By Martin Smith
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 316

Picket lines and songs of protest

This article is over 14 years, 11 months old
Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello talks to Martin Smith about playing at stadiums, demonstrations and coffee shops.
Issue 316

Tom Morello strolls into the hotel lobby wearing an IWW baseball cap – the International Workers of the World or Wobblies as they are more commonly known were advocates of militant industrial trade unionism in the early part of the last century. He also carries an acoustic guitar, with the slogan “Whatever It Takes” painted on the front. By any definition Tom Morello is not your average rock star.

For those who don’t know, Tom is the guitarist in the Grammy award-winning group Rage Against the Machine (RATM). The band gained a huge following in the 1990s due to their pioneering mix of rap and hard rock, politically charged lyrics and solidarity efforts on behalf of low-wage workers, political prisoners and the Zapatista uprising in Mexico.

At the beginning of the millennium and out of the ashes of RATM, came the supergroup Audioslave. Seven years on Tom has just recorded and released his solo album, One Man Revolution, under the name of The Nightwatchman.

Tom explains, “I began the Nightwatchman project about five years ago as an antidote to the arena rock gigs Audioslave was performing. At that time I was also co-founder of the non-profit organisation Axis of Justice, which builds bridges between local political groups and music fans around the world.

“But it wasn’t enough for me. I am a musician and through my vocation I need to express my worldview, communicate and interact with an audience. So I signed up anonymously at open mic nights at coffee shops.

“The Nightwatchman began as a disguise. I didn’t want to turn up to these open mic sessions and have a load of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave fans expecting me to play those songs. I was literally coming off these arena tours playing to over 12,000 people a night and then playing in front of 12 people with a whirring latte machine drowning out the more subtle moments. Even in those early shows it felt like I was making music that really mattered to me. I wanted the time and space to develop my craft as a singer-songwriter.

“Around four years ago I was asked to go on tour with Billy Bragg and Steve Earle – I couldn’t be stopped. I was playing at every union rally, peace demonstration and everywhere duty called. It was like a one man revolution. It’s like all I do is pick up my guitar and off I go. There is no band meeting, no tour manager to negotiate with. It felt incredibly liberating. There is a line on the track Maximum Firepower which goes: ‘If you take a step towards freedom it’ll take two steps towards you.’ I found that to be true both personally and of society at large.”

As the title suggests, Tom’s new album, One Man Revolution, is a protest album – mixing influences ranging from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, right through to Steve Earle. It is one of those albums which, after you have heard it live, begins to lock into your subconscious. Tom explains how many of the songs were born out of his experiences on picket lines and at demonstrations.

“The track Union Song, was written in the aftermath of the Billy Bragg tour where I was tear-gassed during riots in Miami. I was disappointed that much of the music played at peace vigils and workers’ rallies was from the 1960s or even earlier. I thought we needed songs for now. Union Song was consciously written to be played for the striking grocery workers in Los Angeles. I was standing on these freezing cold picket lines – what was I supposed to do? Sing Kumbaya?

“I have played Union Song on the picket lines of grocery workers locked out in California, at rallies of janitors fighting for their union rights in Los Angeles, and on the picket lines and rallies of the Immokalee workers who took on the multinational fast food company Taco Bell.

“I wanted to be part of the cultural component of these struggles. My goal is to be the black Woody Guthrie.”

Tom admits, “Playing with Billy Bragg and Steve Earle was a real learning experience. While I have played thousands of gigs as an electric guitar player, I have only played a smattering of coffee shops as a singer-songwriter. So to be able to watch them every night helped me get the Nightwatchman project together.

“My first experience of playing with Billy Bragg was about 15 years ago at Reading Festival. I was impressed that alone with a guitar he was able to hold his own in a festival setting. Two days ago I was playing to 50,000 kids at the anti-G8 protest in Rostock, Germany. I was the only American playing that night and I wondered if I could win over the crowd and tame this beast. In fact the only beast that needed taming was the police with their water cannons and tear gas, who were pelting the crowd during the early part of my set.

“Another thing this Nightwatchman project has taught me is that you have to be totally fearless – whether it is playing to 12 people in a coffee house, 100 striking workers or 50,000 people at an anti-capitalist protest – there is no reason not to tell the truth as you see it.”

Tom takes great inspiration from his parents. His mother, Mary Morello, is an American-Italian-Irish civil rights and free speech advocate, and his father is the Kenyan revolutionary Ngethe Njoroge. And large numbers of strikers take great inspiration from Tom. He tells me stories about numerous picket lines and strikers’ rallies he has performed at.

“The Immokalee farm workers have been a great success for US trade unionism. These are the people who pick the produce for corporations like Taco Bell and McDonald’s. They defeated Taco Bell in 2005 after a four-year struggle. I would play the occasional benefit concert and we would encourage our fans to support the boycott in support of the strikers.

“The victory gave confidence to the workers to take on McDonald’s. The campaign started two months ago and was launched with a big rally. Me and Zack [de la Rocha the lead singer of RATM] got together and decided to reform the band after a seven-year break. But, just before the campaign was launched, McDonald’s caved in to the three major demands of the workers. The kick off for the campaign became a victory celebration. Our first gig together was the Immokalee workers’ rally.

“The LA Justice for Janitors campaign was also a great inspiration to me and thousands of others. They were the invisible people who shut downtown Los Angeles. A lot of the janitors are migrant workers-many are so called ‘illegal immigrants’. They really flexed their muscles and showed that if these offices aren’t clean then they can’t be opened. They organised waves of strikes. They won most of the concessions they fought for. But we have also had some setbacks. I have worked for years with Unite, the garment workers’ union, against sweatshop conditions at Guess jeans. We were reaching a tipping point in the campaign but Guess just picked up and moved out to Mexico.

“There is a new model of struggle developing in California. The first step has been the battle to reclaim May Day. Even though May Day originated in Chicago, it means nothing in the US. I mean, you don’t even get the day off. May Day has now become Immigrants’ Rights Day. Two years ago I played at the million-strong Immigrants’ Rights march in Los Angeles. The idea was that anyone who was an immigrant or a descendant of an immigrant was not to go to work on May Day.

“It was incredible, a million people wearing white T-shirts blocking all the streets of LA. It was a joyous peaceful protest. I played at this year’s 125,000-strong Immigrants’ Rights May Day demonstration in LA. There was a huge police riot where they beat up Spanish speaking journalists. Both demonstrations are a reminder that this country runs and works because of immigrant labour. Solidarity is a dirty word in the US and the five-letter word that is absolutely unspeakable is ‘class’. Therefore to have hundreds of thousands of working class people on the streets of LA demanding their rights is just incredible.

“When I play at these picket lines only about 15 percent of the audience are English speakers. So to be standing up there on a flat back truck in front of an ocean of Mexicans and Guatemalans can be overwhelming. I am glad that there is one line in Spanish in Union Song: ‘Si nos quedemos Juntos vamos a ganar? Si’ [If we stay together are we going to win? Yes.] I get far more out of doing these protest gigs than anything else I do.

“Only eight months ago I was called up by the LA hotel workers’ union and asked to take part in a campaign of mass civil disobedience. Hotel workers in LA earn 20 percent less than their counterparts elsewhere and their tips go straight to the bosses. Over 400 of us blocked the freeway. I was arrested and spent the night in jail. The protest got the case of the striking hotel workers on the front page of every LA newspaper. For me, being a musician and an activist go hand in hand.”

The last time I interviewed Tom for this magazine was in January 2000. A lot has happened since then. In political terms the biggest issue has been the war in Iraq. Tom was over in Britain last month promoting his new album. The only gig he played was a benefit for the Stop the War Coalition. He explains why he was keen to perform. “The idea of doing the gig in Britain was to show solidarity with the Stop the War Coalition.

“In parts The Nightwatchman is an ambassador, someone to let you know that there are millions of Americans who believe that George Bush is a war criminal and by association so is Tony Blair. This war is not a mistake, it is a war crime. First strike aggression against a sovereign nation is a term that came up at the Nuremberg Trials. The US government is sanctioning torture and secret rendition – it is enough to make Orwell spin in his grave.

“There is a song on my new album called No One Left written shortly after 9/11. It is a song which equates those suffering in the aftermath of 9/11 with those suffering in Iraq. Our government doesn’t even count Iraqi civilian casualties. I wanted to paint a true picture of the victims of terror – whether there are mothers, fathers or sons in the twin towers or mothers, fathers or sons in Fallujah. As soon as you put a human face on the victims of US aggression it creates empathy with them, hopefully one that cannot be denied.

“The anti-war movement in the US has put hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. Today many US artists have recorded songs attacking the war in Iraq. But the key is to tie that cultural expression to the anti-war movement. And on that front we still have some way to go. But the anti-war movement is also frustrated by the powerful monolith that is the Bush power structure. Last year the country voted Democrat because it wanted to end this war. And Bush, in true cavalier style, said, ‘You want to end the war? Well you have to send more troops over to Iraq.’ And what did the Democrats do? They rolled over like the lapdogs they are and granted him his wish.”

Tom has no illusions in the Democratic Party. “I worked for Democratic Californian senator Alan Cranston for two years. He was one of the most progressive senators the US has ever had. He was great on immigrant rights and issues like the environment. Yet he spent most of his time calling rich guys to ask them for money in order to mount his election campaign. In order to mount a presidential campaign you need hundreds of millions of dollars. That money does not come from teachers, longshoremen or carpenters, it comes from people who have hundreds of millions of dollars and it does not come for free.

“I live in a one-party state – a capitalist party with two right wings. We don’t choose between the lesser of two evils; we choose between the evil of two lessers. I believe we are living under the worst administration in the history of the republic. I am not saying that there are not shades of difference between the two parties, but for real change there is going to have to be a reorganisation of society and how we run the world.

“As long as we put up with this two shades system then we get what we deserve. The only way to get out of this mess is to take bold steps.”

Tom is optimistic about the future. He traces the growth of a new movement back to the 1999 protests at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle. But he adds, “9/11 and Bush’s climate of fear took the wind out of the sails of the anti-globalisation movement. Over the last few years we have seen the rise of a number of social movements. Firstly there has been the anti-war movement and now climate change and migrant workers’ struggles are on the agenda.”

Rage Against The Machine are doing six gigs in the summer in the US. There are no plans for a tour in Britain. But in the autumn Tom will be picking up his guitar and touring Britain. It will be one not to miss.

The final words must go to Tom: “I would like to say to socialists in Britain that you are not alone. Even in the belly of the beast there are hundreds of thousands of us fighting for a just world. I feel the tide is turning. Our job in the US and Britain is to keep pushing.”

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