Local Rage Rocker Uses Music to Raise Political Awareness
Guarino, Mark, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Mark Guarino Daily Herald Music Critic
Historically, music and politics have been confusing bedfellows. Music moves people emotionally while politics move people intellectually.
It takes a great band to do both.
Rage Against the Machine believes all is one when it comes to activist rock. So it's no surprise to outsiders the band's intentions are confusing: while members fight for jailed activists like Leonard Peltier or Mumia Abu-Jamal, they are making money from major label albums and TicketMaster-sponsored tours.
So what machine are they raging against?
Not much specific on their third album, "The Battle of Los Angeles" (Epic, * * *). It's a great hard rock listen, but, except for some name dropping along the way, its lyrics are vague at best. The raging is certainly emotional with the band setting aside specifics for their performances, benefits and interviews.
Last week, Rage guitarist Tom Morello talked to me about Rage's mission: to raise political awareness by any means possible.
Morello isn't a newcomer to social justice. Born in Harlem and raised in Libertyville to bi-racial parents, Morello's father fought for Kenya's independence from Britain in the early '60s. His mother Mary worked for the NAACP and in the '80s, she started Parents for Rock and Rap, an organization against right-wing censorship of music.
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Q: Why did you choose "The Battle of Los Angeles" as the title of the new album?
A: Well, the Los Angeles that Hollywood projects to the rest of the world is a very inaccurate picture. The everyday existence of Angelinos is not Oscar night. It's not E! entertainment television. There's tremendous divisions and tensions along race and class lines that boil underneath the surface. As we saw in the case of the L.A. riots a few years ago, sometimes it takes a small incident to take on a full-scale insurrection. Also, I think Rage Against The Machine is a unique product of this city. It's a band that couldn't have happened anywhere else much like the Doors or X or Jane's Addiction. In our music you can hear the smog and the heat and concrete and hip-hop and the hard rock and the desperation and the hope of this very unique corner of the planet.
Q: Why do you oftentimes think rock and politics are so often polarized opposites?
A: I think there are many bands that are doing that. They're not always commercially successful. It's a much steeper road to climb when you're a political rock band. It's much easier to talk about more comfortable, traditional topics. But when you're a band that's unapologetically political and unwavering in the radical nature of what it is you're about, it makes it much more difficult to get a record deal, to get on the radio.
Q: What price has your band paid?
A: Well, we've been shocked. We've been exceptions to that rule in that somehow the band's chemistry of the music and the politics has connected and resonated. I mean we sold 432,000 records the first week outdistancing Mariah Carey by 110,000 records. So there's some intangible quality to this band that I can't tell you what it is (laughs).
Q: People could say you're hypocritical. You're raging against the machine, but you record for a machine, a major conglomerate like Epic and your tour is sold through TicketMaster.
A: The people who say that have no experience at practical activism. We do not subscribe to an indie rock elitist philosophy. We're interested in getting Leonard Peltier out of jail. The way that you do that is you organize a lot of people. You don't sell 45s out of the back of a pickup truck. Leonard Peltier does not care if you're on an indie rock label. That's an important distinction and one that is rarely made in the rock press: the difference between activist rock music and indie rock music. I think Fugazi is a great band. …