Behind the Music: Prophets of Rage puts economic disparity center stage
To say that Prophets of Rage is political doesn’t quite cover it. When reporters or pundits — from ABC to Bill Maher to Rolling Stone — call this combination of musicians from Cypress Hill (1988), Rage Against the Machine (RATM – 1991) and Public Enemy (PE – 1982) a “supergroup,” guitarist Tom Morello is quick to counter them. “We’re an elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bull****,” he says.
While the group’s “Make America Rage Again” tour overtly criticizes Republican candidate Donald Trump, the band doesn’t show any love for Hillary Clinton either, and has only admitted to respecting Bernie Sanders’ attempts to hijack the Democratic Party. Prophets of Rage is old school: they say the system is broken and can’t be fixed from within; change has to come from the bottom, from the people, through culture.
They believe that many lyrics from their combined catalogs of revolutionary music are more relevant today than ever before.
— Prophets of Rage (@prophetsofrage) August 20, 2016
This can seem like empty rhetoric from a band that dropped their first single on the day of a protest show at the Republican National Convention (RNC), yet won’t choose a side in the most divisive U.S. election to date. But that is their stance: that the corresponding levels of dissatisfaction in each camp should be bipartisan motivation for radical change rather than polarizing society and perpetuating the status quo.
When he’s not rocking the mic, PE’s frontman Chuck D (Carlton Ridenhour) is a national representative for Rock the Vote as well as a university-level motivational speaker. He and Morello agree that no matter who moves into the oval office, they will be only one person and it is not enough for citizens to cast their vote every four years and hope the elected individual can or will fix everything. You have to help your brothers and sisters on a daily basis, you have to take the power back.
With that philosophy in mind, the group puts economic inequality at the forefront of their work. Before playing pop-up shows to bookend Cleveland’s End Poverty Now march during the RNC, the band could be found on a rooftop in Los Angeles playing an unadvertised free show exclusively for the people on Skid Row. Several banners hung below them, saying “Keys, Not Handcuffs,” and “They Say ‘Get Back,’ We Say ‘Fight Back.’”
“By most accounts, Skid Row residents loved having the Prophets of Rage join them in the community,” wrote Eric Ares in an e-mail to Street Sense. Ares is a community organizer and communications coordinator for Los Angeles Community Action Network’s (LA CAN), which includes helping produce their street paper, The Community Connection. LA CAN’s logo could be spotted on one of the Skid Row show’s banners.
“More than just a concert, this was an opportunity for homeless and/or extremely poor residents to unite in a call for an end to the criminalization of homelessness.” Ares said. “This wasn’t about a publicity stunt, this was about solidarity and putting the issues facing Skid Row at the forefront. But, of course, the music was awesome too.”
Three weeks later, the band was scheduled to play for more than 700 inmates on good behavior at a California state prison. Plans to enter with the nonprofit Jail Guitar Doors were canceled last minute by the California Department of Corrections, reported the local CBS News affiliate. Working with what they had, Prophets of Rage set up a stage on the street outside of the prison walls and played a truncated 3-song set, loud enough to be heard inside. Plans were also made to donate equipment to Jail Guitar Doors, which supplies instruments to inmates.
Two weeks later, Prophets of Rage kicked off a whirlwind North American tour on August 19 at Fairfax’s Eagle Bank Arena, just outside of the nation’s capital. Between songs, Cypress Hill MC B-Real (Louis Freese) and Chuck D could be heard asking the crowd to “fight for your freedom,” “think for yourself,” and “throw your fists and your peace signs up in the air at the same d*** time.” The 10,000-seat arena erupted in cheers when Morello announced mid–set that a portion of the night’s proceeds would be donated to D.C.’s own Bread for the City, a nonprofit homeless service provider.
“Tomorrow, in your home, in your school, in your community, in your place of work, in your country and in the world at large — it’s up to you, without apology or compromise, to fight for the world you really want to live in,” Morello said after describing Bread for the City’s mission and before diving into the last 5 songs of the night.
This donation structure will be repeated with local homeless charities at every stop on the arena and amphitheater-laden tour.
“Bread for the City is grateful to our community of partners who support us in countless, creative ways,” CEO George A. Jones wrote in an e-mail to Street Sense. “Funding our work is critical, and so is getting the word out about the many ways that we are fighting poverty here in D.C. We are delighted that Prophets of Rage selected us as their beneficiary and that they said such encouraging things about Bread for the City in front of thousands of people.”
This is not a new commitment for any of the band members. In recent years, Public Enemy played L.A. Community Action Network’s Operation Skid Row event in 2012 and played for D.C.’s own Sasha Bruce Youthwork in 2009.
RATM is best known for raising over £162,000 in 2010 for the homeless charity Shelter, in the United Kingdom. Bassist Tim Commerford played a show overseas in July with his other band, Wakrat, to raise additional funds for Shelter. RATM also supported several homeless youth organizations over the years, according to looktothestars.org. Drummer Brad Wilk also participated in at least one benefit show outside of RATM, organized by Morello and Serj Tankian’s nonprofit Axis of Justice, to raise money for food banks, according to MTV. And in 2008 Cypress Hill played a benefit show for the Chicago Alliance to end Homelessness, according to AllAccess.com.
Hours before the August 19 Prophets of Rage gig, Street Sense vendor and writer Ronald Dudley — a self-produced rap-artist by the name Pookanu — sat down with Chuck D, Tom Morello and PE Turntabalist DJ Lord (Lord Aswod) to hear more about their motivation and views on homelessness:
Street Sense: What inspires you guys?
Morello: I know I’ve been inspired by a couple things. I didn’t really choose to be a guitar player, that sort of chose me. Then once I was stuck being a guitar player I had to find a way to weave my thoughts and feelings about the world into what I do for a living. So that’s been my path.
How has hip-hop changed since you first started?
Chuck D: I think one thing that has affected hip-hop from being captivating in its original sense is the disappearance of groups in favor of individuals. In the beginning, hip-hop was a performance art as a priority and it was panoramically watched. I think record companies and business administrations have produced that because it’s easier to renegotiate with one person. And that’s kind of reduced it from being a “we” to a “me” type of thing. And that’s a little less attractive. Another thing that has disappeared from the soundscape and the sightscape is that there’s more women today participating in rap music and hip-hop than ever, but they’re not in the higher realm of what’s going on, promoting and projecting-wise.
How do you guys feel about modern day homelessness?
Morello: It’s an issue that’s near and dear to our hearts. So far we’ve played eight shows. One of those shows was on Skid Row in Los Angeles for the residents there. And every show that we’ve charged any money for, we’ve given 100% of the money away, from the ticket sales and the t-shirt sales, to homeless organizations in those cities. And tonight we’ve got a partner, part of the proceeds will go to Bread for the City.
Have you or anyone close to you experienced homelessness?
Morello: I’ve worked for years with an organization called PATH in Los Angeles, People Assisting the Homeless, and I know many of the families there. That’s where my family spent all of our holidays.
Chuck D: Black in America man, you’ll find out that 60 percent of your extended family is on the cusp of being out. Lose a job and then you have unforgiving banks; you have empty buildings and houses — more empty buildings and houses than you have people that are outside of them on the street, that’s troubling.
[DJ Lord nods in agreement]
What should whoever is chosen to be president do to put an end to homelessness?
Morello: Well I can tell you, if I were president, I would make it job one to have zero tolerance for homelessness in the United States of America. Homelessness is not something that happens, homelessness is a crime. It’s almost a war crime, y’know, that there’s almost this kind of disposable part of humanity. We spend money on battleships and we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on presidential and congressional campaigns while people live in the street. It’s outrageous. And I think that any decent society, any humane society, would first and foremost make sure that everyone has a place to stay, everyone has enough to eat, everyone has an education and that everyone has a chance.
You have said that you are “making America rage again” and that it is not enough just to vote. What more can individuals do?
Chuck D: Making America Rage Again is making America think again and being concerned about everything outside of their individual self. And I think what each and every person can do is begin to think outside of themselves for what they can do to say something or do something to help somebody. Usually for a person to say something of enlightenment to somebody, it doesn’t take much. But in a time where perception and gadgets rule the roost, people feel that the currency of attention is low and that nobody is paying attention to them if they talk about helping somebody, especially if they’re not known for it or not famous or don’t get paid for it. “Each one teach one” is a real statement.
Do you guys have a favorite charity?
Morello: I’m not particular. The target for this entire tour has been homelessness and hunger in the United States – the people that have been left behind by globalization. The 62 wealthiest people on the planet have as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people. Half of the planet has as much money as 62 men and women. It’s an outrage.
DJ Lord: That doesn’t even sound right, that’s crazy.
How quickly did you pull the band together. What was the final push for Tom to call Chuck?
Morello: Part of it certainly was when I kept hearing the Donald Trump campaign being referred to as “raging against the machine” and I was like “no, no, no, no, no, no, no” — we will show you what it is to rage against the machine.
You all have crammed so many shows into this tour: you’re playing almost every night and ending a couple weeks before the election. What’s next?
Morello: We don’t have any election plans yet, but we’ll uh—
Chuck D: —Liniment.
Morello: A hot bath!
DJ Lord: Glucosamine!
What advice would you give homeless people to stay inspired?
Morello: I would just say that there is always a path. And sometimes homelessness has to do with things that may not be in people’s control, where that may be a mental illness or maybe some sort of drug or alcohol addiction that they need help for. So on the one hand, do not be shy about taking advantage of what services might be available. But my advice would be to people who are not homeless: to stop treating homeless people like another species, like some sort of subspecies of humanity. ‘Well there’s people, and then there’s homeless people.’ It’s ridiculous. We are all a human family and I think that we have a responsibility to look out for each other.
Tom’s guitar says “Arm the Homeless.” What does that really mean to you?
Morello: If you knew half the thoughts that are in my head, they would put me in Guantanamo Bay…[shrugs]…I didn’t stutter.
DJ Lord: Next question please, ha ha
Morello: I’m being sort of glib. But y’know, soldiers are armed and commit war crimes; police officers are armed and murder Black people right and left everywhere; this would sort of… even it up.
Chuck D: You’ve got to arm the homeless because it’s already a harm the homeless [society]. The unfair thing about it: you have militia, police force, the military, who will arm up and murder people for the fact that they’re going to group up and ask can they have food, shelter and clothing. That’s troubling, depressing.
Who are you playing for, who needs to hear Prophets of Rage?
Chuck D: There are a lot of people that feel they have no voice. Y’know, the homeless in the United States of America damn sure have less of a voice than banks. If a person’s homeless, what should their move be? To go to a state capital, city hall, state bank — to group up and be there. It’s a news story.
Prophets of Rage is touring with AWOLNATION and Wakrat. A complete list of upcoming tour dates and the album released on August 27 are available at ProphetsOfRage.com. In line with their economic views, tickets for every show also start at $20, significantly underpriced for the type of venues and the renown of the artists. RATM will be the last of the trio to become eligible for induction in the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Morello was interviewed earlier this year for a current Hall of Fame exhibit about politics and music, which will make its way to the Newseum in January 2017. Public Enemy was inducted in 2013 and, according to WAMU, has some of their equipment featured in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening September 24.
DJ Lord warms up the crowd and leads into opening song “Prophets of Rage” at Eagle Bank Arena. This updated version of the 1988 Public Enemy song features a new verse by B-Real and the signature heavy instrumentals of RATM. | Video courtesy of Matthew Daugherty