Whether it was the songs of Pete Seeger in the 1930s, Bob Dylan in the 1960s or Public Enemy in the 1980s, the mix of politics and music has always struck a chord amongst a layer of young people who are angry and frustrated at the huge poverty, repression and exploitation that exists in the world. In the 1990s, that honour undoubtedly belonged to Rage Against The Machine.
By Stephen Rigney, Dublin Socialist Youth
In a decade where the ruling classes of the world declared the victory of capitalism and the death of socialism following the collapse of the Soviet Union, RATM remained vocal critics of a system that puts the interests of profit and a minority before the needs of the vast majority of working class, youth and the poor.
Their comeback tour, including headlining Oxegen 2008, after a 7 year break-up is guaranteed to bring along thousands of old fans as well as create plenty of new ones and help put forward the ideas of socialism and anti-capitalism in the minds of young people. With songs supporting the left-wing uprising of the Zapatistas in Mexico (“War Within A Breath”), exposing the racist frame-up of revolutionary black journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal for exposing police brutality in the US (“Voice of the Voiceless”) or protesting against the international arms trade (“Bulls On Parade”), Rage has won itself a dedicated following amongst thousands of radicalised youth. Their straight forward, no-nonsense lyrics have helped open up the eyes of many young people to the brutal reality of capitalism today. The release of their first single “Killing In The Name” in 1993 was a powerful response to the widespread media coverage surrounding the beating of Rodney King by white cops and the institutionalised racism of the police in the United States declaring that “Some of those who work forces, are the same that burn crosses”. And they didn’t get any less hard-hitting! “Take The Power Back” is not only an attack on the biased education system which teaches history and culture from the viewpoint of the ruling classes but also a call to action for workers’ and young people to get active and struggle against capitalism. The question of getting active is an important theme throughout Rage’s music. The band members themselves have been active in protests against the big business Democratic Party and demonstrations in support of immigrant workers. The song “Maria” is a testament to the those same migrant workers who are often effectively sold across the Mexico-US border “as human contraband” by criminals to work for employers on slave wages in order to support their families at home. Faced with the choice of poverty and afraid to speak out for fear of being deported or losing their jobs, many of these migrant workers face the most horrendous work conditions. But while the lyrics of “Maria” are largely about the fear faced by those workers, they are also confident that “her time is near”, that things can change, something which came true when thousands of immigrant workers took to the streets to demand a decent conditions, decent wages and an end to exploitation last Summer.
There is no doubt that while not all Rage fans are conscious socialists, they have had an influence on encouraging young people to learn about and get involved in socialist politics, something that the band recognises. Often surrounded by controversy because of their politics and attempts to have their concerts banned by right-wing politicians, guitarist Tom Morello correctly said, “As Zack would point out on stage, it’s obvious that the Order weren’t afraid of our band or our music. They were afraid of our audience, that people might be listening. That’s why they tried to boycott Rage Against The Machine.” The attraction and popularity of Rage is obviously a reflection of the anger felt by young people at the establishment and the type of world we live in. But listening to socialist music is not enough. Young people have always been at the forefront of revolutionary movements whether in the revolutionary upheavels in France in 1968, the overthrow of Milosevic in 2000 or the anti-war protests of 2003. It’s important that young people and workers today remember Morello’s point about the ruling classes fearing the fans of their music rather than the music itself. It is only when workers and youth get organised and struggle that repression, poverty and racism can be ended and a socialist future for all can be built.