Prophets of Rage Rock Cleveland During the Republican National Convention

Prophets of Rage's Tom Morello, at the Agora Theater in Cleveland during the RNCEXPAND
Prophets of Rage's Tom Morello, at the Agora Theater in Cleveland during the RNC
Jon Lichtenberg

Only hours after Donald Trump was crowned GOP nominee for president Tuesday and a day after an insurrectionist group of Republican “Never Trump” delegates was voted down, politically charged rock band Prophets of Rage took to the stage of Cleveland’s historic Agora Theater, two miles from the convention, to put on a display of their own.

The band, formed this year by members of Cypress Hill, Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine, came to Cleveland — home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where Chuck D and the rest of his former rap group were inducted in 2013 — to cause a ruckus.

The rap legend was joined onstage by fellow Prophets MC B-Real, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, drummer Brad Wilk and turntablist DJ Lord. The crowd was amped up and packed into the 103-year-old venue that once served as an opera house.

Tuesday night’s performance offered a different kind of drama, one forged in sweat and a disdain for the kind of politics many feel have left them behind. The crowd, mostly in their late 20s, sang along to Rage Against the Machine songs of the oppressed, written during the Bill Clinton administration almost two decades ago.

“People of the Sun” seemed to speak to the crowd. It was written about the Zapatista revolution in Mexico, which eventually sought to foil the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, in the 1990s and represents the growing divide between the rich and the poor — a pang that Clevelanders feel as their unemployment rate has consistently hovered several points above the national average for years.

That’s why the Prophets came here — “No Sleep Till Cleveland to Fight the Power,” as their Beastie Boys/Public Enemy mashup suggests — and why 100 percent of the show’s proceeds would go to a charity aiding homeless people.

These songs may have been written decades ago, but they’re still relevant today — maybe more so, Morello said in an interview before the show.

“The world is teetering on the brink of the abyss and these dangerous times demand these dangerous songs,” he said.

In true rebel form, the group joined protesters Monday, making an unannounced appearance at Public Square Park after the release of debut single “Prophets of Rage,” a remake of the 1988 Public Enemy track.

Morello said the group was in town for the Republican convention and they were excited to perform “The Party Is Over,” unleashed during the band’s performance at the Whisky a Go-Go in May and written specifically for this week.

The song would serve well on a soundtrack album to this social movement, Morello said. He wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, in which he claimed that every successful movement had a great soundtrack.

From the early-1900s union anthems, which eventually helped usher in an eight-hour work day, to Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which “channeled the moral cacophony of the Vietnam War through a Marshall stack at Woodstock,” Morello wrote, music has provided an important emotional backdrop for the stories of these social movements.

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Among the many pressing issues of today that Prophets of Rage hope to address through their music, racial injustice is perhaps the most urgent. Here in Cleveland, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, was gunned down two years ago by police, who said they didn’t know the gun he brandished was only a toy. Had Rice been white, would he have suffered the same fate?

“Of course he wouldn’t have been shot,” Morello said. “Everyone who’s visited or grown up in the United States of America knows that. That’s not how it happens. Police murders of African-Americans — that is as American as baseball or apple pie. That’s what we do here. And then they’re put on administrative leave with pay — that’s known as vacation in your job. And that’s how we do it.

"To make it very, very clear," he continued, "I think the murder of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge is horrible and I sympathize with their families. It’s horrible. There were lives that were robbed. It’s also horrible that hundreds of African-Americans are murdered by the police. That is horrible. Those people are being robbed of their family members. You can’t address just one of those two problems and sweep the murders by police of African-Americans under the rug. You just can’t do that and expect there to be any kind of unity.”

Chuck D agreed, saying unity can only be had when police and local governments respect citizens as much as they expect those citizens to respect authority.

“You see flags at half-mast after what happened in Dallas, but it would be wise for communities to have their flags at half-mast when one of their civilians go down from brutality,” he said. “That would show that, ‘You know what, you actually feel like how we feel.' ... Flags are still half-mast in the city of Cleveland for the shooting of officers in Dallas. Are they like that for Tamir Rice, too?”

What is the Cypress Hill song that serves as a backdrop to the shooting of Rice and other people of color?

“'Pigs,'” B-Real said, without skipping a beat. “You know, a lot of brutality is happening right now. Not all cops are bad, obviously, but people are looking at them right now like this brutality’s got to stop.”

Cypress Hill’s “Rise Up,” from the group's 2010 studio album of the same name, speaks to a lot of the things that started what’s happening now politically, the rapper said. Morello was featured in and helped produce the song.

Since "Rise Up" was released, not much has changed, said Wilk.

“We really are living in a system that is basically run by the status quo, by a few large businesses. It is a system that is broken and doesn’t work for the majority of the country, and there needs to be another option for people, rather than this Democratic or Republican system,” Wilk said. “It just doesn’t work anymore.”

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