Founded in 1991, the rock band Rage Against the Machine has broken up and reunited several times over the decades. Most recently, the group disbanded in 2011, only to come back together last November for a world tour that will begin next month and continue through September. With a total record sales of around 16 million, Rage is perhaps as well known for its politics as for its music.
That music has been described as everything from “punk” to “hip hop” to “hard rock” to “nu metal.” There is less confusion about the nature of the band’s politics. They are radical, although even that word doesn’t quite do it. The four band members – singer Zack de la Rocha, bassist Tim Commerford, guitarist Tom Morello, and drummer Brad Wilk – are so revolutionary in their political views that sometimes it can seem as if these guys have spent the last three decades doing a brilliant parody of ignorant rockers who live in mansions and ride in limousines all the while thinking of themselves as courageous insurrectionists on the barricades.
But you’ve got to give them credit for a certain degree of originality. While other politically active showbiz folk focus on issues like gun control and global warming, Rage against the Machine celebrates the cause of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a far-left group of indigenous Mexicans and their allies that has technically been at war with the Mexican government for many years, but that has long controlled much of the state of Chiapas with the government’s tacit acceptance. (Last August, when the Zapatistas expanded the area under their control, President Andrés Manuel López said that this was just fine, so long as they exerted their authority without violence.)
Rage’s song “People of the Sun,” which appears on the band’s 1996 album Evil Empire, is about the Zapatista cause. The cover of the single features an image of a sickle, an ammunition belt, and a corn cob that is suggestive of the Soviet hammer and sickle. Rage’s YouTube page features an interview with a gun-toting Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, a Maoist, children’s book author, and former philosophy major at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who, under the noms de guerre Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos and, more recently, Subcomandante Galeano, is the Zapatistas’ longtime spokesperson. In the areas of Chiapas under Zapatista control, images of Subcomandante Galeano alongside Che Guevara and the Mexican Revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata are apparently ubiquitous.
So devoted is Rage to the Zapatistas that the band flies the insurgents’ flag at its concerts. But the EZLN isn’t the band’s only cause. More about that to come.