Ever since his days with Rage Against the Machine, who were just nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, guitarist Tom Morello has mixed the political and the personal like few other modern-day rockers. “I believe I was probably meant to be an activist guitar player,” he jokes. It’s a mindset he has carried into projects like Axis of Justice (the nonprofit organization he co-founded with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian), Prophets of Rage (his supergroup with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and D-Lord, Cypress Hill’s B-Real, and RATM’s Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk), and his ferocious debut solo album, The Atlas Underground.
And all along, Morello has faced detractors who think musicians should stay out of politics. “Yeah, it’s the old ‘Shut up and play guitar’ argument,” Morello shrugs. “The people who make that argument, 100 percent of them disagree with your politics. They don’t want to be bothered by what it is that you think and who you are as a person. My take is very, very simple: When you pick up a guitar, you do not put down your First Amendment rights. Whatever your vocation … I don’t think you should leave your intrinsic self. You shouldn’t leave your convictions behind in your vocation. If that upsets people, well, if you’re making music that everyone can agree on, then you’re probably making pretty s***ty music. That would be the way I look at it.”
Rage Against the Machine first came to fame in the conservative George H.W. Bush era, and as Morello releases The Atlas Underground, a collection of “social justice ghost stories” with a cast of all-star guests (“On this album, there are artists of diverse genres, diverse ethnicities, diverse ages, diverse genders; that in and of itself is a statement”), he has plenty of inspiration, “from racism to anti-immigrant sentiment to economic injustice.”
“Bad presidents make for great music. That’s been a constant throughout history, and we’re certainly in a fertile period for that now,” Morello says. “Dangerous times call for dangerous music. … I wanted to forge a sonic conspiracy of people from the world of rock, punk, hip-hop, and EDM to forge the ambitious goal of making a new genre of music that combines my Marshall stack, heavy metal fury, guitar fury, with some of the electronic elements of 2018, to make something that is both unapologetically rocking and yet speaks to the present.”
So, on The Atlas Underground there’s “Rabbit’s Revenge,” featuring Killer Mike, Big Boi, and Bassnectar, which Morello describes as “the incessant drumbeat of police murders of African-Americans”; “Lead Poisoning,” with the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA and RZA, also deals with police brutality. “Roadrunner,” with Leikeli47, is about “those crossing from Mexico to the United States in the deadly desert there, where hopes and dreams and death meet among the coyotes.” And “We Don’t Believe You,” the incendiary single with Vic Mensa (who performed at Morello’s Anti-Inaugural Ball on Donald Trump’s inauguration day), has the rapper shouting, “F*** you, separate could never be equal!” Says Morello of that song, “I gave [Mensa] very, very limited poetic direction. I said, ‘Make a song that you can stand your ground to.’”
Another track, “Every Step That I Take,” with Portugal. The Man, deals with the important topic of mental health and was partially inspired by the late Chris Cornell, with whom Morello played in the hugely successful supergroup Audioslave. “We’re partnering with an organization that deals with suicide prevention and depression issues. I lost my good friend Chris Cornell in the not-too-distant past. There have been some mental health issues in my own family. It’s removing that stigma and letting people know that there is a way to get help.”
“Lucky One,” featuring K.Flay, addresses another hot topic: privilege. “If I had one wish for the world, it would be that everyone could be the person that they were meant to be, but often that is not the case,” Morello says. “Sometimes it’s crushing poverty or circumstance. The next Mozart might be slaving away in a Vietnamese sweatshop right now, or the doctor who could cure cancer might be in an Alabama prison for having weed in their car. That song in particular deals with who dies first and who laughs last and who is the lucky one.”
On a related note, Morello encourages everyone to speak out about the issues of the day, not just musicians and celebrities with massive platforms. He believes everyone can make a difference.
“I wouldn’t just limit it to artists,” he says. “I would say that we’re in a crucial historical crossroads for the planet, whether or not the planet will survive. It very well may be at stake in the next number of years. The thing that I think people need to realize, and your viewers and listeners, is that the people who have changed the world in the past, change when there’s a progressive, radical, or even revolutionary change, are no different than you. They don’t have any more power, they don’t have any more courage, they don’t have any more intellect than you do. They’ve stood up in their place and time and they’ve risked in order to make a more humane and just planet. You are a historical agent, and you can choose to have your hand on the steering wheel — or, if you abdicate and you stay on the sidelines, then you let other sons of bitches drive the planet into a ditch. It’s up to you.
“The first thing you really need to realize, it is the average person: Change has always come from below, whether it was women’s right to vote or the desegregation of lunch counters, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or South Africa with the dismantlement of apartheid. It didn’t happen through the wisdom of presidents or the judicious study of supreme courts. It was people whose names never made the news, who were never in a newspaper article, who did the tireless organizing.”
Morello, who “grew up on escapist metal” but was enlightened in his youth by the socially conscious music of the Clash and Public Enemy, explains how he, as just a regular small-town kid, took action. “I grew up in a tiny town in Illinois, where the dream was to get a job at the Dairy Queen and then maybe go to the University of Illinois. Then I started realizing there’s a world that’s much bigger. My friends and I, we made an underground paper in our high school that talked about apartheid, Central American death squads, and the fact that the dean was a d***! That was just a very liberating thing, recognizing that I’m an independent agent who can affect things, even if it’s just a school newspaper. But once you realize that you have that power, really the sky’s the limit. That’s the way the world’s always changed. I’m counting on you [citizens]. Or form your own band.”
As for his own music, Morello is going to keep voicing his opinions, even if some of those opinions are unpopular. “I think that as an artist, you have a very simple and limited responsibility — that’s to tell the truth in what you do as art,” he asserts. “If you have convictions and you sublimate them and you don’t speak out because you’re afraid you won’t sell as many records, then I think that you have to look in the mirror at the end of the day. Maybe you can and maybe you can’t. I’ve never had that problem. I’ve always thought that I’m going to sink or swim. If you’re offended by the content, fantastic. That means that I’m hitting a nerve and I’m being honest and truthful with what it is that I’m saying. Let the chips fall where they may.
“There are always pressures, subtle and otherwise, to make music or art as non-offensive as possible,” Morello says. “My favorite art is always dangerous. I think certainly in the world of rock ’n’ roll, it definitely should be. Challenging conventions is what I’ve been about since I was 16 or 17 years old. That’s not about to change now.”
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