For whom does Tom Morello, lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, protest-musician and activist, painstakingly parody his newest album cover after Phil Ochs’s Gunfight at Carnegie album, dressing as Che Guevara shooting a machine gun with a bombshell revolutionary clasping for dear life to his leg? For whom did he strain his voice to make a noise that sounds something like a fusion of Mellencamp and Guthrie (or as Morello would say, Guevara and Cash)? Or rally pro-union activists in the Wisconsin winter with his guitar for so long that his fingers feel like claws, and then he loses feeling in those too? Why does Tom Morello do it?
It turns out that Morello is just a guy with a deep sense of justice—the kid who integrated Libertyville, Illinois, when he moved there at 1 and a half, who learned about politics on the playground, whose mom’s unionized public school teaching job made sure there were always clothes on his back and food on the table. That was the reason he flew out to Wisconsin when he saw footage of the uprisings on TV, it is the reason he is donating the proceeds from his 8-track EP Union Town to America Votes Labor Unity Fund via SaveWorkers.org. It is part of the reason that the video for the title song features the Wisconsin protesters, and it is part of the reason that he is taking his annual Justice Tour (which coincides with the release of his third solo album, Worldwide Rebel Songs) through the forgotten industrial union bastions of Madison, Wisconsin; Flint, Michigan; and Cleveland, Ohio.
The Justice Tour, on which Morello will be joined by Tim McIlrath of the band Rise Against, is going to places where “people need a little more wind in their sails,” he told The Nation, where “people’s spines need steeling.” This is how Morello operates: “fighting the good fight, guitar in hand.”
He did not even touch the thing until he was 17. “I didn’t really choose to be a guitar player; the guitar chose me,” he says. So after Morello went to Harvard and studied political science, he tried to, as he says, “weave convictions into my vocation and project a little bit of the world I’d like to see” through his music. The act that brought him fame, Rage Against the Machine, had a stated purpose: “to bridge the gap between entertainment and activism; first and foremost, that’s our goal.” To be sure, Rage was deeply political (there’s a Wikipedia page devoted to “Political views and activism of Rage Against the Machine”), but, as the name suggests, it was aimed at dismantling complacency among Americans who were by-and-large satisfied with their lot in Clinton’s so-called New Economy, what Joseph Stieglitz called “the world’s most prosperous decade.”
The hangover from that decade took its toll on America’s working class, and towards the end of that decade, a night of coffeehouse jamming gave birth to The Nightwatchman, the self-proclaimed “Black Robin Hood of 21st-century music." His first Nightwatchman album, One Man Revolution, released in 2007, celebrated the laborers of Havana’s streets, Capetown’s ghettos, Guatemala’s sweatshops and Ohio’s steel mills.
Four years later, Morello is releasing his third album with an ambitious name: Worldwide Rebel Songs. “There’s a decentralized movement,” he says, “among the planet’s poor, working class and downtrodden that we’ve had absolutely enough.” Tom Morello is their man, and they know it; Morello’s lyrics from past albums are being sung by rioters on the streets of London.
And so, for the first time, Morello has chosen media deconsolidation as the central cause of The Justice Tour. The three concerts held in the heart of the rustbelt September 5, 6 and 7 will benefit The Nation Institute, which funds groundbreaking investigative journalism, journalism fellowships and Nation Books publishing. Previous Justice Tours have supported a range of grassroots causes, affordable housing groups, food shelters and labor organizing. But “one thing they all had in common,” Morello told The Nation, “was that they were underreported.” The focus of this Justice Tour, as The Nightwatchman travels through union battle grounds, is to support media that “tells life as it’s being lived”—journalism of the people, by the people, for the people.
But the heart of Morello’s activism remains born in the USA; he reminds fans that The Nightwatchman is “not coming to take your money, I’m not looking for your vote or campaign money to call up big business.” As a person whose goal is to make a difference in an age of disillusionment, Morello couldn’t do much better than to be a musician. “Music,” he says, is “inextricably linked to politics; it’s the way that people tell truth to the reptilian brain; it viscerally speaks in a language that you don’t find in a pamphlet or magazine; it feels righteous and true.” If Wisconsin was what democracy looked like, then The Nightwatchman is what democracy sounds like. “After all,” he asks, “how many more times can we sing ‘We Shall Overcome?’ ”