Prophets of Rage, the rock supergroup led by Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, was scheduled to play inside the state prison in Norco, California. The show was cancelled at the last minute Wednesday afternoon by the California Department of Corrections after it had allegedly been planned for months. The band responded with an abbreviated three-song set just outside the penitentiary walls.
“We made a promise to the inmates inside that we would play,” Morello said from a small stage built on a public road. “We wanted to keep that promise.”
The stage faced a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire as a guard tower stood above. Behind the band were grassy fields filled with young football players and their parents. The supergroup of Rage Against the Machine members with rappers Chuck D and B-Real performed the songs “Prophets of Rage,” “The Party’s Over” and “Bulls on Parade” at full force. (On the original set list, but not performed, was written “No Sleep Till Norco.”)
As the band played, excited voices could be heard from the other side of the fence, shouting “Rage Against the Machine!” and “Fight the system!”
“We got shut down because the powers that be in Sacramento thought we were going to try and incite some kind of racial riot,” drummer Brad Wilk told Rolling Stone, moments before the impromptu set. “It just really sucks because anytime we can have an opportunity to play in front of people and inspire people in a positive manner … is always a good thing. That was taken away today.”
The prison concert was to be hosted by Jail Guitar Doors, the charity co-founded by MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer that donates musical instruments to jails and prisons as a means to rehabilitation and self-expression. The program leads workshops in songwriting and performance across the country. Morello has been an active supporter of the group, performing during prison visits and fundraising concerts.
In his onstage introduction of the band, Kramer called himself “a musician, but for a few years I was 00180190. I lived in a place just like on the other side of that fence,” referring to his time served for a federal drug conviction in the 1970s. “I’m here today to carry a message of positivity to the people on the other side of that fence.”
Kramer and the band noted that the prison had welcomed the Jail Guitar Doors program and approved the concert, but the cancellation came from the state capital of Sacramento. A JGD spokesman said a state prison official insisted the cancellation was the fault of “not adequate time” given for security clearances for the band and media, though Kramer told Rolling Stone the performance had been planned for months.
Chuck D told Rolling Stone that the audience was originally supposed to be 700 prisoners who had earned the privilege through good behavior. The band planned to donate equipment after their set on the prison yard.
“When you talk about live music and talking to people, you’re talking about opening up a future,” said Chuck D, whose first performance at a prison was with Public enemy at Rikers in New York in 1988. “Every little second of light and hope is a good thing. That’s the true meaning of rehabilitation.”