The presidential election campaign in the United States is chugging along at an obnoxious pace. Now that Republican candidate Mitt Romney has chosen U.S. congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, media spotlights are predictably overexposing the potential vice president. In a recent sweeping profile, the conservative candidate cited Rage Against the Machine – the notorious left-leaning rap-metal quartet that rose to prominence in the 1990s – as one of his favourite bands.
On the surface it’s an oddly amusing dichotomy. But RATM guitarist Tom Morello was offended enough by the notion of having a fan in Ryan to write a distancing op-ed. In it, Morello briefly outlines the basic social and political ideological differences between the candidate and the band, and points out that Ryan “likes the [band's] sound and not the lyrics.” This brief and superficial confrontation in the media lends itself to the typical over-simplified conservative/liberal American political discourse. It overshadows the cultural influence of political art and the innovative vehicles that can carry it. In the early 1990s, Rage Against the Machine used popular culture to speak to marginalized peoples with politics and music. As an Anishinaabe youth on the reserve, they became my favourite band.
I was 13 years old when their self-titled debut came out in the fall of 1992. My family lived in a small corner of our community with no access to popular radio or cable television. By that point I had become obsessed with music of all genres thanks to the influence of my parents and friends. But I had no easy pipeline to new music, and could only read about bands that sounded exciting in magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin. I first read about RATM in those magazines, and the “political rap-rock” descriptors I had seen over and over in print intrigued me. Eventually, I convinced myself I had to hear it somehow.
Back then, the Toronto Star had a service called “Starphone”. I read about it in the entertainment section. It was a toll-free number readers could call for various information, including new music previews. Although it was a free call, I wasn’t sure what my parents would think of me listening to music over the phone, so one day I ripped the number out of the paper and went up to the band office to give it a shot on the pay phone there. After punching through the various options on the key pad, I was thrilled to discover Starphone had in fact clips of the first three songs from Rage Against the Machine. All I needed to hear was the first minute of “Bombtrack” and I was sold. It was a riff stronger than anything I’d heard on my mom and dad’s Zeppelin tapes under a mesmerizing and electrifying rap vocal track. Even over the phone, it was the most unique music I had ever heard, so the next time we went to the mall in town I used my allowance to buy the CD.
In the following months I listened to the album almost daily. It was loud, aggressive, and innovative. I never knew that basic guitar, bass, and drums could make riffs, rhythms, and noises that compelling. But at the core, the instruments became just the powerful foundation for influential lyrics that were emblematic of my own experience.
At the time Indigenous peoples in Canada were becoming a more formidable political force than ever. The Oka resistance of 1990 created a broad ripple effect of pride and cultural revival in the years that followed. The original people of the land were fighting for their spot in the political mainstream, all the while turning to the old ways for strength and support. As a young teen, I enthusiastically embraced this renewed spirit that I saw blossoming all around me. And I also saw this movement reflected in the lyrics of RATM frontman Zack de la Rocha. Verses like these became intensely profound:
Holes in our spirit causin’ tears and fears
One-sided stories for years and years and years
I’m inferior? Who’s inferior?
Yeah, we need to check the interior
Of the system that cares about only one culture
And that is why
We gotta take the power back
On top of that, de la Rocha himself has Indigenous roots in Mexico, and up until that point I had never seen anyone Native in a big mainstream rock band. He spoke to me.
Then, the following summer I finally saw their video for “Freedom” at my cousin’s in Barrie (as mentioned, we didn’t have cable TV and Muchmusic on the rez). The clip pays tribute to jailed Lakota/Anishinaabe activist Leonard Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement who many believe was wrongly convicted of killing two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in South Dakota in 1975. I had only heard stories of Peltier through my father and other activists. Now I was seeing his story broadcast to millions via a pop culture channel. It was surreal, but it solidified RATM as my favourite band in the world.
That admiration continued throughout my teen years. I made my friends turn down the music at a party so we could watch them premiere “Bulls on Parade” on Saturday Night Live prior to the release of Evil Empire. I saw them live for the first time when I was 18, on student exchange in northern Germany at the Go Bang Festival. I got to see them a few more times in the years that followed, notably in front a tumultuous crowd at the Palace of Auburn Hills north of Detroit in the fall of 1999, introduced on-stage by filmmaker Michael Moore. To me, they’re all fun and proud memories that still make my hair stand on end. But most importantly, they taught me to embrace who I was and to be critical of the evolving world around me.
At the same time, the irony of a band making a fortune off of its music and continuing to point fingers at the rich was never lost on me. And when art becomes politicized, it tends to date itself and thus threatens to dilute its own message as the years go on. RATM broke up in 2000, but has since played numerous reunion shows in recent years. When bands go that nostalgic route, I’ve always perceived it as a money-making scheme and have a hard time taking it seriously. I haven’t seen them live since they got back together.
Still, band members have chosen contemporary battles to fight, and as petty as this Ryan/Morello discord is, it’s proven that political art can always be relevant. The music, lyrics, and causes that Rage Against the Machine immortalized back in the 1990s are still easily accessible and just as pertinent today. There are marginalized youth in countries around the world; especially on reserves here in Canada. And if a song like “Township Rebellion” starts the same fire in a kid today as it did in me 20 years ago, the awareness and unity these artistic movements can foster will never die.