Commentary: RATM's Political Legacy

Like many rock fans, I was (at the risk of sounding cliché) shocked and saddened this week when Zack De La Rocha announced he was leaving Rage Against The Machine. But it wasn’t the musical loss that troubled me.

Yes, I’ll miss hearing Rage’s brilliant blend of rap and metal from the band that invented it — and the band that still surpasses all imitators. But I expect that in the long run I’ll miss Rage more as activists than as musicians. Because Rage Against The Machine were the last, and for the past decade the only, true activists in rock ’n’ roll.

That statement is likely to offend some, who will no doubt run off a list of other rock stars who care about political causes. But the truth is that there is absolutely no one in the industry who has had the courage or the commitment to do even once what Rage has done on a daily basis throughout their career.

Ivy League-educated, the band members have consistently taken risks to challenge their working-class audience to confront truly difficult issues.

Tiptoeing Through Politics Most musical “activism” falls into one of two categories. The first consists of pledging support for a cause that no sane person could possibly oppose. U2’s Bono exemplified this early in his career when he sang for an end to war. Today artists play Rock The Vote benefits, encouraging voter registration. It would be hard to find someone in favor of war, or opposed to voting.

But the real issues — the disputes that lead to armed conflicts and the voter apathy that keeps young people from the polls — are difficult to solve. And there aren’t any musicians offering suggestions on how to solve them. Because taking a stand there would almost certainly cost record sales among people who disagree with you.

A slightly more courageous approach involves musicians who take a stand on an issue that, while controversial in some circles, isn’t very risky among rock fans. Playing a Rock For Choice benefit or appearing in a PETA anti-fur ad would fall into this category. The problem here isn’t that the cause isn’t noble — it’s simply that the musicians are preaching to the choir, avoiding both the risk of offending anyone and the chance to change anyone’s opinion.

Even worse, many artists are sadly uninformed about the causes they’re supporting. I’ve spoken to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals representatives who had no idea that the group opposed testing AIDS drugs on animals.

Mumia, Mexico and the Democrats Contrast this type of activism to the career of Rage Against The Machine. For years the band has gone out on limb after limb to make their fans aware of controversial issues they may never have encountered otherwise.

They’ve raised money for the legal defense of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal because they believe he received an unfair trial. They’ve advocated the release of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, imprisoned for killing two FBI agents.

Their video for their latest single, “Testify,” goes to great lengths to demonstrate that there are no real differences between Al Gore and George W. Bush, while blaming low voter turnout on the collapse of the two-party system. And De La Rocha has taken the band’s political battles south of the border with his active and vocal support of Mexico’s Zapatista Army for National Liberation in its struggles against the Mexican government.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between Rage and the rest of the rock ’n’ roll world took place during the Democratic National Convention. While dozens of rock stars descended on Los Angeles clamoring for a chance to play a Gore fund-raiser and have their pictures taken with politicians dedicated to censoring their art, only Rage stood outside of the Staple Center with the protesters. The band’s performance was the spark that ignited the LAPD’s violent attack on those who dared tarnish the city’s shiny, happy image.

Not Everyone’s a FanOf course, real activism has its cost. Radio disc jockeys have attacked the band’s politics on the air. Police organizations have protested and refused to work at their concerts. And in 1999, the governor of New Jersey took the time to condemn them for organizing an Abu Jamal benefit concert . But Rage didn’t let those concerns, or the fear of lost record sales, stop them from taking a stand.

Even more amazing is the fact that the band has taken those ideas directly to the people, without patronizing them. Rage never assumed that kids who like aggressive rock are too stupid to understand politics.

In the end, those are the things that I’ll miss the most about Rage. There are more than enough imitators out there to try to fill their shoes musically. Rage disciples the Deftones have taken what the band started in a new and nearly as exciting direction. Korn has turned the angst inward to produce something almost as good. And Limp Bizkit consistently manages to rage against something, in a mindless sort of way. But who will force us to think about the tough questions that we’d rather ignore, while rocking harder than nearly anyone else out there?

Both De La Rocha and his former bandmates have vowed to continue the Rage legacy in their future work. But it remains to be seen wether separately they’ll succeed in bringing the message to their audience as successfully as they did as one band.