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The Relentless Activism of Tom Morello

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The St. Paul police should have known better than to try to stop Tom Morello. When the activist guitarist showed up at the Minnesota State Capitol building with the recently reunited Rage Against the Machine to protest the Republican National Convention on September 2, police hastily took action. Clearly bent on enervating the thousands of impassioned fans that had gathered on the lawn, authorities shut down the Rage concert before it even started.

Morello grabbed a bullhorn from a security guard and launched into an a cappella version of Rage's hit song "Bulls on Parade." Bow-wow-chikka. Bow-wow-chikka-chikka-chikka. The crowd erupted, jumping up and down in unison and singing along as Morello beat-boxed the guitar riffs and frontman Zack de la Rocha delivered on the makeshift mic. Rage carried on their protest undeterred, leading an anti-poverty march to the convention center where "Darth Vader-clad riot cops"--as Morello described them--dispersed the crowd with a fury of tear gas, rubber bullets and arrests.

"I took the police action at that show as something of a compliment," said Morello, who describes himself as the Harvard educated, half-Kenyan guy from Illinois who is not running for President this year. "It was as though they thought Rage could somehow disrupt the entire convention." He laughed lightly in a deep baritone, "I wish." Footage of Rage's impromptu show--which quickly found its way onto YouTube where it has already been seen over 340,000 times--turned the band's defiance into an iconic moment of the RNC protests. But more than that, it epitomized Morello's irrepressibility, both as a creative artist and a grassroots political activist.

When Rage broke up in 2000, Morello proceeded to play in the commercially successful though less overtly political band Audioslave. Yet Morello still remained true to his passion for fusing music with his profound sense of social justice. Inspired by seeing Bruce Springsteen play "The Ghost of Tom Joad" in concert (a song Rage later covered and Morello has since performed with Springsteen live in what he calls one of the true highlights of his life), Morello began performing under the acoustic guise of The Nightwatchman. "I realized that three chords and the truth can be heavier than a wall of Marshall stacks," Morello claimed. Or as he wrote on The Nightwatchman's MySpace page, "You don't gotta be loud, son, to be heavy as shit."

Morello jokingly described his Nightwatchman persona as the black Woody Guthrie, though in listening to politically charged songs like "Union Song," "The Road I Must Travel," and "One Man Revolution" off the 2007 album of the same name, you get the sense The Nightwatchman could easily be the love child of Che Guevara and Johnny Cash. Morello has always been a one-man revolution. He grew up the only black kid in the nearly all-white Illinois town of Libertyville, where the Ku Klux Klan once placed a noose in his garage that he found after school. He was the only anarchist at a conservative high school, and the only rock and roll guitar player at Harvard, where he stuck to a strict eight-hours-a-day practicing regimen in addition to his political science studies.

It was that kind of discipline that enabled The Nightwatchman to evolve rapidly from playing coffee shops to festivals and larger venues like Billy Bragg's Tell Us the Truth Tour in 2003. And while Morello was creating popular albums with Audioslave and developing The Nightwatchman, he also established the non-profit Axis of Justice (AOJ) with Serj Tankian of System of a Down, in order to unite musicians and music lovers with political organizations. Morello and Tankian created an AOJ radio network and podcast, interviewing everyone from Naomi Klein to Mumia Abu-Jamal to Cindy Sheehan, whom Morello is currently supporting for Congress.

Morello didn't fully realize the AOJ's goals, however, until he took The Nightwatchman on the road earlier this year for The Justice Tour. "The tour just felt so right," he reflected. "It was like, this is why I signed up!" Morello's idea was to play shows in seven US cities, partnering with a different progressive group in each one. When planning the tour, Morello just took out his Blackberry and called up all the friends he thought might be interested. Before he knew it, he had Flea, Slash, Perry Farrell, Wayne Kramer of MC5, Boots Riley of the Coup and many more joining him at various points.

But in typical Morello fashion, he was not satisfied with simply playing a show in each town and donating all the proceeds and merchandise sales to a particular grassroots organization. He wanted to "go off the map" with what is conventionally expected of artists by taking an active role in each group's work. Morello and his fellow musicians spent an additional day in each city volunteering. They wandered the downtown streets of Asheville, North Carolina, asking people to sign the Just Economics petition for fair wages. They rallied with Healthcare-NOW! in Boston Common for a single-payer universal healthcare system.

Whereas Rage allowed Morello to energize thousands of young radicals with each show, The Justice Tour enabled him to effect change on a more personal level. When Morello and his band of activist troubadours played New Orleans, they spent a day clearing debris with Sweet Homes New Orleans and Amnesty International, helping the city's many local musicians still struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The artists weren't just paying lip service. Perry Farrell was knee-deep in a Ninth Ward dumpster making room for more debris; Wayne "Chainsaw" Kramer hacked away at a fallen tree in the backyard of a 70-year-old blues band saxophonist; and Morello himself pulled weeds until he literally got fire ants in his pants. Erin Potts, the co-founder of Be+cause Strategies who got her start arranging Tibetan Freedom Concerts and helped facilitate The Justice Tour, told me, "I've worked with a lot of artists, but I've never had anyone as happy and willing to push up his sleeves and get involved as Tom." After jumping around to rid himself of the biting ants, Morello laughed off the incident and got right back to work.

Morello leads a growing number of musicians who have adopted an explicit antiwar, anti-Bush message in recent years--Pearl Jam, Green Day, Radiohead, Bruce Spingsteen, and the Dixie Chicks leap to mind. According to Morello, "Many musicians, like many Americans, are disgusted with the Bush Administration's economic crimes at home and war crimes abroad," but he firmly believes true change comes from people at the community level. He feels it is everyone's responsibility to become politically active, regardless of whether you are a singer-songwriter, a longshoreman, a teacher or a writer for The Nation. "You have to get empowered and empower others to stand up for what's right, and you have to have the courage of your convictions in your vocation."

It's a philosophy Morello has followed since he was fresh out of college and working as the scheduling secretary for the late California Democratic Senator Alan Cranston--a day job while he tried to form a band at night. Morello said he spent 80 percent of his time in Cranston's office trying to raise money. Once, a woman called up crying that Mexicans were moving into her neighborhood at an alarming rate and asked if he could tell the Congressman. When Morello called her a racist and told her to go to hell, he was rebuked for four days straight. "That's when I realized," Morello exclaimed, "if in my job I can't tell a racist to go to hell, I'm not in the right job."

For now, the "right job" for Morello seems to be balancing his radical Rage act with the folk-rocker Nightwatchman. Counting his a cappella performance at the RNC, Morello played eight shows at both conventions--four under each persona. This is how he split his time at festivals all summer long. And this fall, The Nightwatchman will hit the road again after unleashing a second round of political protest songs titled The Fabled City, which offers a much fuller sound--Brendan O'Brien added drums and Morello incorporated electric effects into his acoustic guitar to capture the fervor of his recent live shows. One way or the other, you better believe Morello will be coming to a town near you to "feed the poor, fight the power and rock the fuck out."

Cross-posted from The Nation.