by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem
As the U.S. launched its specious war on terrorism, George Bush wrangled away another presidential election, a stunned nation took in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and miraculously a biracial senator from Illinois rose to prominence, the absence of one of the music scene’s most influential voices has been sorely missed. Nasal but vitriolic, guttural but lucid, that voice taught me that “anger is a gift” and to cry to the powers that be, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
If you’re still in the dark about the voice in question, it belongs to former Rage Against the Machine front man Zack de la Rocha.
The group, a rap-rock hybrid with socially conscious lyrics, split in 2000 over musical and personal differences. Guitarist Tom Morello, whose life parallels Barack Obama’s in a way that’s uncanny,* wanted to take the group in a more rock-oriented direction, while de la Rocha sought to explore hip-hop, electronica and other music styles. For fans of de la Rocha, the past eight years have left a tremendous void.
The remaining members of Rage Against the Machine went on to form Audioslave with former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, but, with the exception of a single called “March of Death,” we’ve heard little from de la Rocha. There were rumors that he’d recorded hundreds of tracks, but perfectionism kept him from releasing them. Other rumors indicated that de la Rocha had become a recluse or—gasp!—had been fatally gunned down. When Rage Against the Machine reunited at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California last year, the second bunch of rumors were obviously put to bed. But, because none of the dozens of tracks de la Rocha had supposedly recorded on his own were being released, questions lingered about his solo project. Was it ever to be released? Was there really a solo project at all?
The answer is yes and no. On July 22nd, de la Rocha released his first project sans Rage Against the Machine in years, but it’s not a solo venture. It features him on vocals and keyboards and former Mars Volta member Jon Theodore on drums. The duo is going by the name “One Day as a Lion,” and their EP bears the same name. The first single, “Wild International,” which you can hear by visiting this site, is already receiving airplay. And, with opening line, “They say that in war that truth be the first casualty,” the single leaves little doubt that de la Rocha has kept his political edge.
Why one would doubt that de la Rocha would continue writing politically-charged lyrics remains to be seen. This is the man who made issues of social justice come to life in his lyrics, with allusions to everything from the Zapatista uprising, the colonization of the Americas, apartheid in South Africa, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, environmental racism via the use of DDT in communities of color and much more.
This is the man who cried, “So now I’m rollin’ down Rodeo wit a shotgun. These people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one.”
Yet, when Rage Against the Machine was in its heyday, the mainstream press took particular joy in arguing that the band’s fans didn’t “get” the lyrics. Instead, they simply enjoyed thrashing around to angry music. The press’s insistence that Rage’s lyrics and activism were irrelevant, that art is powerless to effect social change, always rankled me. For one, art has managed to move others to social activism for centuries. Secondly, I myself was a case in point that the band could have a profound impact on political development. In college, I became involved with activist organizations such as Refuse & Resist as a direct result of my exposure to Rage. Had I not become familiar with the band, I’m not sure that I would have been motivated to put into practice some of the political beliefs that I was exposed to in the classroom, let alone bring activists to campus or raise funds for a range of causes.
Now that de la Rocha is back, I’m hoping that a new generation of young people will be similarly motivated to make a political impact on their communities. This time around, de la Rocha may be without Morello on guitar, but, in Jon Theodore, he has found another virtuoso musician. The half-Haitian drummer has studied percussion in his father’s native land and sees drumming not only as a way to make beats but as a way to call forth ancestors also. For Theodore, drumming is in essence a spiritual exercise. For, de la Rocha, who grew up alienated as a Chicano kid in largely white and conservative Orange County, music is a vehicle to express one’s rage at the establishment and those—be they teachers, colonizers or corporations—bent on upholding its tenets. Together, Theodore and de la Rocha are sure to wow, and I’m eager to see what influence their collaboration will have on audiences.
*Like Barack Obama, Tom Morello is the son of a white mother and a Kenyan father. Just as Obama’s father was a respected figure in the country, Morello’s father garnered respect for his role in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion. Like Obama, Morello attended Harvard University and, following graduation, set out to pursue a career in politics. After working for a U.S. senator, Morello ultimately decided that he wasn’t comfortable with politics as a career path and launched a music career. Lastly, both Obama and Morello have ties to Illinois. The former is a transplant who married into a Chicago family; the latter grew up in a Chicago suburb. Here is a link to a transcript of Morello’s appearance on “Tavis Smiley” last year in which Morello discusses the parallels between his life and Obama’s.