The Former Rage Against the Machine Member Leads an Army of Guitarists at Occupy Wall Street
Around noon on Tuesday, a ridiculously large band rehearsal went down in a Midtown Manhattan park. Following chord progressions written out on giant signs, musicians old and young strummed guitars together, joined by the occasional non-comformist on ukulele and mandolin. It was one of the signature events of Occupy Wall Street’s citywide May Day celebration and general strike: the march of a thousand-man guitar army (or “guitarmy” if you will) through the streets of New York, culminating at Union Square where a concert by political artists Das Racist, Immortal Technique, and Dan Deacon awaited. Leading the army was none other than the duke of revolutionary rock, former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.
Many artists passed through Zuccotti Park last year to get their protest song on, but Morello was one of the earliest musicians to sign on to the Occupy movement. Back in October, he performed a short set at Occupy HQ under his folk-song alias The Nightwatchman, and has given very vocal support to the various occupations that sprung up around the world last year. His involvement isn’t too surprising – after all, Morello has placed political activism at the very center of his music from his days with Rage through Audioslave and, now, as the Nightwatchman.
As he prepared to mobilize his musical army on Tuesday, Morello answered reporters’ questions about the role of music in rebellion.
So Tom – what’s about to happen here today?
I’m here today to play some jams with some old friends and some new friends and have a great time, there’s going to be some angry party jams we’re going to unleash on an unsuspecting crowd. We’re going to rock your ass.
How did you find yourself involved with the Occupy movement, and what do you think it’s purpose is?
Well, The very first occupation was in the Madison capital building a year ago in February and that really energized me because my mom was a public school teacher for any years, and while we did not have a lot of money my mom was able to put food on the table and clothes on our backs because my mom was a union high school teacher. And when that assault came on unions it was something I took very personally. That I think was the first shot over the bow I think in addressing these issues of economic inequality. That’s what this movement has done – it’s highlighting the issue of class. We’re not a homogenous society, this is a country of haves and have-nots, and the occupy movement gives voice to an utterly voiceless people in our political spectrum.
What is music’s role in Occupy? Do artists have a responsibility to be politically engaged in their work?
I didn’t choose to be a guitar player, it kind of chose me, so I’m kind of blessed and cursed with that. It’s been my job to weave my convictions into my vocation. If you look at the peace movement during the Vietnamese war, to various union and labor movements, to the civil rights movements — no progressive movement has ever succeeded without a great soundtrack, and we’re providing that today.
What do you think keeps more people from getting involved?
What keeps more people from getting involved is that it’s a privilege to be able to risk yourself. If you come out today for the general strike or you are arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge…. if you live your life in accordance with your beliefs, sometimes there is a really high price to pay. That’s one of the reason between what occurred in Egypt and Tunisia and what’s happening here: we have much more to lose.
Do you think Occupy will have an impact on the political system?
It already has impacted. When was the last time a Republic presidential candidate has had his feet held to the fire because he was too rich? The fact that Romeny’s super-wealth is a negative, that’s a big change. The point of Occupy Wall Street is not to elect one politician over another, it’s just to voice a new set of ideas and put them out into the world.
If you had one minute with Barack Obama, what would you say to him?
I would say: “Isn’t it crazy, that we’re both half-Kenyan dudes from Illinois who went to Harvard and have been on the cover of Rolling Stone and play basketball, and have resoundingly good looks?”
What do you think of the perception that there’s a lack of political engagement from today’s rock underground?
I don’t think about it at all. The Occupy movement is not waiting for the rock underground. I’m not waiting for it. The only responsibility I believe you have is to follow your convictions. If bands in the rock underground don’t have socially conscious convictions, please don’t pretend to for my sake. But if you do, don’t silence yourself out of fear of anything.
Who are some young artists today that have impressed you with their activism?
The Arcade Fire is one, and Connor Oberst, Ben Harper is younger than me, I’m impressed by him. Bruce Springsteen is older than me but acts younger than me. Those are some.
I recently heard about your “Worldwide Rebel Tour” – what is that about?
Well in conjunction with this event here, I’ve released a free documentary today called the Worldwide Rebel Tour which is basically a Nightwatchman concert shot in LA with unique content from 42 different countries in 30 languages, and absolutely free around the world. There’s a Malawi stop and an Egypt stop and a Cuba stop and a Myanmar stop – it’s a way to tour the globe in one day.
Why is that global perspective important to you?
I’ve been inspired by the voices, the music and the convictions of rebels around the globe. They’ve infiltrated their way into my music, and this is one way to give back.