When I was first at uni Rage Against the Machine released their first album. It had Killing in the Name Of, and Wake Up on it. When I went to the flat of a (then) communist friend he played me Bombtrack. At the time I tended just to play those three tracks on the album and nothing else, but I later realised that the whole album was awesome. Know Your Enemy, Take the Power Back, Fistful of Steel… it’s just non-stop, incinerating rage. Some fantastic lyrics on that album: (1) Just victims of the in house drive by; they say jump you say “how high?” (2) You know they went after King when he spoke out on Vietnam. He turned the power to the have-nots
and then came the shot, (3) Landlords and power whores / On my people they took turns / Dispute the suits I ignite / And then watch ’em burn.
I used to tell people that Killing in the Name Of was what testosterone sounded like. Nothing could make a middle class white man in nerdy glasses want to thrash around his living room more than a RATM song. 20 something years later that album is one of the few from the 90s that I still listen to all the time, and still love. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and all that – not so much – RATM’s album on the other hand really has not aged. It still sounds f*&king pissed off at the state of the world, and still sounds like it will incite the next revolution any second. Probably because when it comes to righteous fury not much has changed about complacent white men in suits in well-feathered nests at the top: still a deserving target, and still in charge.
Before grunge I listened to bands like Guns’n’Roses. I loved the hardness of their sound (this is before the Use Your Illusion garbage), and the darkness of songs like Welcome to the Jungle, but I was irritated by their stupidity and sexism. If only, I thought, I could listen to the hard sound without all the boorish, macho posturing. Which was why grunge was invented (as far as I was concerned). It had the hard edge, it had emotion, and it had lyrics that were often about something other than green grass and the girls are pretty. What RATM had was politics. Grunge was almost anti-political and quite navel-gazing in its preoccupations. RATM really was not gazing at its navel, it was more grabbing you by your scruff and shaking you out until you got a nose bleed.
Because their first album was so good, I didn’t buy Evil Empire in 1996. I didn’t want the band I had put on a pedestal to have their image tarnished by what I assumed was going to be a disappointing second album. It turns out that this was a mistake. 17 years after this bad decision I bought Evil Empire and I can report that it is exactly as good as their first album. Rage, it turned out, had not dimmed in the four years between albums. Evil Empire is blisteringly angry and contemptuous of the lies of power.
And so my favourite trick at the moment is to listen to Martin Luther King’s speech Time to Break Silence interspersed with tracks from RATM as I walk to work. It puts me in the right frame of righteous anger to teach Social Studies.
A little watched Brando movie is Viva Zapata. It was directed by Kazan (who also did Streetcar and Waterfront with Brando), and had a script written by Steinbeck. It has one of my favourite Brando speeches in it.
This land is yours. But you must protect it. It won’t be yours long if you don’t protect it. If necessary, with your lives, and your children with their lives. Don’t discount your enemies. They will be back. And if your house is burned, build it again. If your corn is destroyed, replant. If your children die, bear more. If they drive you out of the valley, live on the mountain, but live. You always look for leaders, strong men without faults. There aren’t any. There are only men like yourselves. They change. They desert. They die. There are no leaders but yourselves. A strong people is the only lasting strength.
Today we had a room full of people, with no leaders but themselves, perhaps 40 to 45 students, who came to the human rights meeting at lunchtime and wanted to take action for the rights of women in Egypt. Today I watched a documentary with my students where they recreated the execution of Christ and instead of seeing him as a religious leader I saw him as a symbol of every political prisoner tortured and killed by an oppressive power whether it be Steve Biko or Juan Gerardi or whoever.
It is wrong to make protest illegal. The peaceful protestor is a symbol of civilised society. I teach it every term at school, and students draw tremendous inspiration from the likes of the civil rights protestors in America in the 1960s, or the feminists in the 1890s or 1970s, and they feel a flush of pride when they learn about Kirk sending our naval ships to bear witness to the French nuclear tests in the Pacific of the mid-1970s.
Now what do we have in New Zealand? We have the necessity of this:
I signed it tonight. True democracy means that we are in power. True democracy is open, fair and transparent and does not act against those that criticize.
Rage Against the Machine reminds me to stay angry.