Music has historically played a strong role in social movements, including those led by Los Angeles artists N.W.A. and Rage Against the Machine. The latter's guitarist — and longtime activist — Tom Morello did a little raging against City Hall at Occupy LA on Saturday, with a performance under his solo guise The Nightwatchman. (He'll also play at the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York on Thursday.)
West Coast Sound got on the phone with him to hear his thoughts on music's role in the protests.
“I think that music's combination of harmony, rhyme, truth and groove speaks to the reptilian brain of human, in a way that's different from the written or spoken word,” he says. “Check the historical record — you don't win unless you've got an excellent soundtrack.”
“When I first showed up people were like 'Thank you so much for coming!' But it's like, well I live in Los Angeles, this is my city too! Why wouldn't I be here?” he goes on. “And I like that it's a place you can go. It's like a revolutionary The Grove!”
One interesting thing about the protests is that, in the midst of all of these “human mics” a single musical leader has yet to emerge. Morello thinks that's just fine. “I don't think this movement is going to sink or swim if Rhianna doesn't develop a social conscience or if Nikki Minaj doesn't play at Occupy LA five days a week,” he says, adding that collective action is more important than celebrity endorsements.
Still, well-known performers shouldn't be excluded, he adds, noting that he's heard of a sort of “reverse elitism” from protesters against celebrities. “[We] should all be welcome,” he says. He'd also, if he could, buy the Occupy L.A. performers some first-rate amplification equipment. “That's one thing that our side never really gets together, and their side always has — the tech aspect. Like, you get the right PA there, U2 might show up!”
“This movement is something that's figuring out what it is as we go along,” he continues. While its seeds may have been planted at February's uprisings in Wisconsin, Occupy is fundamentally different from other “rank-and-file” protests.
“[After the recall elections] it was a return to business as usual. This feels, in a way, un-co-optable because of the grassroots nature of it,” he says. Meanwhile, the ill-defined goals also contribute to the appeal for him. “The slogan of 'We are the 99%' is part of the all-inclusive vibe.”
With only a small amount of trepidation, Morello is looking forward to playing Occupy Wall Street this week. He says authorities have, in one sense, shot themselves in the foot with the PA ban, as the call-and-response “human mics” have helped unify the protesters.
He says protesters in L.A. should use their PA systems while they still can. Which begs the question: What would he suggest for a soundtrack?
“I would humbly submit Nightwatchman's Worldwide Rebel Songs,” he says. “It's about bringing everybody up onstage on that one microphone, all singing the same song in solidarity together, without any differentiation between the artist and the people. Because that's sort of the point.”