Anger is a Gift
The musician biography has become such a staple of the publishing industry that I was even offered a deal to write a book about Bob Burns, a drummer in Lynyrd Skynyrd who played on only the band’s first two albums. And although I haven’t read most of these bios, I’m confident none of them has a chapter anything like “Wage Slavery: Is There an Alternative?,” which begins Know Your Enemy: Rage Against the Machine (Omnibus Press, $24.95) by Joel McIver.
McIver presents experiences and opinions from Noam Chomsky and Rage guitarist Tom Morello, but to get a specific answer to his question about wage slavery, McIver conducts a lengthy interview with electrician-turned-writer Pamela Satterwhite, author of Waking Up: Freeing Ourselves From Work.
“The future will be the opposite of what we have now, because now everything is based on our selling our gifts,” says Satterwhite. “The opposite of that is expressing our gifts rather than alienating them. As Emily Dickinson said, ‘Reduce no human spirit to disgrace of price.’ What we are born with is inherently cooperative, curious, and joy-seeking. In the world that we create, power will be indistinguishable from beauty, and ‘work’ indistinguishable from ‘life.’”
Before we can get to that future there’s a long to-do list that must be completed. One of the most important items on that list is overcoming the myth that America is a classless society.
Tom Morello was on his myth-busting journey in the late 1980s when he worked as California Senator Alan Cranston’s scheduling secretary. “Eighty per cent of the time I spent with the Senator, he was on the phone asking rich people for money.”
Years later Morello expanded on that experience: “People tend to think that if the worker and boss enjoy the same TV shows, or own some of the same commodities, then that represents the disappearance of class antagonism. But the splendor of Beverly Hills could not exist without the sweatshops of Indonesia, and without the layoffs in Flint, Michigan. Or, for that matter, without centuries of black slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, numerous imperialist wars, foreign death squads, fascist dictators supported with our tax money. That’s what props up the consumer paradise of Melrose Avenue.”
These are the realities that inform Rage’s songs, the scathing lyrics of which began to take shape in the spoken word journals of Rage vocalist Zack de la Rocha when he was a teenager. They are now embedded in the DNA of millions of music fans around the world.
Yes I know my enemies
They're the teachers who taught me to fight me
Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission
Ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite
-- “Know Your Enemy”
The myth of a classless society is shored up by the relentless drumbeat for concepts such as objectivity, balance, and nonpartisanship. All of them were blown out of the water in one fell swoop in 1931 with the song “Which Side Are You On?,” a savagely beautiful challenge written by Florence Reece, the wife of a Harlan County coal miner. Rage Against the Machine is one of the few bands that has been able to consistently match Reece’s masterful level of agit-prop. They always make it clear that there are sides and they make it clear which one they’re on.
Rage’s debut album was released in 1992, not at all coincidentally a few months after the LA rebellion. As Chris Barton wrote in the LA Times: “Even before Florence and Normandie erupted in April 1992, Rage Against the Machine was warning of the conditions that would give birth to the riots. The Rodney King verdict may have been the spark, but it was years of frustration among the economic underclass of South Central Los Angeles that fueled the uprising. Now, for better or for worse, Rage Against the Machine's legacy is intertwined with that of the riots.”
Joel McIver notes that, just as Rage is a multi-ethnic band, the 1992 LA rebellion that helped to set the stage for their music’s popularity was also multi-ethnic: 51 per cent of those arrested were Latino, 38 per cent black, 9 per cent white, and 2 per cent Asian. This too is no coincidence.
The band or its individual members have traveled the world in support of all manner of struggles. In 2000 Rage played in the streets outside the Democratic convention in the middle of a police riot. In the summer of 2010 they played a benefit for Arizona organizations fighting the SB 1070 anti-immigrant legislation, followed shortly afterward by a show in Brazil where the band expressed its support for the MST, the country’s huge movement of landless workers.
Zack de la Rocha has gone from his own backyard (LA’s South Central Farm) to Chiapas to support the Zapatistas to Switzerland to testify before the International Commission of Human Rights of the United Nations about the death penalty in the U.S.
The Springsteen song “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which Rage has recorded to powerful effect, could be about the band:
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me
After getting off to a good start with the topic of wage slavery, McIver begins to wobble. He expresses amazement at Rage’s immediate and continuing popularity, saying it was “unprecedented for a band with such uncompromising--and for many, uninteresting views. Let’s face it, most of us don’t spend many of our waking hours pondering our corporate paymasters, or wondering how extensively we are controlled by the media: we are too busy trying to pay the bills. Multiply that indifference by 10, in the case of the under twenties in Rage’s fan base, and it’s all the more miraculous that the band and their album reached such a high point in so short a time.”
A band that that draws so skillfully on hard rock and hip-hop is going to find a big audience. But Rage’s popularity stems from more than that. It’s not hard to figure out.
McIver says the “under twenties” were indifferent but it was under twenties who were in the streets during the LA Rebellion. It was under twenties who lined up at the political information tables at Rage shows. It was under twenties who jammed the inbox at the highly political music magazine Rock & Rap Confidential after it was recommended in the liner notes of two Rage albums. It was under twenties who were a large percentage of the troops at Occupy. It is under twenties who are most at risk to police violence, it is under twenties who are put in gang databases in astronomical numbers just because they’re under twenty. When Rage played N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” under twenties weren’t indifferent, they were ecstatic to find a major band reflect their political feelings back to them.
As for the over twenties, millions of them also love Rage, and the idea that they are “too busy trying to pay the bills” to care about issues is nonsense. Nearly every poll shows that the majority of over twenties favor universal health care and oppose the current wars, they fear that the police are out of control and want immigrants to have legal status. In other words, they respond to Rage’s songs because the music expresses things they care about.
Wobbling further, McIver asks how Rage can reconcile its politics with the fact that their music is distributed by a multinational corporation. But neither McIver nor any of the many other critics who’ve raised that issue question the growing movement of fast food workers for a living wage. Aren’t they attacking the very corporations which give them a paycheck? Most of us work (or seek to work) for corporations or for institutions controlled by corporations. The choices are limited, to say the least.
Morello responds to Rage’s critics by saying that “Grassroots activist organizations, people who really work for social justice and don’t just sit smugly with self-righteous indignation, have been supportive of our efforts. I believe that we can do much more in this area than we’ve already done. I believe lit is our responsibility to continue to amplify the band’s message by any means necessary.”
Whether or not a band records for a big corporation is not a moral issue. Would humanity be better served if Rage was part of some vaguely defined underground? There are positive things you can do because you are a rock star. For instance, during the 2003 Los Angeles supermarket strike, I was standing next to Tom Morello at the Roxy in Hollywood before a benefit show he’d arranged with many top names. His phone kept ringing—some of the calls were from other bands who have millions of fans saying they were on the road but wanted to be involved. On May 1, 2012 at Occupy Wall Street, Morello led a Guitarmy of several hundred guitarists in street demonstrations, an expansive new form of mobilization made possible by his rock star status.
Of course there are messy contradictions that come from mixing art with the corporate bottom line. Tom Morello responds that “We would happily sign to the socialist record label that would distribute our propaganda to the four corners of the globe. But those are not the historic circumstances in which we were born.”
The corollary to a narrow view of musician options is a narrow view of what constitutes politics. When Rage went on hiatus in 2002 and all its members except de la Rocha formed Audioslave (with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell as lead singer), the media harped on how this was not a political band. For example, the LA Times opined that Rage had “dissolved into the ploddingly apolitical Audioslave.”
The truth is that Cornell, the supposed reason for a lack of politics, wrote songs for Audioslave about the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, Hurricane Katrina, and the war in Iraq. Audioslave performed in Cuba and often performed Rage songs in their live show.
The misreading of Audioslave is only one example of the limited way that the term “political” is applied to music. Political bands are thought of as those that stand up and say, “Hey, we’re political!” That’s what happened on July 30, 2012 when 60,000 fans gathered at the Los Angeles Coliseum for the L.A. Rising festival featuring Rage Against the Machine, Lauryn Hill, Rise Against, Immortal Technique, and El Gran Silencio. A powerful and beautifully eclectic show but not one that provided a broad enough definition of “political.”
What is a “political band”? If we define it as simply “a desire to change the world” we begin to see that there is a vast musical army already out there. For instance, there are over one thousand benefits held every week in America where musicians play to raise money for other musicians who are in a health crisis. Few of the bands who play these shows would describe themselves as “political,” yet they are part of a gigantic movement for universal health care whose individual parts have yet to connect. That is political. This is the type of big tent we need if we are going to affirmatively answer the question posed by Joel McIver in Know Your Enemy: “Wage Slavery: Is There An Alternative?”
Reach for the lessons the masked pass on
And seize the metropolis
It's you that it's built on
Everything can change on a new years day
-- “War Within a Breath”