Armed with his trusty acoustic guitar, Tom Morello led a crowd-turned-chorus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City last night for the 2012 Food Sovereignty Prize hosted by WhyHunger. The Nightwatchman was the musical accompaniment for an event celebrating the work of four activist groups across the globe fighting for policy that ends hunger and poverty. Woody Guthrie’s radical folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land” was a fitting set list pick.
“I’m a big supporter of what [WhyHunger] do principally because hunger is violence,” Morello told Rolling Stone before the ceremony. “Hunger is terror. And hunger, in a world where there is plenty, is a crime.”
Morello linked with WhyHunger rather coincidentally: For years he has directed audience members at Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and Nightwatchman shows to the same network of food banks as Bruce Springsteen, who happened to start WhyHunger’s Artists Against Hunger and Poverty program. Morello says he grew acquainted over the years with longtime radio DJ Bill Ayres, who co-founded WhyHunger with folk legend Harry Chapin, and that the group “helped me with some friends who were in a personal situation.”
Morello took the stage a few times throughout the night as members and spokespeople for this year’s honorees were recognized for their work, often in the face of systemic oppression and violence: the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement in Sri Lanka, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers based in Florida, the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguan Region in Honduras, and winners the Korean Women’s Peasant Association in South Korea.
“They are living proof that history is not made by presidents, popes and supreme courts and prime ministers,” said Morello of the honorees, “that anyone can stand in their place in time and create the world that they dream of.”
Clad in an army-green shirt embossed with a small red star above the right pocket, suspenders dangling at his side, the Nightwatchman opened with his revolutionary hymn “The Fabled City,” rattling the room as he stomped along. For the next musical interlude, he plucked out the somber “Garden of Gethsemane” from his first solo effort, One Man Revolution.
Before the show, Morello spoke about the next Nightwatchman record, saying he’s got an album-and-a-half’s worth of material together to sort through once he finishes up the latest edition of the comic book series he writes and scores, Orchid. Though uncertain of where the album will end up genre-wise, Morello noted the influence of Orchid‘s orchestral, atmospheric soundtrack, and he also pointed out – this one’s for you, Rage fans – that the new music “lends itself to huge riff-rocking, which is sort of a new thing in the Nightwatchman world.”
Morello added that two lyrical themes have emerged as well: Interstate 80 – a road he says he’s spent “an uncomfortable amount of my life on and have experiences good, bad and spooky” – and the Civil War era, particularly the story of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
“Whether it’s biblical narratives or Civil War narratives,” said Morello, “there are often stories that have been interwoven in my DNA my whole life that have never stopped resonating, and one is the Nat Turner story. It’s not a biography, but it’s a song about who belongs to who.”
That’s a theme fitting of Morello’s dedication towards activism, and one that resonated throughout the Food Sovereignty Prize ceremony. Following “This Land Is Your Land,” Morello asked audience members to join him on the small stage and taught them the refrain to “World Wide Rebel Songs”: “Raise your voices all together/ Motherfucker here we come!”
“I apologize for the language,” joked Morello, “but the struggle for social justice is not rated PG-13!”