Revolution Number 9

The 29-year-old holding the microphone, Zack de la Rocha, is issuing calls, in only mildly metaphorical language and in quick succession, for war against capitalists, death to racists, justice for the oppressed, and possession by the workers of the means of production. He is backed by a guitarist and a rhythm section. He's watched by a sea of upturned faces. As the vocalist for the rock group Rage Against the Machine, de la Rocha has been making these demands for eight years with increasing sophistication and success.

The album on which the band first outlined its leftist analysis of American injustice went double-platinum after four years, signifying sales of more than 2 million copies in the United States alone. The band's second album proceeded to go double-platinum after 18 months. Its brand-new album, The Battle of Los Angeles, sold over 900,000 copies within a month of its November release. It entered the charts at number one, displacing Mariah Carey with a rainbow on her bosom and substituting on the store shelves of America the stark, graffiti outline of an Angeleno freedom fighter giving the stiff-armed Black Power salute.

Rock critics, while praising the music, regularly treat the band's politics as naïve, antique, or absurd. In the peaceful and prosperous United States of the 1990s, Rage Against the Machine's nonstop rhetoric of street-fighting and insurrection—"The front line is everywhere!"—isn't the most obvious political tack. Yet the band's promises of violence are appropriate to the present American climate on another account: They meet the fantasy violence of the rest of the culture head on. Nothing seems out of place in the sight of a teenaged audience chanting, "A bullet in your head! A bullet in your head!"

What sort of connection the band is making to that belligerence is a trickier issue. Take away the bloody revolution from the band's lyrics, and you're left with a liberal program of reform that's an anomaly on MTV: arms reduction, an end to U.S. military misadventures abroad, food and shelter for the poor, racial justice, and protections for immigrants and laborers. It's just not clear which ideas—if any—are getting across to the band's fans. Between mayhem and reform, what's going on when the music drops out behind him and de la Rocha, now at the front of the stage, begins to declaim, "It has to start somewhere! It has to start sometime! What better place than here? What better time than now?"—and the kids in the audience mouth the words along with him?

Musically, the members of Rage Against the Machine are most innovative as hybridizers. De la Rocha was the first vocalist to introduce rap successfully into hard rock. Tom Morello, the band's guitarist and founder, added noise to the old canon of heavy metal licks. His guitar—in crunching hard-rock passages—can sound like machine-gun fire, turntable scratching, sirens, industrial machinery. The outcome is electrifying.

Rage Against the Machine's members are also multiracial, a rare situation in rock. De la Rocha's parentage is partly Mexican, and he wears dreadlocks. Morello's parentage is partly African; he favors baseball caps.

Their audience is largely white, male, teenaged, and beefy. I first saw the band perform at the Meadows Music Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1997. Rage performed on a stage inside the stadium shell at the bottom of the venue. The crowd high above them on the sloping lawn was fenced in by wide wooden pickets. Early in the set, audience members began tearing up the lawn and hurling it downhill. Spectators below went down like bowling pins. The music continued. Soon fistfights erupted, and pockets of the crowd gathered to cheer them on. Inevitably the fence was torn down and torched, and the scenes on the lawn were lit by the flames of bonfires and veiled by a thickening pall of smoke. This wasn't the sort of insurrection the band members had in mind. When they called for peace, no one paid attention. I stood with two young jocks after the encores, overlooking the twinkling lights of downtown. "We could burn the whole city down," one said reverently. "Cool," his friend replied. "Free beer."

It was a startling reminder that Rage Against the Machine, probably alone among the U.S. left-wing forces of this or any age, preaches almost entirely to the unconverted. The band's politics are the product of an explicitly intellectual and credible radical past, a past largely unknown to its audience. Morello is the son of Ngethe Njoroge, a participant in the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s and Kenya's high commissioner to Britain after the country's independence. At Harvard, Morello earned an honors degree in social studies and participated in the anti-apartheid protests of the mid-1980s. While putting the band together in Los Angeles, he supported himself for two years as an aide to Senator Alan Cranston. De la Rocha's father is Chicano painter Beto de la Rocha, who was once the art editor of Cesar Chavez's farm workers magazine. When Morello met him at a friend's house, Rolling Stone reports, the singer, at age 21, already had a full book of scribbled lyrics about Mao and Paraguay.

Evil Empire, the band's 1996 album, communicated that radicalism in a way that was fierce, eloquent, and systematic. It started with the European colonization of the indigenous peoples of Mexico; rebuked Pentagon spending ("Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes, not need") and Republican moralists ("They rally round the family/ With pockets full of shells"); then went after right-wing talk show hosts, Nixon apologists, brutal police, financiers, the rich, factory owners, and a racist judicial system.

That manifesto was marketed by Sony Music, however, and made millions for the Sony corporation. Rage rails against corporate evil from a soapbox furnished by the entertainment industry. Its odes to violence grow as much out of the industry's regular marketing of mayhem as out of any revolutionary logic. So is the group feeding the beast or riding it? Those fans in Hartford, certainly, would have rioted for anything. Last April they fought police on two consecutive nights at concerts by the Dave Matthews Band, rock's equivalent of Wonder Bread. But Rage is unquestionably the product of the sensation culture that makes rioting such a joy, and so its members are often met with skepticism when they tell reporters, as de la Rocha told George magazine, that their violence exists "with the hope of regenerating interest in politics among young people." On its darkest days, the band will be a symptom of the condition of the nation. At its best, could it redirect some part of the national fever?

A politics that deals with America's apparent bloodthirstiness will have to acknowledge how genuinely pleasurable media violence is. Anyone who has grown up in the full blare of the American sensation culture knows fury is arousing and mayhem, invigorating. This isn't pathology; this is mainstream American socialization. And those responsible for it are in the marketplace. Aggression is easy to package—on TV, in advertisements, in movies and songs—and serves particularly well to loosen self-restraints and help you buy.

Rage's songs have the ambition to shove leftism in the face of the young using the same belligerent idiom of America's entertainment-scape. It's a giddy experience to watch the band try. The 1996 video for "Bulls on Parade" blended footage of left-wing street-fighting throughout the twentieth century with scenes of delicious peasant-garbed fashion models waving red flags. The video for "Guerrilla Radio," the first single off the new album, takes up Gap's multiculturally correct ads, "Everybody in khaki," to showcase sweatshop workers with the slogan "Everybody in denial."

The band likes to call its enemies by name—NBC, ABC, Coca-Cola—while still appearing on the TV shows and at the youth events such companies sponsor. The contradiction mirrors the predicament of a whole generation reared by merchandisers. Blame for the destruction last summer at Woodstock '99 seems to belong equally to rioting fans and greedy promoters. But the youth rampage didn't come down conclusively either on the side of fury at commercial exploitation or of addiction to its fruits. Its pinnacle experience was to get to be seen on MTV while tearing down the MTV camera tower. Rage Against the Machine played a notably skillful and temperate set at the concert, but their influence haunted Woodstock some time later. Reportedly, fans chanted the band's best-known lyric—"Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!"—as they clashed with state police in the fracas.

What a political listener wants the band to do is address these folks directly. There ought to be a way to make it harder than this for listeners to separate the brute self-satisfaction of the songs from their political messages. That may be what Rage has achieved on its new album. The Battle of Los Angeles sets the bar higher for insurrection. Rage's earliest hit songs suggested it was enough just to be mad at authority: Well, plenty of teenagers can manage that. Now, de la Rocha has gotten more specific. The Mexican and Mexican-American residents of southern California are his major protagonists. Third world workers, African Americans, and the peasant rebels of Chiapas are not far behind.

The average fan—if he or she is listening to the words—is going to have to put up or shut up. When a typical lyric is "So long as the rope/ Is tight around Mumia's neck/ Let there be no rich white life/ We bound to respect," there's a choice to be made. The fan can get down with the grievances of his nonwhite revolutionary brothers: the Zapatistas, the sweatshop workers, the new immigrants. Or he can stop singing along.

Call it a challenge, a test. It may not harmonize with a credible political progression, but it's a melody worth hearing.

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