As we reported on Monday, the veteran rock band Rage against the Machine is going on tour next month, making this the perfect occasion for an overview of the band’s politics. We’ve already taken a look at Rage’s afición for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which exercises administrative authority over much of the Mexican state of Chiapas.
But like every good revolutionary rock group, Rage not only loves but hates. Unsurprisingly, it hates America. The title of its triple-platinum 1996 album Evil Empire, as frontman Zack de la Rocha acknowledged at the time, is a reference to “Ronald Reagan’s slander of the Soviet Union in the eighties, which the band feel could just as easily apply to the United States.” At Woodstock 1999, the band set fire to an American flag. When the band was scheduled to appear on Saturday Night Live in April 1996, its roadies hung two upside-down American flags from the amplifiers seconds before the band was about to play its first song, only to see the flags pulled down instantly by stagehands. When the song was over, the show’s producer cancelled the band’s scheduled second number and threw the guys out of the building. According to a statement issued by the band at the time, bassist Tim Commerford was “so incensed” by this treatment that “he takes one of the torn-down U.S. flags, shreds it up, charges into Steve Forbes’ dressing room [Forbes was that week’s guest host] and hurls it at his entourage.”
In January 2000, the band shot the music video for the song “Sleep Now in the Fire” on the steps of Federal Hall in New York and then, along with about 300 fans, stormed the doors of the New York Stock Exchange across the street. The NYSE had to close temporarily and stop trading; Michael Moore, the radical left-wing documentary maker who directed the video, was taken in custody. During this whole drama, the cameras kept rolling, and footage of the fracas was used in the video. “We decided to shoot this video in the belly of the beast,” Moore later said, “and for a few minutes, Rage Against the Machine was able to shut down American capitalism — an act that I am sure tens of thousands of downsized citizens would cheer.”
Rage followed a similar game plan later that year, holding a concert at a Los Angeles venue across the street from the Staples Center, where the Democratic National Convention was underway. During the concert, the band members stirred up the audience’s anger at the political system, and after the concert a group of Rage fans threw rocks and other objects at cops outside the Staples Center, leading to several arrests. Eight years later de la Rocha led thousands of Rage fans in a march from a Rage concert in Denver to the Denver Coliseum, where the DNC Convention was underway; that same year, the band descended on Minneapolis for the Republican National Convention, where “post-concert rioting” by fans led to about 70 arrests. While performing at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2007, vocalist Zack de la Rocha told the audience that the Bush Administration “needs to be tried, hung and shot…We need to treat them like the war criminals they are.” During a 2008 show in Reading, England, de la Rocha also called for Tony Blair to be executed.
And this is only a brief overview of Rage’s decades of political engagement. (We didn’t even mention the band’s longtime support for Black Panther and cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, for whom they wrote the song “Voice of the Voiceless.”) As Irving Berlin wrote, there’s no business like show business.