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Tom Morello on why activism in music matters: 'Dangerous times demand dangerous songs'

Tom Morello, who is perhaps best known as the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, has long paired music with activism. The artist, who has worked with Bruce Springsteen and has a new project, Prophets of Rage, touring this summer, was asked by The Times to express why politics and pop live in harmony. 

Music made me feel that I could have my hands on the steering wheel of history.

All music, and art for that matter, has a political point of view. Saccharine pop reality show hit-makers encourage escapism. In punk rock basements, dangerous truths are revealed.

Music and meaning are always on a collision course in our culture. Music has the unique property of speaking to the individual and community in the language of our earliest ancestors. The right combination of rhythm and rhyme, when it washes over a throng or transmits through an ear bud, can feel like the truth and resonate deep in our reptilian brain in a way that can provide a spark for action.

Can music change the world? Of course it can. It does every day. Music changed me. It was the music of Public Enemy and the Clash; the truth that resonated in the beat, the lyrics and the chords of those bands that made me feel less alone in my worldview.

Music made me feel that there were actions that I could take within and without the borders of my small Illinois hometown that could affect the future. Harmonizing and hell-raising, poetry and politics, singing and striking, rhythm and rebellion. The message was a simple one: “The world ain’t gonna change itself. That’s up to you.”

At 17, I didn’t choose to be a guitar player; the guitar, more or less, chose me. Once saddled with that as my calling I had to figure out how to use the damn thing to great purpose. Was it possible to forge a guitar into a divining rod of truth and fury?

Then it dawned on me that there has never been a successful social movement in this country that has not had a great soundtrack. Joe Hill’s union anthems put wind in the sails of those fighting for an eight-hour workday in the early 20th century. “We Shall Overcome” steeled the resolve of Freedom Riders during the civil rights movement.

Jimi Hendrix’s “The Star Spangled Banner” channeled the moral cacophony of the Vietnam War through a Marshall stack at Woodstock. And one or two Rage Against the Machine songs were heard pumping in the streets as Starbucks windows were shattered during the Seattle anti-globalization uprising.

But what is the responsibility of the artist in troubled times to speak to the issues of the day? I believe the only responsibility we have as artists is to tell the truth as we see it. I would never suggest that musicians who have no political point of view pretend to have one for my sake. If however you do have a point of view and censor yourself out of fear or passivity then you’ve done yourself and your times a grave disservice.

To weave one’s convictions into one’s vocation is a responsibility that extends beyond the arts. As Martin Luther King famously said, “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral during times of moral conflict.”

You don’t abdicate your responsibility to your convictions simply because you don’t have a microphone or a recording studio at your disposal. If you’re a nurse you do it via the nurses’ union. If you’re a student you do it via a campus organization. If you’re a soldier or police officer perhaps you do it by following your conscience instead of your orders.

So, while the powers that be would prefer that you and I remain in a hashtag/Instagram briar-patch of inaction, that’s not how the world changes. It’s changed by average, everyday ordinary people who have had enough of the status quo standing up for a world that is more decent, just and humane.

It’s changed by people willing to use their intellect, creativity, strength and courage to make that world come to be. What can you do to change the world? Dream big and don’t settle. And remember that any substantive progressive, radical or revolutionary change that has ever occurred in our country has come from below, not above. Aim for the world you really want to live in without compromise or apology.

That ideal seems quite distant today as our country is teetering on the edge of the abyss. Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee because racism, misogyny and advocating war crimes are not seen as character flaws in the Republican Party. Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee because subservience to Wall Street and being complicit in war crimes are not seen as character flaws in the Democratic Party. This election season it feels like we are in Pompeii with the volcano erupting and the only boat out of town is the Titanic. Do I vote? Yes, I do, but casting a ballot into the void every four years for one of the two monopoly party candidates is not enough. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. 

That’s why we formed Prophets of Rage. Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill — all smashed together into an elite revolutionary task force. Chuck D, B-Real, Tim Commerford, Brad Wilk, DJ Lord and myself. Three radical groups forged into an alloy of hip-hop and hard rock firepower bent on having our say during these tumultuous times. Our music and our politics do not change because of opinion polls, focus groups or lobbyist payoffs. The message is written in the mosh pit. Dangerous times demand dangerous songs.

What do we sing about? Empowerment. Poverty. Police brutality. Immigrant rights. Racism. Militarism. Threats to civil liberties. Union busting. But it all amounts to nothing unless it’s got a roaring soundtrack, a ripping guitar solo and a huge groove that can decimate a club or make a field of 50,000 bounce until the Richter scale shakes.

The goal is a simple one: boost morale and lift the spirits of those fighting for a better world while playing a devastating, ass-kicking, ear-shattering rock ’n’ roll show. Both the Trump and Sanders campaigns are often described by the media as “raging against the machine.” Sorry, but we intend to demonstrate what raging against the machine really means.

We will not sit on the sidelines of history. We will not go quietly into that dark night. The first stop on our “Make America Rage Again Tour” will be a protest concert outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

People sometimes say, “Hey Tom, shut up and play your guitar!” Oh, I’m gonna play my guitar all right, you can bet on that. But I’m never gonna shut up about human rights. I’m never gonna stop fighting for a more decent, just and humane planet. And if that pisses some people off, too bad.

Harmonizing and hell-raising, poetry and politics, singing and striking, rhythm and rebellion.

What better place than here? What better time than now?


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