Rage Against The Machine has always been an intense and committed band, both in its music and its lyrics and outside of it. Composed of singer Zack de la Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, the American quartet formed in 1991 in Los Angeles is never short of just causes to defend. The group advocated for the release of political prisoners such Mumia Abu Jamal for whom they recorded the title Voice of the voiceless in 1999 and also actively supported the cause of Native American activist Leonard Peltier whose case they document in the clip of Freedom. RATM has supported the cause of migrants and the climate and denounced both police violence and crazy finance, racism and the institutionalized practice of torture.
This year, the formation reacted on June 24 to the revocation by the American Supreme Court of the constitutional right to abortion by collecting funds during several charity concerts in the United States (475,000 dollars distributed to two dedicated organizations). On stage through screens and on their Instagram account, the group expressed their “dsewer“of this decision due to”the devastating impact it will have on tens of millions of people” and especially “on the poor”conclusive: “We must continue to resist“.
While Rage Against The Machine canceled on Thursday August 11, for medical reasons, its coming on Tuesday August 30 at the end of the Rock en Seine festival, disappointing the thousands of fans who were waiting for the only stop in France for the group’s first tour since eleven years (postponed moreover since 2020 due to the health crisis), a look back at some of his biggest political feats.
1“Killing in the Name”: the inaugural explosion (1992)
kill in the name of is one of, if not THE, most incendiary rock song of the last 30 years. With its explosive finale during which singer Zack of La Rocha repeats 16 times ‘Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” (Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me), the very first single from Rage Against The Machine, chosen against all odds by the record label Epic, launched the band’s reputation with a bang in 1992. The text is inspired in part by the Rodney King affair, an African-American victim in March 1991 of police violence, filmed on video by a witness (a year later, the acquittal of the four police officers involved sparked major riots in Los Angeles). The lyrics evoke the racism of American law enforcement with a clear allusion to the Ku Klux Klan (‘Some of those who work are the same who burn crosses“, that is “Some of those who work in the police are the same ones who burn crosses“) and a broader questioning of control and submission. Musically, it’s an uncommon burst of sonic rage, the track sparing its effects with a bewildering build-up shot through with an unforgettable signature guitar riff Tom Morello Recorded in the studio under live conditions like the rest of Rage Against The Machine’s debut album, this song, banned from American radio at the time, first took off in Europe, South America and Japan. This rabid anthem has since kept all of its political and emotional charge intact, regularly resuming service, including in 2020 after the death of George Floyd.
2Nudes Against Censorship at Lollapalooza (1993)
RATM’s set at the July 1993 Lollapalooza traveling festival in Philadelphia was a milestone. Yet it didn’t last long. The band only stayed on stage for 15 short minutes and didn’t play a single note, instead delivering a memorable silent happening. The members of the group indeed went on stage completely naked, their mouths barred with a ribbon of black scotch tape, to protest against censorship. Each had a letter painted on the chest, and the four side by side formed the acronym PMRC (Parent Music Resource Center). This American pressure group, then just born, fights against the evocation of sex, drugs and violence in music, and is at the origin of the stickers “Parental advisory – Explicit lyrics” (explicit content) which appear since on many CDs. Understanding after ten minutes that they were going to be deprived of a concert, the festival-goers, disgusted, had started throwing bottles and the group had to be evacuated from the stage by the police. To make amends with upset fans, the group had rescheduled a free concert a few months later in Philadelphia. (The video of take back the power below is dated June 19, 1993 in George, Washington, the first stage of the traveling Lollapalooza festival, a month before the naked happening).
3Rififi in front of Steve Forbes at Saturday Night Live (1996)
Their passage in 1996 in the ultra popular American comedy show saturday night live left its mark: Rage Against The Machine has been persona non grata ever since.”for life” on the show. The main guest of the day happened to be Steve Forbes (multimillionaire, American newspaper publisher and Republican politician, ex-presidential candidate that year). Faced with this character doing on this show promoting their interests, including a flat tax, the band seized the opportunity to make their voices heard, and that meant displaying upside-down American flags on their amps during the show. SNL officials, opposed to this political message, had unhooked the flags before the group entered the stage for a version of bulls on parade (below). In revenge, bassist Tim Commerford had rushed into Forbes’ dressing room and tossed torn American flag shreds into it. At SNL, we still haven’t forgiven them.
4The hectic shooting on Wall Street of a music video by Michael Moore (2000)
Now sleep in the firesong taken from RATM’s third album The Battle of Los Angeles published at the end of 1999, is a rant about the colonization of America by the Spaniards, slavery but also the devastating Agent Orange used by the United States during the Vietnam War. To put this all-out denunciation into images, the hired director Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) is enrolled by the group. He decides to turnin the heart of the beast“, that is to say on Wall Street, precisely opposite the building of the New York Stock Exchange, on January 26, 2000, in front of several hundred people, including fans warned in advance. “No matter what, keep playing“, recommends to the group the documentary filmmaker, who is far from having all the necessary authorizations on the day of the shooting. In the end, he will be arrested by the police and detained for a few hours, while the group will try to enter with some 200 people in the New York Stock Exchange building, before being stopped by the ax of the riot doors. This circus will still succeed in stopping financial exchanges and forcing the first stock exchange in the world to close prematurely that day, a first in ages. The uplifting clip is a montage of footage from the incident with a parody of the American game show.”Who wants to become a millionaire?“, renamed for the occasion”Who wants to be a fucking rich man?“
5Concert in the street during the Los Angeles Democratic Convention (2000)
To protest against the two-party system in force in the United States (Democratic Party vs. Republican Party), Rage Against the Machine decided to give a free concert in 2000, authorized by the authorities, on the sidewalk opposite the Staple Center in Los Angeles on same day of the mid-August opening of the Democratic National Convention. Eight thousand people come to attend the concert and Zack de La Rocha galvanizes the crowd as soon as he sets foot on stage. “Our democracy has been hacked! Our electoral freedoms in this country have long since been taken away and are being controlled by big business! We are not going to let these streets be taken over by Democrats or Republicans!“, he launches before starting with the group a set of forty minutes well muscled. Clashes then break out between spectators and police (2000 police officers in riot gear had been deployed to secure the convention), who after the usual warnings charge the crowd and arrest a handful of people.Rage Against The Machine then played only four more concerts before disbanding the following month for seven long years.
6Rage Against Torture (2009)
In October 2009, after learning that their music had most likely been used during the torture of prisoners at the US military high-security Guantanamo detention center (up to 72 hours of non-stop music at very high volume), Rage Against The Machine set up a coalition called Rage Against Torture with several groups including Nine Inch Nails, REM, Pearl Jam and The Roots. The coalition, which joins the campaign demanding the closure of Guantanamo, also calls for the declassification of military documents concerning the use of music for interrogations and torture. “It may be Dick Cheney’s idea of America but it’s not mine“, then says guitarist Tom Morello. “The fact that music I helped compose was used for crimes against humanity makes me sick. We must stop the torture and close Guantanamo now.“The previous year, at a handful of dates in Europe, including Reading Festival (Great Britain) and Pinkpop (Netherlands), Rage had already started to protest against this ultra-controversial camp. The members of the group took the stage to the sound of a chilling prison siren, dressed in orange jumpsuits with black bags covering their faces, an allusion to Guantanamo detainees. Silent for a minute, they then attacked the concert with their title Bomb track thus dressed, making a lasting impression on the spectators.
The Rock en Seine festival takes place in Paris from August 25 to 28, 2022 (see the complete program)