When 50,000 teamsters, environmentalists, animal-rights activists, consumer advocates, peaceniks, libertarians, and protectionists marched downtown in Seattle disrupting the secretive World Trade Organization, most Americans were clueless as to what it all meant.
On the night after the Seattle demonstrations ended, 2,500 miles away in the Memorial Coliseum in New Haven, Connecticut, a high-energy, rap-metal band called Rage Against the Machine shed some light on what the Battle of Seattle was all about.
This was the same heavy metal, hip-hop band cited by Time and Newsweek for having been an important influence on the Seattle demonstrators. Experiencing their electrifying performance along with 10,000 standing, screaming adolescents and young adults better enabled us to understand why this was so.
The stark contrast between the chaos on stage and below in the mosh pit and what Bill Clinton told WTO delegates a few days earlier in Seattle was mind boggling. Clinton had assured them that globalization was good for us all and would not soon go away. Everything would be just fine. But he was dead wrong!
The nihilistic message of RATM on stage and from the nearly hysterical, mostly upscale high school and college kids in the mosh pit, who paid $30 for a ticket, was that everything is not all right. Life in the high-tech, megaconsumption fast lane is not what it’s cracked up to be. For many it is completely empty. For some the galloping global economy and the roaring stock market have created unprecedented opportunities and wealth, for others they are a source of separation, alienation, meaninglessness and even despair.
Rage provides a vivid reminder that since the Cold War ended, there has been little organized dissent in America protesting the dehumanized, globalized, mass-market, over consumption, technology-driven society in which we live. Our sheeplike churches, labor unions, and political organizations have sold their souls to the high priests of technofascism who through money, markets, media, government, and computers manipulate and control our lives resulting in a loss of political will, civil liberties, and traditional culture. One cannot help but wonder whether the 2,000 year-old Jesus story is up to the technofascist challenge.
Nihilistic, anti-establishment, heavy metal bands which play loud, high-tech music are a dime a dozen. Their inane lyrics celebrate hedonism and promote the drug and alcohol culture.
Rage Against the Machine is an exception to the rule. Confronting social injustice and powerlessness is more important to Rage than hyping drugs, alcohol, and sex. Rage aims its antiauthoritarian message right at the heart and soul of technofascism. Its highly politicized — almost revolutionary — music is a parody of American technofascism which it portrays as “The Machine.” Over- consumption, technomania, megalomania, globalization, racism, and American imperialism are targets of this counterculture band’s rage. It was hardly surprising that many on the streets of Seattle were ardent Rage fans.
The band’s CD, Evil Empire, is not about the Soviet Union. An upside-down American flag and a picture of Latin American revolutionary Ché Guevara often appear when the band performs on stage. The inverted flag was responsible for the band being abruptly kicked off the air by NBC on “Saturday Night Live” in April 1996 after playing their first song. In New Haven the band was positioned between two giant black flags each containing a large red star.
Rage’s lyrics are written by vocalist Zach De La Roca, who relies on the f-word a bit too often for some. “We gotta take the power back. F_ _ _ you, I won’t do what you tell me!”
The most creative musician in the group is guitarist Tom Morello. Harvard graduate Morello is the nephew of Mau Mau leader Jomo Kenyatta—first president of Kenya, the George Washington of Africa. Morello’s father was a
Mau Mau and his mother an Italian gun runner. With a background like that, Morello’s unconventional, innovative style is hardly surprising. Paradoxically, Rage uses its own high-tech sounds to poke fun at technology.
The band identifies strongly with the downtrodden and the oppressed—Native Americans, Mexican Zapatista rebels, African Americans, and victims of American and European colonialism. Death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, Native American Leonard Peltier, and the Zapatista Front for National Liberation have been among the recipients of the proceeds from RATM benefit concerts.
Rage’s 1999 revolutionary CD, The Battle of Los Angeles, which inspired many Seattle marchers, includes songs like “Guerrilla Radio,” “Calm Like a Bomb,” and “Voice of the Voiceless.” Through existential themes such as separation, meaninglessness, and death, Rage confronts our common problem—powerlessness. “I wanna be Jackie O. Oh, please don’t die,” says one song. But unfortunately, “We’re already dead.”
With its loud, high-energy, anti-establishment rap, angry political rhetoric, and riveting guitar sounds, Rage Against the Machine has become one of the most effective voices against technofascism in America today. We need more such voices.
Alexander Naylor studies at the Gaiter School and plays rock guitar. He and his father Thomas live in Charlotte, VT. Thomas Naylor is Professor Emeritus of Economics, Duke University and a former member of the TCPC Advisory Committee.