When a friend first told me that members of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill were joining forces to “Make America Rage Again” with a musical “super group” called the Prophets of Rage, I was suspect. Of course, I love these bands and their politically-charged music, but I was worried that reviving revolutionary songs from the 1990s like “Fight the Power” and “Killing in the Name” would somehow feel stale and out of touch today. I was wrong. In bringing their own brand of hip hop and rock n’ roll fury, the Prophets of Rage (with their release The Party’s Over and recent slate of shows across Canada and the US) are showing the need for more revolutionary music with popular appeal.
It was RATM guitarist Tom Morello’s idea to form the Prophets of Rage to counter the current political climate, specifically in the United States. With Zack de le Rocha uninterested in a RATM reunion, Morello and the rest of the band reached out to legendary MCs Chuck D and B-Real to pool their collections of protest songs and launch an attack on the status quo. We should be glad they did.
In a recent interview, Morello explained that he feels that people in the post-Occupy world are looking too much to electoral politics to bring about social change. Instead, he argues that people today need to understand that radical social transformation will not come from “above,” but rather will be brought about by people organizing together from “below,” as many RATM, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill songs make clear. Morello pointed out that society’s “underlining problems are systemic” and “the songs we (RATM, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill) have been writing for decades attack the system, not individual [political] candidates.” The Prophets of Rage thus hoped their shows would be consciousness-raising experiences that could further ignite young people’s passion for protest and collective action.
While mostly touring the US, the Prophets of Rage also stopped in select Canadian cities (Toronto, Montréal, and Québec City) to “Make Canada Rage Again.” I had the chance to check out their Toronto show this summer at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre and it did not disappoint. Sure, there were some concert-goers who seemed to love RATM but likely couldn’t tell you the difference between Groucho and Karl Marx, but for the most part people were enjoying the politicized atmosphere. And Morello made sure to call special attention to the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, with partial proceeds from the show going to the local activist/community group.
The set list leaned heavily on the RATM catalogue, but it was also a treat to watch Chuck D and B-Real take the mic and perform Public Enemy songs like “Prophets of Rage” and “Miuzi Weights a Ton” and Cypress Hill tunes like “I Ain’t Going Out Like That” and “Shut ‘Em Down.” The show even featured a special guest appearance by Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters) doing a cover of MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” which brought down the house. The unquestionable highlight of the night, though, was a cathartic concluding rendition of “Killing in the Name,” with the whole crowd chanting “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” as a gigantic “Make Canada Rage Again” banner was dropped. It was magic.
Still, when I got home from the show I couldn’t help but revisit some of my initial uncertain thoughts about the Prophets of Rage project. Was this whole thing just a plan to make money by musicians of yore singing protest songs? Perhaps. But if you could have felt the fleeting energy of “Killing in the Name,” for example, then you surely would have known what IWW singer/organizer Joe Hill meant when he said once, “A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once but a song is learned from heart and repeated over and over; I maintain that if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song….[they] will succeed in reaching a great number of workers.” In short, we need more bands like the Prophets of Rage, not less. Clear the way for the Prophets of Rage!
Sean Carleton is the popular culture columnist for Canadian Dimension and a member of the magazine’s Coordinating Committee.