If a musician’s Wikipedia article features more about his activist work than about his music, do we really still classify him as a musician?
That’s the riddle Tom Morello poses us, and not one we’re going to be exploring. As far as we’re concerned, Morello wouldn’t be Morello without one or the other- and rest assured we’re going to be saluting both here today.
The son of a Mau Mau insurgent-turned-Kenya’s-first-UN-ambassador, Morello was born in Harlem and raised by his mother after his father returned to Africa. While that sounds in and of itself like the makings of a Communist fairy tale, it gets weirder. Morello graduated from Harvard and, finding himself unemployed and near starvation, took the only work he could get as a- I kid you not- male stripper.
I only bring it up because Morello shortly after went on to work for a Democratic senator, and of the two jobs, he seems to have a lot more negative stuff to say about the latter.
“I never had any real desire to work in politics but if there was any ember burning in me, it was extinguished working in that job because of two things: one of them was the fact that 80 per cent of the time I spent with the Senator, he was on the phone asking rich people for money. It just made me understand that the whole business was dirty. He had to compromise his entire being every day.
“The other was the time a woman phoned up to the office and wanted to complain that there were Mexicans moving into her neighborhood. I said to her, ‘Ma’am, you’re a damn racist,’ and she was indignant. I thought I was representing our cause well, but I got yelled at for a week by everyone for saying that! I thought to myself that if I’m in a job where I can’t call a damn racist a damn racist, then it’s not for me.”
-“Tom Morello Used To Be A Stripper“, CHART ATTACK, Nov. 2009
Speaking as a recent graduate myself- I sympathize. With the stripper bit- not with working for a Democratic senator. I have my dignity, after all.
Now during his stay in LA, Morello’s old high school classmate (who just so happened to be Adam Jones of Tool) moved out and helped reintroduce Morello to the music scene. After a short-lived attempt at starting his own band failed, in 1991 Morello hooked up with a scruffy bunch of misfits and helped create a little band called Rage Against the Machine.
Now RATM, for anyone unfamiliar with ’em, has quite essentially been the soundtrack to dissent in the last two decades. We’re talking about an openly socialist band so iconic, original, and catchy that even former vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan cited ’em as being one of his favorite bands (and you can bet ol’ Tom Morello had some choice words about that). While RATM eventually disbanded, Morello continued to blast his mind-boggling style in such bands as Audioslave, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and Street Sweeper Social Club.
Of course, as much as I love my gifs, no amount of them or my own vivid descriptions are really going to quite capture the sounds this guy can get out of a guitar. Just listen:
Now I’ve claimed above that Morello’s career as an activist rivals, if not outstrips, his (long and illustrious) career as a musician. Let me break that down for you a bit.
While the vast majority of Tom’s music has been unapologetically jam-packed with political messages and demands for class war, his revolutionary bent is by no means limited to the stage. A staunch socialist, Morello has been a longtime campaigner for 3rd party candidates and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor union. Morello has further spoken out repeatedly against Guantanamo Bay, supported the ill-fated Occupy protests, and has most recently been involved in support for incarcerated whistle-blower Bradley/Chelsea Manning.
We’re talking about a man who eats, sleeps, and breathes social activism. The guy darts from labor strike to anti-war protest to immigration reform demo like some kind of anarchist hummingbird in a florist shop. And whenever he’s not doing that he’s coordinating with other musicians to create grassroots activist sites like Axis of Justice or writing a freaking 12-part comic book following the life of a post-apocalyptic prostitute learning “that she is more than the role society has imposed upon her.”
For ****’s sake, I’m still procrastinating on my taxes and have to drag myself kicking and screaming to scribble out some little anti-corporate rant on Sunday nights.
To say that Morello is an inspiration just doesn’t quite cut it. This is a guy who makes me deeply ashamed of just how little I’ve accomplished and gives me no damn excuse for not putting in the effort.
Comrade Morello- I don’t know that I’ve got the words to capture the gratitude we at Culture War Reporters have for everything you’re doing, but this gif seems as good as start as any.