This past weekend, musicians and activists convened in Missouri to commemorate the first anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown. Alongside panels featuring luminaries such as Cornel West, Talib Kweli organized two shows in St. Louis, which included the Tom Morello–headlined Ferguson Rocks show featuring the guitarist’s Freedom Fighter Orchestra, Boots Riley, Outernational and Steffanie Christi’an.
For the outspoken rocker, who released the song “Marching on Ferguson” last fall, what happened a year ago to Michael Brown and the continued injustices towards black Americans at the hands of police officers is more than just a worthy cause he’s attaching his name to; it’s a reflection of his own experiences as a black man growing up in the predominantly white suburb of Libertyville, Illinois. “A few years ago, I was walking home from a bar in Libertyville at night, when two squad cars pulled over and handcuffed me in the streets of my hometown,” he recalls. “Their excuse was that someone had been breaking into cars. Countless times pulled over in my old van in Beverley Hills when I first moved [to L.A.]. It’s not a foreign concept. It’s not like I’m flying in to go see what racism is like. It still remains a prevalent, underlying fact of American life. The more we continue to resist it, the better it’s going to be.”
Morello spoke with Rolling Stone on Friday, just before flying out to Missouri. He reflected on his own relationship with racial injustice and all that has happened in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting.
Police brutality existed long before Michael Brown’s death and has continued to be a major issue in the year since. What do you think made his shooting such a turning point?
Yeah, there are thousands of cases, countless cases of white police officers murdering unarmed black people and getting off scot-free. What happened in Ferguson was that the community reacted in a way that was newsworthy on a global scale. If there had been one prayer circle and everybody singing “Kumbaya,” that would’ve been completely swept under the rug. The outrage of there being no indictment really cast a global light on the kind of racism that is America’s original sin. The Michael Brown case was the first domino in the 21st Century that we’ve seen. I don’t need to remind you how; all you have to do is turn on the news every two to three days. Horrendous incidents. But now people have their cameras. If there had not been an uprising in Ferguson, there would not have been indictments in Baltimore. There’s a greater vigilance.
There are plenty of police officers who are not racist and endeavor to do a good job and do not inflict violence with a racial bias. But what’s a good cop? A good cop is one who exposes, denounces and prosecutes racist cops in their own ranks, and that is not happening. That’s the key. It’s one thing to say it may or may not be a small minority who harbor these views and act on them, but if police officers generally and literally turn their backs on criticism and the patently obvious genetic problem in police forces across the country, then they’re not part of the solution; they’re still part of the problem.
Do you think that most people have forgotten about Michael Brown and what happened a year ago?
Not at all. Michael Brown was the first domino. Police murders of black people [are] as American as apple pie or baseball. What is also as American as apple pie or baseball is resistance to that injustice.
“Police murders of black people [are] as American as apple pie or baseball.”
How does the type of racism that exists in towns like Ferguson or your home of Libertyville differ from other places?
Ferguson appears to be a more ethnically diverse community than the one that I grew up in. In Libertyville, there were crosses burned on front lawns in the Eighties. Los Angeles certainly isn’t a city that’s devoid of racism, but you don’t feel quite as uncomfortable walking hand-in-hand with your interracial bride at a truck stop late at night as you would between Libertyville and St. Louis.
What was your experience growing up biracial?
I literally integrated the town of Libertyville, Illinois, according to the realtor. At one year old, I was the only black person residing within its borders. My political friends often ask, “Oh, how did you become politicized? Was it by reading Noam Chomsky?” It was when I was in kindergarten on the playground and people called me names and tripped out on my hair and the color of my skin. It was from those very early experiences that I was like, “Man, shit’s just not right.”
The good news is, I had a mom named Mary Morello who still remains the most radical member of the Morello family. In an early instance at a daycare, this kid was N-wording me and beating me up. One day, my mom asked me— I was probably four or five years old — what was wrong. I told her, and she was furious. I thought she was going to go and tell the head of the preschool. Instead, she gave me something to say to the bully. I don’t remember what it was, but it was something like “cracker-ass cracker” [laughs]. It was something I had to memorize, because I didn’t know what it was! She even showed me how to make a fist. The next day, I go back to the daycare place and the kid’s on me, N-wording me and holding me down. So I recite whatever I’m supposed to say, and I’m trying to slug this kid. Such a ruckus ensued that the daycare provider finally paid attention, came over and got to the bottom of the matter. I stood smugly by the side of the sink as the bully’s mouth was washed out with soap. I said, “Oh, there is something to this resisting-oppression business.”
As an adult, how do you navigate predominantly white spaces like the world of rock music?
I think my circumstances are somewhat unique because I was the only black kid in an all-white town, and I was the only anarchist in a conservative high school, and I was the only heavy-metal musician at Harvard University [laughs].
That’s a good title to have.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. And I was the only Harvard black rocker in the Hollywood rock scene [laughs]. So, it was kind of unique circumstances. While I grew up completely immersed in white culture, with metal and all that, I always self-identified as black, not as half white. I think in part, the skin you are in defines you, and I was in a way sort of defined by the racism of the place I lived in. It was only in my thirties when a friend of mine said to me like, “Dude, you realize you’re half white, right?” I was like, “Oh, yeah. I suppose that’s accurate.” It’s always been a long convo, like one of the ways that it manifested itself early when I first started playing guitar was I intentionally shied away from admitting Jimi Hendrix was an influence or playing Jimi Hendrix songs because “Of course the black guitar player would play Jimi Hendrix” [laughs]. Like why can’t Randy Rhoads be my favorite guitar player? Why does it have to be Jimi Hendrix?
Because my heritage is African, as well, as opposed to “American negro” — that was always sort of a wild card. Now I raise my kids who — my wife is of Italian descent — are biracial again, but they have a very different circumstance living here. We have to teach them about injustice; they don’t feel it on a daily basis.
I remember there was a lot of fear going on. I was fearful. The Klan came up my driveway, opened the garage door, tied a noose in my family’s garage, silently closed the door and then snuck out as a message. This happened to me when I was 13. My mom was a public high-school teacher in Libertyville; she regularly had the little string that holds the film screen tied into a noose. There was Klan and sort of neo-Nazi propaganda stapled onto her bulletin board. There was kind of an underpinning of, “Geez, somebody wants to hurt you because of the color of your skin.” It is one of the chips on my shoulder in the music that I make and one that drives me to keep fighting for a world where that shit doesn’t go down.
Since Ferguson, the topic of representation has come up a lot more, especially when it comes to visible figures for young people of color. Who was visible for you and how do you utilize your own visibility as a black rock musician?
There certainly weren’t any present dark-skinned role models [for me]. There was a picture of my great-uncle Jomo Kenyatta hanging on the wall of my family’s house. I discovered the Black Panthers and books about the Black Panthers when I was a kid. I was like, “Oh, my gosh! There’s a whole different way of looking at this!” Especially from the way it was presented in my junior high and high school. And Dr. King and Malcolm X were my African-American role models.
In terms of political identity, not race, bands like the Clash and Public Enemy [helped me] weave my convictions into my vocation. You can sing about the things that really matter to you and that are in your life and that piss you off and that have defined you in a way that feels both cathartic as an artist and may connect with people beyond your own block.
“Bands like the Clash and Public Enemy [helped me] weave my convictions into my vocation.”
Every once in a while I’ll talk with a non-white person who is like, “You’re the guitar player who made me play!” Guitar playing, in a way, is kind of a post-racial world now. In some ways, it should be a model [laughs]. It didn’t use to be that way. I think that probably Rage Against the Machine had something to do with that, but bands don’t have to look like Led Zeppelin in order to rock hard. If you pick up Guitar Player magazine, you’ll find a wide array of ethnicities of people who play distorted guitar these days. I think that’s a healthy thing.
Post-Ferguson, many musicians have become more vocal on issues of racial injustice. You’ve always spoken up on police brutality and racism. What are your thoughts on the role of artists in situations like the uprising in Ferguson?
There are a number of ways to effect change. The uprising in Ferguson and Baltimore and also the peaceful protests around the country in the wake of numerous events of unarmed African-Americans being murdered by the police have moved the meter, but I think the fundamental, underlying problem remains. Frankly, while some change is important, little change has happened. Music is our revenge. Music is our expression. Music is our liberation. That’s where they can’t touch us.
Especially with the way police in Ferguson and recently Baltimore have pushed back at any type of protest in those cities, do you fear any type of resistance?
If you have opinions and you’re expressing them and there’s no pushback, then your opinions probably aren’t worth much. There has been some turnover in the Ferguson police department in the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder, but last year, a police officer encouraged his police dog to urinate on the memorial. Squad cars ran over and destroyed the memorial. Officers were caught on camera saying, “C’mon, you fucking animals, bring it” to peaceful protestors. Those sentiments, I’m guessing, have not been entirely expunged, but we have a point of view too. My sentiment is that nobody can give you your freedom. Nobody can give you your equality. Nobody can give you justice. You have to take it.
What should a person who does not have a platform like yours be doing in a continuous effort to resist?
Speaking out is key. As Martin Luther King famously said, “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral conflict.” Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. To think that this does not apply to you because of the color of your skin or your political persuasion is absolute bullshit. Racism is America’s problem. Over the course of the last year since Michael Brown has been on the front page, what has been known by many of us for a long time has now been exposed on a global scale. There is an endemic problem of police violence against the African-American community that is wholly disproportionate and unjust. It needs to be addressed, and it needs to be confronted.
In the year since Michael Brown’s death, it seems like progress has been made, but then we read yet another news story about another black person being shot. From your perspective, what will progress look like for our country?
We need to recognize that the problem is systemic. It’s not just a few bad apples. The way the police force has worked for centuries in this country has a racist underpinning. It can’t be washed away by a few good cops doing the right thing. Not in totality, but there is an us-against-them mentality that has to be confronted. Do they serve and protect? Who do they serve and who do they protect? The residents of Ferguson do not believe that they are there in any way, shape or form to serve them or protect them. Nor do the police!
I have a number of good friends and friendly acquaintances who are policemen. After a few beers, they are willing to tell stories that are just so outrageously lawbreaking, you wouldn’t believe! I won’t breach confidence because they’re friends, but it’s not a bunch of do-gooders out there. Part of the problem is this code of silence, where if any politician or rock band or whatever dares to suggest that [the police] may be anything other than knights in shining armor riding white unicorns, you’re some sort of treasonous animal, to use their words. That’s just not the case. Facts are facts. I love to play benefit shows, but I’m not a humanitarian; I’m a hell-raiser. Those voices are necessary on days like the one-year anniversary of the police murder of Michael Brown.