It was around 2003 that I got into Rage Against the Machine. It's one of the earlier points I can trace myself to and find something still recognizably me there. The band's music resonated with something deep in my guts—it still does—and their politics shaped my worldview.
The attraction, at first, was obvious: Rage's music was hard as fuck. “Guerrilla Radio” is the first song of theirs I remember loving. If you've never done this, put that song on right now and turn up your speakers as loud as they will go. Some decent speakers, if you have them. Do you get that raw, visceral excitement in the center of your chest? Does it make you feel wild, uncontainable joy and rage and fucking righteousness, all at once? In case it doesn't, I'll put it another way: Do you remember what it was like as a kid to figure out you were into something? To hear a new song and think, “this is my thing,” in that way that started to define who you were?
That's what Rage Against the Machine was to me. I bought their three original albums in short succession and quickly became obsessed. I was the kind of weird, quiet kid who would buy a CD and obsessively read every page of the little booklet that came with it, then go online and pore over Wikipedia pages and message board threads about the band. Often I couldn't parse out what Zack de la Rocha's lyrics meant—they were too densely packed with cultural references thirteen-year-old me had no context for understanding—but fortunately the liner notes of Rage's second and third albums, Evil Empire and The Battle of Los Angeles, included supplemental lists of books and activist organizations. I worked my way through those lists, checking out books by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, reading anarchist message boards. I learned about Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier. I learned about the EZLN, mass incarceration, the FBI's anti-MLK agenda.
Keep in mind that I come from Eugene, Oregon, the very archetype of a white liberal utopia. Rage didn't just open up a world of ideas I had no access to—they gave me a way to set myself apart from my quotidian surroundings. To me, they were the truth.
My obsession with Rage made me feel like I'd been born ten years too late. In spite of the explicitly, definitionally public nature of the whole project—the band’s stated reason for being was to affect political change—I didn't start listening to them until after they'd broken up. Their ideology became my schema for seeing the world at an intensely formative time, and the members of the band felt like characters in my inner life. I thought more than once about which body parts I'd have been willing to give up to have been there when their concert caused a riot at the 2000 DNC.
I started learning guitar when I was fourteen, so Tom Morello was the band member I idolized as a kid. More than I tried to imitate him as a musician, I listened to his words, wide-eyed with belief in everything he said. Only Tom and Zack were seriously political, and Tom's brand of activism was the one I bought into most. He talked and wrote in a straightforward style, not without a dose of humor. He went to Harvard and loved Star Trek. He was the exact combination of weird nerd and angry leftist I always envisioned I'd be. Zack, meanwhile, always seemed a little . . . much. Sometimes I found his vocal style vaguely embarrassing to listen to; he didn't sound like I thought rappers were supposed to sound. I found out about Public Enemy not long after I started listening to Rage Against the Machine, and I liked envisioning Chuck D in Zack's place, booming thunder layered over booming thunder.
Zack's voice is high-pitched, scratchy, and unstudied. It cracked with some regularity, especially on the band’s debut album, recorded when he was twenty-two. Not only did he have, I thought, the “wrong” voice, he sounded too emotionally invested—he showed you too big a piece of his bleeding heart. For all my ideals, I was still a teenager with an allergy to sincerity. I was afraid of what people would think of me if I looked like I cared too much.
I fantasized about going to see Rage in the flesh when they reunited for Coachella in 2007, though there was no way I was getting to L.A. in the middle of the school year. That they were playing a show that cost $300 smacked of selling out; it actually hurt a little, in a way only your childhood idols can hurt you. Until then, I'd never given much thought to the obvious tension inherent in the whole project Rage tried to undertake.
The radical causes they championed, and the way they approached them, were sort of astounding. They raised money for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Evil Empire and The Battle of Los Angeles , together, have three songs— three— about the EZLN. Rage's dedication to the EZLN was so strong they adopted their flag as a quasi-official logo, and supposedly once asked Epic Records to donate $30,000 to the group. When they were asked to record a song for the Godzilla 2000 soundtrack, they came up with “No Shelter,” a screed against the entertainment-industrial complex. But the fact is, the band was allowed to do such things because they were selling a lot of records. Sony didn’t care what they were saying, as long as they remained a good source of revenue.
I remember an episode of Celebrity Death Match that pitted the members of Rage Against the Machine against a giant robot—the titular Machine. It was an obvious joke, even for a show consisting almost entirely of obvious jokes. And of course the machine of Rage was never a machine at all, but the world we exist in. The irony is that they were fighting the machine from the inside—they were a part of it. Like anyone else, they raged all the harder for the uselessness and unfairness of the fight.
Earlier this summer, I finally got to hear “Killing in the Name” the way I used to imagine it, with Chuck D on the mic. Chuck and B-Real from Cypress Hill are touring with Tom and Brad Wilk and Tim C as a supergroup called Prophets of Rage. The thing is, once you hear another voice in Zack's place, you realize that Zack, that white-hot ball of righteous fury, was the beating heart that animated the band. Without him, all the thunder just sounds flat and dead.
I admit there’s something that strikes me as cynical about the timing and the marketing of Prophets of Rage. Their stated aim is to oppose Donald Trump, and they have an obvious slogan—“Make America rage again”—which, of course, you can buy on a red baseball cap. I can't hear the music, mostly covers of Rage and Public Enemy and Cypress Hill songs, as anything but hypermasculine, self-congratulatory noise. The tension that Rage dealt with in being radical and also being popular still exists, but where they once used their platform to agitate for causes that weren't necessarily on the mainstream political radar, this new band is a group about nothing: Donald Trump is a fascist, and the band isn’t educating anybody. What they're doing doesn't look brave or necessary to me anymore, and it stings, just as the Coachella reunion did when I was sixteen.
These days, when I listen to the old albums, I don't just hear rage in Zack's voice, but pain. That's what I used to try to ignore in his voice; that’s what always made me uncomfortable—understanding the music was about fucking things up, but never hearing or wanting to bear the heavy emotional burden, the responsibility that implied. What made Rage Against the Machine real was that deep in its cacophonous heart lived something soft and breakable, something the world had broken. That sliver of vulnerability is what convinces me, now, that however much money they made, however many people heard them as benign pump-up music, it was never just rage for the sake of rage.
The liner notes to Renegades, Rage's last album, consist entirely of a poem about writing messages on money. It's depicted literally, with pictures of bills reading “BURN ME” and “YOU ARE NOT A SLAVE.” But of course, it's also a metaphor for what the band itself was doing, an answer to the paradox that they had a platform to tell people to destroy capitalism precisely because they were making money.
If the point of Rage Against the Machine was originally to effect widespread political change, they failed. But that failure is precisely what makes their music feel authentic and personal to me. Despite their sonic hugeness, they were, in the end, a small, fragile voice, raging against a structure they could never escape because they were also part of it. I see now that their story is a kind of tragedy.
I see, too, that this tragedy was exactly why their music sounds the way it does. We are small, and the world is large and cruel. There's no good answer to any of this, as we’re reminded again and again in this year of justified rage, watching millions of people throw in their lots with an open racist running for the highest office in the land. The fury that brought Rage Against the Machine to life is the fury of knowing you're up against something impossibly bigger than yourself, and realizing you have to care anyway. The end of the Renegades poem reads, I hope that someone will find my message one day when they really need it. Like I do. It was never actually about rage, at its core, but compassion—the universal need to cling to a little piece of someone else’s fragile humanity. It's a frustratingly simple conclusion, but it's all we have.