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The Relentless Activism of Tom Morello

The Rage Against the Machine guitarist recounts his raucous RNC protest and explains his inspiration for melding politics and popular music.

Cross-posted from The Nation.

The St. Paul police should have known better than to try to stop Tom Morello. When the activist guitarist showed up at the Minnesota State Capitol building with the recently reunited Rage Against the Machine to protest the Republican National Convention on September 2, police hastily took action. Clearly bent on enervating the thousands of impassioned fans that had gathered on the lawn, authorities shut down the Rage concert before it even started.
Morello grabbed a bullhorn from a security guard and launched into an a cappella version of Rage's hit song "Bulls on Parade." Bow-wow-chikka. Bow-wow-chikka-chikka-chikka. The crowd erupted, jumping up and down in unison and singing along as Morello beat-boxed the guitar riffs and frontman Zack de la Rocha delivered on the makeshift mic. Rage carried on their protest undeterred, leading an anti-poverty march to the convention center where "Darth Vader-clad riot cops"--as Morello described them--dispersed the crowd with a fury of tear gas, rubber bullets and arrests.
"I took the police action at that show as something of a compliment," said Morello, who describes himself as the Harvard educated, half-Kenyan guy from Illinois who is not running for President this year. "It was as though they thought Rage could somehow disrupt the entire convention." He laughed lightly in a deep baritone, "I wish." Footage of Rage's impromptu show--which quickly found its way onto YouTube where it has already been seen over 340,000 times--turned the band's defiance into an iconic moment of the RNC protests. But more than that, it epitomized Morello's irrepressibility, both as a creative artist and a grassroots political activist.
ZP Heller is the editorial director of Brave New Films. He has written for The American Prospect, AlterNet, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Huffington Post, covering everything from politics to pop culture.