“People always ask me, ‘Why aren’t there artists writing lyrics like Public Enemy or the Clash or Rage Against the Machine?'” Tom Morello says. “And my answer is always, ‘There are. They may not be currently at the top of the chart and you have to seek to find them, but there are.'”
Now the guitarist, known for his work in Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and the Nightwatchman, has helped make a home for them: Firebrand Records. “The label gives you one-stop shopping for all your rebel-music needs,” he tells Rolling Stone with a laugh. “It’s the kind of label that I wish had existed my entire artistic life.”
Firebrand, which Morello co-founded with Ryan Harvey of the Riot-Folk Collective, launches today with a digital sampler of music by Harvey and some of the not-yet-famous activist musicians Morello says are still out there: Egyptian revolutionary Ramy Essam, San Francisco indie rockers Built for the Sea, Swedish punks Lycka Till and Bronx-based post-rock singer Bell’s Roar, among others. Hear the compilation’s lead track, “It’s Like That” – a grimy screed about police-on-citizen violence by Baltimore rapper Son of Nun – below.
“This song is before and after Black Lives Matter,” Son of Nun tells Rolling Stone. “It’s the same song we’ve been singing since we got off the boat. Y’all just haven’t been paying attention. It’s about fighting for each other in the face of white supremacy, seeing connections with other people’s struggles, and recognizing our own power.”
For Morello, it’s the sort of social salvo he feels embodies the label’s mission. “Firebrand artists are black, white, Arab, Jewish, men, women, queer, straight, folk, punk, hard rock, hip-hop, but they all have one thing in common: They play music with a sense of purpose to create a more just planet,” Morello says. “There’s no other label like Firebrand that exists, and I think in these troubled times successful social movements always require a great soundtrack – we aim to provide it.”
How did Firebrand Records come together?
My partner in crime in this, my co-conspirator Ryan Harvey, and I have been friends for a long time. He’s a true-blue folk rebel. We’ve played in tear-gas clouds and on the frontlines of the global struggle together for years. We were sitting around, and he was talking about an idea that he had for a record company and I’ve long mulled the notion of having a politically-oriented label, so we combined forces and Firebrand is the result.
Who is this label for?
There are always artists on the frontlines of social justice struggles, and now they have one home and one label. But first and foremost the music has to be great. It’s not just like, “Hey, you wrote a song about Guatemala labor unions, come on our label” [laughs]. There’s an extensive vetting process. Separating the wheat from the chaff is key.