Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello: 'There is a significant section of my audience that freaks the f*** out when I say that I'm Black'

Tom Morello
Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Audible)

Rage Against the Machine, one of the most politically outspoken rock bands of all time, was supposed to embark on a reunion trek this year that included a much-hyped headlining slot at the Coachella festival. Though the timing for a RATM revival seemed ideal in a fraught election year, those touring plans have now been put on hold due to coronavirus concerns. But fans of virtuosic founding RATM guitarist and activist Tom Morello’s brilliant words and music can still get their live fix via Tom Morello at Minetta Lane Theatre: Speaking Truth to Power Through Stories and Song. The Audible Original musical narrative, produced by T Bone Burnett and recorded over three nights last September at the titular New York City venue, mixes Morello’s shredding guitar with his uniquely American stories about being “the only Black kid in an all-white town, the only anarchist at a conservative high school, the only heavy metal guitarist at Harvard University, and the only Ivy League Star Trek nerd in the biggest political rap-rock band of all time.”

Below, Morello shares some of his stories with Yahoo Entertainment as he discusses Tom Morello at Minetta Lane Theatre; that the time when a RATM music video predicted Donald Trump’s presidency and nearly landed director Michael Moore in jail; the supposed fans who are bizarrely surprised or even downright outraged to find out that Rage Against the Machine’s music is political or that Morello is Black; and the new music he has been inspired to make during these troubled times.

Yahoo Entertainment: I listened to the Audible Original about your life, and in it, you talk about being the only Black kid growing up in the small town of Libertyville, Ill., and the racism you endured there. And you also talk about navigating between different worlds as a person of color. Can you tell me more about that?

Tom Morello: Yeah, well, there was a noose in my family's garage. I saw a couple of nooses growing up. … The point I was making is, my skin tone has always remained the same, but I have “changed colors” in my life. Growing up in Libertyville, I was Black. I was the only Black person there, the only one with an Afro. People openly marveled at the fact that the color of my palms and back of my hands was a different color. They looked at my gums. They touched my head. I was like a unicorn of Blackness. The [white] dads in town all drew a hard line on [their daughters] dating me. And there was a noose in my garage. So, like, I was probably pretty Black then, you know?

But then cut to years later, and I’m in a popular alternative rock band that is played on radio stations that normally feature white artists, and in magazines that feature white artists, and my diction is not stereotypically “urban,” you know? And there is a significant section of my audience that freaks the f*** out when I say that I’m Black. Like on social media, I’ll make some post about being African-American, and it’s often met with, “No, you're not!” Or, “Tom’s Black?!?” Like, they can't believe it — it couldn't possibly be! And that’s cognitive dissonance, which is a term that people should learn early on and look in the mirror about regularly. That is the idea that when you hold two opposing notions, you have to in some way make sense of it. For example: “I love Tom Morello's work, and I think he's a white guitar player.” And then: “Tom Morello himself says he's Black.” And then: “Ahhhhh, I'm melting now!” I think that's pretty fascinating.

And then there's the subset of well-intentioned, nice people, fans, who are like, “I don't care what color Tom is. It doesn’t make any difference to me.” And that entirely misses the point, as that is an opinion that is never held by actual people of color. Because that’s a huge part of my experience and a huge part of who I am — and why I am. So, to just say, “I don’t see color”… well, if you don't see color and you’re in America, you might be part of the problem.

Speaking of social media reactions, it recently went viral on Twitter when some Rage Against the Machine fans seemed to suddenly realize that Rage’s music is political. And all of a sudden, they're mad about this! Like, have they not been listening to the lyrics for the past, um, 25 years?

Well, it's comical. But it also speaks to the power of bands. … If the idea is to make the mosh pit bounce, you can also put some sort of poetic power forward that affects people — but some people may not dig into the nuance. So, if the rock is good enough, you're going to attract a lot of people who may not be down for the cause. But some may be exposed to a new set of ideas that might be transformative.

At one point in your Audible show, you say, “All music, in my opinion, is political.” Obviously there's some music, including your own, that's overtly political. But are you saying that even a Britney Spears or Post Malone or Harry Styles song can be political, in its own way? And if so, how?

What I mean is, culture matters. Just in the days of ancient Rome, where the entertainment was bread and circuses that would keep the populace’s mind off of inequities in society, culture functions the same way now. And so, there is nothing that is outside of that. There's no music that doesn't affect you. Whether reinforces misogynist values or whether it reinforces social justice values, culture is never neutral. Now, that doesn't mean you can just put a beat to a Noam Chomsky lecture and call it a day. Art has to be impactful and rocking and emotionally moving in order to make a connection that matters. And it’s got nothing to do with smashing the state. There’s nothing wrong with a nice dance party. But to pretend [music] doesn’t have a political weight is to embrace an untruth.

Regarding this current political climate, there’s one rather surprising fact that I learned from listening to your Audible Original: that Rage Against the Machine’s “Sleep Now in the Fire” music video in 1999, directed by Michael Moore, sort of predicted that Trump would be in the White House.

Yeah, Michael Moore handed out these placards to some day traders as a gag. One of the signs said, “Donald Trump for President.” And that gag came true. You know, Michael Moore was [almost] arrested that day. ... And the band shut down the New York Stock Exchange, which was the first time that that happened in its 200-year history, in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon.

A scene from Rage Against the Machine's music video "Sleep Now in the Fire." (Photo: Sony)
A scene from Rage Against the Machine's music video "Sleep Now in the Fire." (Photo: Sony)

What happened?

We'd never met Mike before. I was a big fan. And I couldn't wait to ask him one question: “How many times have you been arrested?” He said, “Never.” And I jokingly said, “Well, you've never worked with Rage Against the Machine.” So anyway, he's a man of few, few words as a director. He said, “This is what we're going to do today. We’ve got a permit to play on the federal steps. We do not have a permit to play on the city streets, but we're going to be up on the federal steps. But don't stop playing, no matter what happens.” So we're up there, and when you're making a video, you're miming along to the song. So the CD is on and we're pretending we're playing. And placards are walking back and forth. Mike says, “OK, now we're going to go down of the city sidewalk” — the unpermitted city sidewalk. And we continue to play, continue to mime along, and a police sergeant comes up to me and says, “You’ve got to get back up on the steps.” I remember what Mike said — no matter what happens, to keep playing — so this clearly falls under the auspices of that.

So I keep playing, and [the policeman] is getting mad and madder and madder. The vein in his neck is popping out. He’s like, “Get the f*** back up on the steps! Get on the steps!” He’s so mad that he unplugs my guitar — and to his surprise, the music keeps playing. Then he unplugs Tim [Commerford’s] bass and he can't believe what's happening. He gives us a look of, like, religious horror on his face. And so he [detains] Mike, and as they're carrying Michael Moore off in irons, Mike turns over his shoulder and delivers his second directorial edict of the afternoon, which is: “Take the New York Stock Exchange!” That was not in any video treatment. So we rush over there. I go through the door, and there's a frumpy dude and a security guy in a jacket. And I’m like, “Hey, I’m here to take the New York Stock Exchange. Is that a right or a left?” And he hits the panic button and the riot police come and the riot doors slam shut. And so, the New York Stock Exchange was shut down in the middle of afternoon — capitalism grinding to a halt for a brief repast.

At the time that video was made, the idea of Donald Trump becoming the president of the United States was a ludicrous idea. In your Audible show, you jokingly apologize for putting that idea out into the universe.

Yeah. It really is crazy.

But I do wonder if you’re getting déjà vu to the ‘90s when Rage was first starting out, when it seemed like youth culture and rock ‘n’ roll really could make a difference. We had Rock the Vote, Choose or Lose, Rock for Choice, presidential candidate Bill Clinton doing on a town hall with college students on MTV … and of course, Rage Against the Machine was at the forefront of a lot of this. I feel like there's a little bit of that returning with Generation Z’s activism. Do you feel that way at all?

Well, one encouraging sign is in that same town, Libertyville, where there was a real deep and rampant racism — both the overt, KKK kind of noose racism, but also everything with regards to dating and people undervaluing me and underestimating me and all that — there was a Black Lives Matter march in that town [this year]. It’s a town of about 20,000 people, and a thousand people showed up for the rally and the march, where they had a Muslim person speak and they had people from local African-American communities come in and speak. I couldn't believe it! One of my friend’s kids was a high school senior and he was sending me videos from the event, and it was just staggering that so many people in a community like that could be touched in that way — that they would clearly go outside of what I would've thought would be their safety zones to express solidarity with active antiracism.

That’s amazing! Sadly, Rage Against the Machine were supposed to reunite and tour this year — an election year, which would have been such great timing. But then the coronavirus happened. It must have really crushed you to not be able to play right now.

Well, there was no choice in the matter. We are in very dangerous times, and there’s this kind of creeping crypto-fascism and impending environmental disaster. It really is all hands on deck, except all hands can't be on deck, because there’s a global pandemic — which is made worse by horrific decision making and whatnot. So it’s a conundrum. … I mean, it's obviously one of the most dangerous times in human history, when literally the planet is in danger and it’s not taken with the kind of seriousness that Mother Earth deserves. We have this authoritarian crypto-fascist regime that has this kind of hypnotic sway over part of the population and may not let go of power, whether or not they win or lose the election. We’re really at a critical historical juncture. And the fact that it's happening during this [pandemic] is like a deck of cards thrown up in the air. But, as with any crossroads of history, the difference makers are people who are reading this article. Whatever change has happened [in the past] — progressive, radical or even revolutionary change for the better — has been caused by people no different from anyone reading this article, who just stood up for a more just and decent planet. That’s how the world changes. There have been challenges before, and we are at a very challenging moment. So it’s time to stand up.

While we’re waiting for touring to resume and a proper Rage Against the Machine reunion to take place on a live stage, is there any plan to release new Rage music?

I promise you, if there is ever any Rage Against the Machine recording news, our representatives will reach out to you! [laughs] I will refer you to my publicist. I do look forward to a time when there are live shows again. I don’t know when that’s going to be, but I look forward to it. It’s so crazy that that’s not a thing in our lives anymore.

Have current world events creatively galvanized you lately to make music on your own?

Well, during this [lockdown], there was a lot of time to sit around and be depressed. … It was an absolute creative drought [at first], which I hadn’t experienced as an adult. But then, getting a guitar in my hands, I’m really feeling that a great way to connect during this time is to create. I mean, the crazy thing is, I'm super-locked-down here. We have a 96-year-old and an 89-year-old on the premises, so no one’s in and no one’s out at all. I have a studio, but I don’t have an engineer and I don’t understand how to work my own studio. [laughs] So I’ve basically been recording everything, all my guitar parts, just into my phone. It made me think maybe I wasted money on these microphones, because it sounds pretty f***ing good! I mean, listen to [the new song] “Stand Up” — I think that was engineered by my 9-year-old, who held my phone up to my amp. That was the process.

In your Audible Original show, you point out that every major social and political movement has always been accompanied by music. Do you think music can sway what's going on this year?

Absolutely. I’ve already made two contributions to that: “Stand Up,” which was with Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons, the Black trans activist and soul singer Shea Diamond and Bloody Beetroots. And then there’s my sort of slave antebellum Nat Turner song, “You Belong to Me.” And I’ve got more tracks coming. … But you know, the soundtrack to a lot of these [recent] protests has been newer music. There’s a lot of musicians who are activist musicians, who are participating in these global protests against systemic racism. It has been such a multigenerational, multicultural uprising, which is one thing that does very much give me hope. That kind of movement always needs a soundtrack, and usually self-generates the soundtrack. And from my bunker here, I’m going to do my best to continue to contribute to it.

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