Rage Against the Machine’s debut album turns 20 this week and their legacy is still shrouded in confusion and ignorance. Back in the day, the band stormed the mainstream scene with angry Chicano rock, only the mainstream never noticed the Chicano part.
Chicano rock? You mean Santana..?
What always strikes me about Rage is how little so many of their fans know about their music or message. Recent failed VP candidate Paul Ryan is the personification of that ignorance. He claimed that Rage is his favorite band. Rage’s guitarist, Tom Morello was outraged by this and replied that Ryan is part of the machine the band has been raging against the last 20 years.
Well, no shit! But how could Ryan be so confused…?
Easy. Some people get uppity about the band and argue that their music is awesome and who gives a shit what the message is? And they’d be right if we were talking about Judas Priest but Rage is unique in that every single one of their songs has a message and it’s NOT a mainstream message. “People of the Sun” is not about getting a tan in the Arizona desert after all…but I digress.
The enigma that is RATM is wrapped in Chicano politics and indigenous activism, it just happens to be coupled with killer music. But you cannot tell anyone that because they’ll shrug their shoulders and tell you: but they fuckin’ rock, mann!
I remember when (Freedom) came out and people loved it. I mean, people really flipped their shit for it because it was so unique and so…angry? Yes! But hardly anyone knew who the fuck Leonard Peltier was or why Zach was screaming so loudly. What’s A.I.M.? Huh? Injuns?
This was puzzling to me. I mean, you can’t get any more blunt than the video itself, which tells the story of Pine Ridge but even still, most people just shake their heads when you ask them about Leonard Peltier.
Who? Oh, yeah…man that song is awesome, dude!
When this album came out I was an independent journalist in Denver and was lucky enough to score an interview with EZLN activist Cecilia Rodriguez, who was in town speaking about the Zapatista movement in Mexico. She knew Zach de la Rocha (who was also involved with the EZLN) and I was able to get a killer interview with her regarding the EZLN, Zach’s involvement, NAFTA and the femicide on the US/MX border.
It was uplifting to find not only music but also fans that were also activists in the Chicano/a and indigenous community. These songs meant something – they were revolutionary. Maybe we weren’t so invisible after all. I mean, Rage was on mainstream TV and they were speaking directly to these cause right? Chicano rock and roll on MTV? Fuck yeah, right?
Flash forward to a Rage concert I attended with probably 95% of the audience being white teens, singing every song word for word and all I could think to myself was You people have no idea what Rage is even talking about…this is a paradox. And it’s been like that their whole career – people love the music, ignore the message. And that’s fine! If you’re into Phil Collins…
So here we are, 20 years later and people still have no idea who Leonard Peltier is, are clueless about the EZLN’s history and have no earthly idea what a maquiladora is. Where did all the jobs go? Gee, I dunno, try looking 20 years into the past for a clue…Zach might as well have sang about big booties bitches and 40 oz. dreams as far as jock rock and conservative workout jams are concerned.
I’d wager that most people have no clue that Zach is even Chicano or that he was involved in anything, ever…but I could be wrong. I doubt it but I could be.
I mean, I know it, you know it, but the dude in the jacked-up truck at the stop light listening to Rage on Classic Rock Radio? No clue.
All these years after the band stormed the stage with the Brown Power fist raised high and all we have to show for it are idiotic conservatives clinging to their music as their damn the (black) man jams. History is funny like that sometimes…
Rage’s message and the Chicano politics/identity issues that they embraced (and RAGED about), remain mired in ignorance, bickering and invisible battles. If Rage Against the Machine were taught in Tucson public schools, they would be banned but I doubt any of the book banners would bother listening to the lyrics any more than they read any of those books.
But! We (me and you), we still have the music. And it’s important music to many of us, despite the ignorance that has prevailed. Here’s to Rage and to their legacy – whatever it meant.
I hope they do another album and attack the current administration the way they did the “feel good” administration in the past. And if not I hope they pass the torch to those that will.
It’s long overdue.
Santino J. Rivera is an Indie Publisher and Author @ Broken Sword Publications