By Alexander Billet
Published in Dissident Voice
At this year’s Coachella Valley Festival, a long dormant specter returned to haunt the structures of power and profit. When Zack de la Rocha, Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk took the stage on April 29th for the first of several shows, it was their first time in almost seven years.
But it couldn’t have happened at a better time. And if there is one thing that Rage Against the Machine know well, it’s good timing.
When RATM’s breakout single “Killing in the Name” hit in 1993, the images of the Los Angeles uprising was still fresh in the world’s mind. The song’s freshness was unmatched at the time. Long before the advent of “rapcore,” the LA based outfit’s blend of skilled MC-ing and mind-bending guitar work was a shock to the shoe-gazing of grunge and decadence of geriatric hair-metal. It is easy to forget, but at the time, RATM was doing something completely new, original, and musically revolutionary.
Most importantly, the song’s refrain, “some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses,” rang true for the millions outraged by the bald-faced racism put on display by the Rodney King trial. And the repetition of “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” was undoubtedly the motto of the thousands who rioted after King’s badge-wearing assailants were acquitted.
That a rock band could not only attempt to hold a mirror up to reality, but actually engage in smashing and shaping it, was something that had not been seen on Rage’s level since the 1960s. As the stultifying 80s gave way to small but significant cracks in the ruling class agenda, Rage echoed the sentiment that “business as usual” wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
Their second album Evil Empire would only solidify their position at the forefront of political pop culture. “People of the Sun” was heavily influenced by the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. The group would also become public supporters of the burgeoning Students Against Sweatshops movement, as well as play benefit shows for the growing campaigns around Mumia Abu-Jamal.
By the beginning of the 21st century, hundreds of thousands had marched in Seattle, Quebec and Prague against the G8, IMF and World Bank, and against the idea that a tiny group of people should have control over the planet’s resources. When the slogan “another world is possible” was raised, its urgency was felt by millions.
Significantly, this was also at the height of RATM’s popularity. Sports-writer and activist Dave Zirin, who was in Genoa, Italy for the chaotic demonstrations against the G8, remembers a flat bed truck blasting the group’s music as the first day of protests began. “I thought it was amazing that these young Italian kids, none of whom seemed to speak a lick of English, were setting off a rebellion with this music,” says Zirin.
This synchronicity between music and protest had come to personify Rage’s work. Their third album The Battle of Los Angeles was filled with incendiary tunes that, in De la Rocha’s words, “give volume to various struggles throughout the world.” But the proof of their commitment, as always, was in their actions. When the 2000 Democratic National Convention was met with large demonstrations, Rage played to the mass of protesters outside. It has since become an infamous show.
So while RATM’s breakup in 2000 came as a shock to the thousands who had been inspired by the group’s radical message, there was an almost eerie serendipity that accompanied it. Less than a year after the band’s demise, 9/11 would send the slow but steady rise in consciousness and struggle into a downward spiral. The anti-globalization movement in the US collapsed. Striking dock-workers were crushed for jeopardizing “national security.” And Bush was allowed to invade Afghanistan with minimal opposition. The shift in US politics was sharp. Despite the group not even being together anymore, RATM’s website was shut down by the FBI for several days in the aftermath of 9/11.
But a lot has happened in six years. Bush, having squandered a free ride to rehabilitate US empire, now has approval ratings below thirty percent. Rage guitarist Tom Morello’s sentiment of living in a “right-wing purgatory” no doubt finds sympathy among a whole host of the population.
But there is more to it than this. A vast majority of the US opposes the occupation of Iraq. Most people are appalled by low wages and the lack of decent health care in this country. Despite a climate of vicious immigrant scapegoating, there is wide support for citizenship for undocumented workers. And since the 2006 elections, more people are opening up to the idea of struggling for a better world.
Similarly, the dissatisfaction with Bush and company has lead to some small rumblings in the world of music. Some of today’s most popular acts, from Linkin Park to Nine Inch Nails, have been releasing anti-war, anti-Bush material. In other words, the opportunity for radical artists to reach a new generation of activists with their music and ideas is greater than it’s been since before 9/11.
True to form, when De la Rocha and Morello staged a warm-up gig at Chicago’s House of Blues in mid-April, it was to celebrate the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ victory over McDonald’s in the tomato fields. And though the struggle of farm workers takes precedence, if Rage’s reunion proves permanent, the left will have one more thing to celebrate.