesters, described by police as anarchists, who authorities claim were conspiring to bomb Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters and other targets?
TM: I wasn’t the least bit surprised. They want to intimidate those who would stand against the empire. I don’t believe they were planning to blow up anything and I don’t think the prosecutors think that either. [The charges] sends a strong message to anyone that would question the imperial design of our corporate puppeteered government, that you might spend twenty-five years in jail if you show up at one of these demonstrations and it’s a way to try to silence dissent. So when I saw that I wasn’t the least big surprised. But when we submit to that kind of intimidation, that’s when there’s no counterbalance whatsoever to their unchecked power.
JL: What is your impression of the media, particularly the role the independent media has played in raising awareness about these struggles?
TM: Well, there’s no such thing as objective media. Every story has a point of view and whether it’s by what one chooses to include or exclude from a story or whether it’s a very specific agenda that is pushed, there is no such thing as objective media. So, once you realize that it’s more than just a marketplace of ideas, it’s a battleground of ideas and the ideas that are suppressed and the ideas that are pushed forward in the mainstream media are the ones that independent media has a chance to address. I think that the democratization of media in that way can be very, very helpful in allowing the truth to come out in a way that it might not on CNN or FOX.
Recently, Morello released the World Wide Rebel Tour documentary, which features 42 country-specific versions of the film, each with an interviewer asking Morello a question in their native language.
“The World Wide Rebel Tour is a virtual tour spanning the entire planet,” Morello said. “Remember that old Coca-Cola commercial? ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony … ‘? It’s like that but with class warfare … From Malawi to Myanmar, from Uzbekistan to the USA, people’s voices and struggles have made their way into my music. I’m returning the favor with this global rebel rocking throwdown.”
Interview transcription by Jennifer Cuneo