“I don’t have 10 more woot-woots in me,” Tom Morello jokes after banging through a ferocious version of his “Flesh Shapes the Day” at the YouTube Studios in L.A. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, middle of the day, and Morello has fought through traffic to get to the Playa Del Rey location, is rushing to make another appointment and has spent the weekend before celebrating his 49th birthday. Yet he still summons the energy for a performance so intense the crew marvels later that he didn’t break a string on his guitar.
His energy comes from the cause he’s playing for: raising awareness in the fight against poverty as the leaders of the eight wealthiest nations get set for the latest G8 summit. U2 frontman Bono recruited Morello with a phone call asking him to join his One Campaign’s latest iteration, agit8, which finds several musicians performing decades of protest music. For instance, Mumford & Sons and Elvis Costello are performing Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and Kid Rock is tackling Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”
On the third take of “Flesh Shapes the Day,” Morello punctuates the tune with an emphatic foot stomp that shakes the floor of the state of the art studio, then hops in a car with Rolling Stone to spend the next 40 minutes in traffic talking about protest music, why Rage Against the Machine’s song “Killing in the Name” continues to endure and how dealing with racism in Libertyville, Illinois, shaped his own activism.
How did you get involved with the campaign?
Bono called me on up and said that the One was doing a campaign in conjunction with the G8 aimed at eliminating extreme poverty in our lifetime. The theme of the event is protest and progress and the idea that our efforts historically and currently are not in vain, extreme poverty has been halved over the course of the last 20 or so years and there’s the good chance with continued pressure of the 99 percent that extreme poverty can be eliminated.
He’s very persuasive.
It didn’t take much persuading. It’s my belief that poverty is not something that happens, poverty is a crime where there are victims and there are criminals. The elimination of the world’s worst poverty is one of the crucial projects of our lifetime, to level the playing field so that everyone, no matter where they are born, no matter what their circumstances, has a chance at a decent life, of health and dignity.
Talk about the importance then of a campaign like this in a time when news outlets, social media and grassroots sites can hold people more accountable.
One of the things that have been most influential in moving the meter in regards to economic tyranny and inequality has been the protests surrounding the meetings of organizations like the G8. The G8 cannot meet, they have to have these huge two-story fences and the local army of whatever country they’re in to protect them because people are so pissed at the crimes that they’ve committed around the globe. Those are voices that have not been raised in vain and that message has gotten through, that there is this counterweight to greed and that is people by the tens of millions clamoring for economic justice. And those people need a soundtrack, which is what this particular event is about.
If you’re going to have a movement it does need a soundtrack and this is an all-encompassing soundtrack.
Protest movements, by their very nature, create protest music and protest music, by its very nature, helps create protestors and encourage them and steel their backbones during the difficult times and celebrate their victories and honor their martyrs. Some of the songs that are being played are artists covering one another’s reverent anthems of the past and broadcasting them to the globe for the next generation of world changers.
Also the campaign has the ability to turn people on to new generations of music, like Ed Sheeran covering Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” or Mumford & Sons and Elvis Costello singing “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
I think that’s the responsibility of each generation to put forward the music for that generation’s struggles. When I was in heavy metal bands in the late Eighties, you can’t expect people in those bands to know Joe Hill’s catalogue or Pete Seeger’s and now you can’t count on people knowing those songs you mentioned or “Killing in the Name.” That one continues to resonate through the ages, I have a feeling. Protest songs do a number of different things: one is that they cast curses at the foes of justice, one is they sing the praises of those at the barricades, and the thing is distilled in “Killing in the Name,” and it’s Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography, he said, “The moment I was freed from slavery is not when I was released physically from my bonds. It was when master said yes and I said no.” And that is, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” Rejection of illegitimate authority is the engine of human progress, of social progress. And it rocks.
Do you remember your first moment of liberation?
I remember mine very clearly, it was at a daycare place and I was the only black kid in the all-white town, I literally integrated the town of Libertyville, Illinois, so of course I was the only black kid in the daycare. So there was this older kid who would N-word me, I was probably four, and this kid was like seven. I felt horrible so I went home and told my mom and Mary Morello is no one to trifle with, so she Malcolm X’ed me and armed me with some cracker-ass thing to say back, she showed me how to make a fist and said if that person says that again say this and slug him. I’m like, “Slug that kid? That kid’s huge.” I dutifully went to the daycare the next day, the kid pushed me and name-called me and I said whatever it was my mom told me to say and threw the best punch I had. A big scrum broke out at the daycare and the person supervising, it was brought to their attention what was going on and I got to watch with smug glee as they got their mouth washed out in front of everybody there. I was like, “There’s something to this standing up.”
What are the definitive protest songs for you?
It’s different songs at different times because I believe that protest music need not have protest lyrics. I think that the radical departure of John Coltrane’s solos is as reorienting as an NWA song. So, for me, I was drawn to the aggression of hard rock and a song like “School’s Out” was one of my first anthems of defiance. Then it was the Clash and the Sex Pistols that kind of distilled that defiance, then Public Enemy right on the heels of that. At that point my defiance was being sharpened by the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground as much as it was by anything in a song. And then my own existence is some of the racism I saw, like I had a noose in my family’s garage when I was 13 years old, that gives you a different idea of how the world is ordered. You don’t need someone to sing you a protest song to know that shit ain’t right when the Klan is visiting your family’s home in the middle of the night.
Having gone through that does it make you feel like you have to speak up?
Absolutely, your one responsibility is to be honest in your art and to never hide your convictions in your vocation. Like I have a worldview that must come out in what I do. It’s one of the reasons I chose that particular song, “Flesh Shapes the Day.” It’s an album track from One Man Revolution, it’s not John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but it’s a song that really distills my position about the protest and progress. History was taught to me in school as a stultifying set of dates and facts that happened in the past, that had nothing to do with my existence. It was a boring subject, as opposed to the fact history is being made by somebody right now. You can let it be somebody else or you can put your hands on the wheel of history and steer the fucking planet in a direction that is more sane and just. I choose the latter.
In this day and age of craziness, where everything seems magnified because of the Internet, do you see direct results where you help people by speaking up?
Music is key because it builds a bridge, like I was wound up about a lot of stuff in Libertyville, Illinois, but there was no bridge to do anything. It was the Clash, for me, sang about stuff that made sense and I was interested in. It wasn’t groupies and wizards (laughs), it was unemployment and death squads in Central America, it was stuff that was on my mind and it also made me think there were opinions beyond the narrow ones in my little existence. “Maybe you can get out there and do something and maybe you can do it with a guitar.”