We are still an agonizingly long way away from the end of this presidential election cycle. What remains of the franchised voting public is forced to choose between a corporate fascist who wants to strip anyone who isn’t a white male of the right to exist, and a well-qualified but nonetheless scandal-plagued foreign policy expert who attended said fascist’s wedding. In these trying times, the people require guidance from those who have lived through past revolutionary cycles and can apply their learnings to the needs of the present moment. But who can unite us in spirit to take some sort of collective action towards an aim far greater than the sum of our self-interest?
Enter the Prophets of Rage, a supergroup composed of Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford of Rage Against the Machine (Frontman Zack de la Rocha declined to participate in the project), Chuck D and DJ Lord of Public Enemy, and B-Real of Cypress Hill. These musical legends united because they could “no longer stand on the sidelines of history.” Because “Dangerous times demand dangerous songs,” this collective plans to fight fire with fire, drawing on a catalogue of some of the great protest songs of the late 20th century to unite and mobilize the masses at this historic juncture.
When I saw that Prophets of Rage would be making a “surprise” appearance on Sunday of Governor’s Ball after I’d purchased a single day ticket for Friday1I will do everything in my power to see The Strokes play if they are within 50 miles of me at any point in time, I just assumed that I must not be worthy of experiencing them live. But at the eleventh hour, fate intervened. Heavy rains cancelled their set at the #branded “Bacardi House” stage on the final day of the festival, and once it was announced the Prophets would be playing a makeup show at The Warsaw in Greenpoint (the former Polish National Home that seems to magnetically attract punk and hardcore reunion shows like this one), I dropped what I was doing and made my way down to wait in line for two hours until tickets went on sale. While Live Nation and the NYPD conspired to cancel shows for more innocuous rappers in the wake of a violent incident at Irving Plaza the week before, somehow I would get to see this incendiary group of artists whose message more directly threatened the forces of oppression. As the friends who joined me in line and I walked away with our wristbands to kill the few hours before doors opened, I couldn’t escape the sense that we might witness something special, maybe even historic.
Rage Against the Machine was an important part of my musical and political development. Though I was more likely to rage against homework or my inability to get girls to talk to me than NAFTA or the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier, their music was an instant outlet for frustrations I had only just begun to understand- A lyric like “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” resonates at any age. As I became interested in politics, their music went from being a visceral experience to a more thought-provoking one. The juxtaposition of genres, the quiet/loud dynamics and Tom Morello’s unorthodox approach to guitar were meant to shake you from your complacency enough for Zach De La Rocha’s manifestos to penetrate your consciousness. His rhymes were in service of ideas that mattered. His anger gave a voice to those who could not speak up for themselves. Collectively, Rage opened my eyes to the possibility that hip hop and hardcore- two genres I was just beginning to explore- could serve a higher purpose. Their rage wasn’t an empty signifier, but an earnest declaration that corruption, greed and violence will no longer be tolerated by those who are left out of the history books.
Similarly, Public Enemy was a formidable advocate for social change within the realm of hip hop. As Shea Serrano argues in his entry on Public Enemy in the excellent Rap Year Book, songs like “Fight the Power,” “Bring the Noise” and “911 is a Joke” elevated Chuck D to the status of a black revolutionary, even if he was reluctant to assume the mantle. There’s no denying the instrumental role he played in elevating hip hop to a higher plane of consciousness. And while I admittedly latched onto Public Enemy later in life, their alignment with what Rage also stood for is undeniable.
While De La Rocha insisted on sitting out, it was my hope that Tom Morello and Chuck D could rekindle the fires burning within them to light our pathway out of the darkness. As they took the stage, I was ready for Prophets of Rage to arm us with the tools we needed to rebuild the infrastructure of our crumbling democracy.
The Prophets opened their set by weaving together the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep to Brooklyn” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” indicating that the night would be at least as much of a celebration of history as a present-oriented political rally. Chuck D then used the Governor’s Ball cancellation as an opportunity to educate the crowd about former New York governor Nelson D. Rockefeller’s2apparently the namesake for Governor’s Island, where the festival was originally held draconian sentencing laws that saw non-violent drug offenders (disproportionately nonwhite) incarcerated for a minimum of 15 years on possession charges. “Governor’s ball? More like Governor’s balls,” Chuck D declared, inciting the audience to chant “deez nutz” as a way to get back at the late governor. However, that moment (and the presence of Tom Morello’s famous directive to “ARM THE HOMELESS” scrawled on his guitar) would be the only real instance of a political dialogue with the present audience.
There was a mutual exchange of exuberance between artists and audience, stemming from the years of intense anticipation for this exact moment. No doubt there were members of the audience who had waited two-plus decades to lose their shit during the heavy sections of “Bomb Track” or “Bullet in the Head” or had dreamed of seeing Chuck D with a live backing band, and the Prophets clearly fed off the kinetic energy in the room. The way Tom Morello used his guitar to pantomime the chorus to Cypress Hill’s “Shoot ‘Em Up” and generally throw himself about the stage made it clear that the chance to perform these songs with these people (still) meant a hell of a lot to him.
Speaking of Morello, it’s worth seeing Prophets of Rage live just to see how he deconstructs the very idea of what it means to play a guitar. He’s always had the unique ability to conjure almost any sound you could think of from his six-string, and it’s fascinating to see how the (vegan) sausage gets made up close. His is a highly visual style of playing that simulates turntable scratches with fretwork and a toggle switch, two-handed tapping runs (used to introduce Public Enemy’s “Shut ‘Em Down”), and sometimes, even no guitar at all: he played the solo to “Testify” by unplugging his guitar to rhythmically tap his amp cable against the palm of his other free hand. I was about a football field away from Tom when I saw Rage Against the Machine almost a decade ago, so standing no more than ten feet from him as he sipped water while effortlessly hammering out the verse riff of “Know Your Enemy” with one hand was something I’ll never forget.
The amount of sweat worked up by the crowd alone was enough to indicate that Prophets of Rage played an unforgettable set. But as the band took their curtain call with fists raised aloft, I was left to wonder if the experience was everything I hoped it would be. It’s not that songs like “Bulls on Parade” and “Prophets of Rage” have lost their meaning in our post-9/11 world- if anything, they carry more weight. It’s just that this felt like a unique opportunity to capitalize on an historic moment, a chance to fan the flames of a widespread progressive movement in this country before its embers die out. It was a cathartic experience, but the frustration they so successfully distilled seemed to vanish into the open air as I walked out of the doors of the Warsaw without proper marching orders3but hey, at least Chris Rock was there and we all gave him a huge round of applause when he appeared at the end of the set.
Was it wrong for me to expect sage wisdom from these Prophets? They may be more aware of their status and the makeup of their audience than most bands, but that doesn’t mean they’re under any obligation to proscribe doctrine or lead a charge into battle (and without Rage’s most outspoken member on board, no less). Is it that Chuck D., Morello & co. fear coming off as patronizing now that the internet makes it impossible to have the same kind of monopoly on being “woke” that they did circa ‘92? In an age when a live performance “Bullet in the Head” can be live streamed to thousands of people on Facebook from a goddamn cellphone, what obligation exists for them to echo information that we can access at moment’s notice? Is it that protest musicians can no longer credibly occupy the same role as educator in the age of Wikileaks, retweets and dank memes? Aren’t we all just living in a video game simulation anyway?
It’s silly to get wrapped up in the politics of musicians when there are real issues at stake elsewhere. But if I’m to maintain my faith in what Rage Against the Machine represented, the whole Prophets of Rage project must be more than just a standard nostalgia cash-in that so many of their rockstar peers are guilty of. If they’re going to invoke their shared legacy of speaking principled truth to power, the failure to deliver on that promise in the present makes the whole exercise seem disappointingly cynical. Without an explicit effort on some level to shake the 2016 status quo, “Make America Rage Again” becomes as empty of a signifier as any of the other “Make America ______ Again” parodies that diminish just how fucking terrifying of a prospect restoring America’s “greatness” could be. When the hatred and greed of the right grows louder and more vile by the hour, a reliance on the messages and tactics of the past alone feels insufficient.
The real test of Prophets of Rage’s commitment to their purported cause will come in Cleveland on July 19th. That’s when they plan to “cause a ruckus” at (or near)4their tour info still lists the Cleveland venue as “TBD”the Republican National Convention, a coronation ceremony for a compulsive liar who used the senseless murder of 49 LGTBQ individuals as an opportunity to congratulate himself for being an islamophobe. Trump’s rallies have already spawned protests and violence, and you better believe that representatives from the many, many segments of American society that he has dehumanized will be lining up to let their disgust be known. Mix in a city whose police department does not believe Black Lives Matter and a class of self-loathing party elites whose only greater fear than a Trump presidency is their loss of status within the morally bankrupt world of the modern GOP and you’ve got the recipe for a sequel to Chicago ‘68.
Morello, Commemford and Wilk already performed at the 2000 DNC in their past life as Rage Against the Machine, protesting against Al Gore of all people. It’s my hope that Prophets of Rage can galvanize those fighting to preserve democracy, claiming their place in history alongside other protest musicians who understood the moment and what they could do to change it. But I’ll settle for them calling out Paul Ryan for being the world’s most hypocritical Rage Against the Machine fan. I guess there are always smaller ways to start taking the power back.
[Feature image courtesy of the artist’s Facebook page]
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|1.||↵||I will do everything in my power to see The Strokes play if they are within 50 miles of me at any point in time|
|2.||↵||apparently the namesake for Governor’s Island, where the festival was originally held|
|3.||↵||but hey, at least Chris Rock was there and we all gave him a huge round of applause when he appeared at the end of the set|
|4.||↵||their tour info still lists the Cleveland venue as “TBD”|