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.
When Rage broke up in 2000, Morello proceeded to play in the commercially successful though less overtly political band Audioslave. Yet Morello still remained true to his passion for fusing music with his profound sense of social justice. Inspired by seeing Bruce Springsteen play “The Ghost of Tom Joad” in concert (a song Rage later covered and Morello has since performed with Springsteen live in what he calls one of the true highlights of his life), Morello began performing under the acoustic guise of The Nightwatchman. “I realized that three chords and the truth can be heavier than a wall of Marshall stacks,” Morello claimed. Or as he wrote on The Nightwatchman’s MySpace page, “You don’t gotta be loud, son, to be heavy as shit.”
Morello jokingly described his Nightwatchman persona as the black Woody Guthrie, though in listening to politically charged songs like “Union Song,” “The Road I Must Travel,” and “One Man Revolution” off the 2007 album of the same name, you get the sense The Nightwatchman could easily be the love child of Che Guevara and Johnny Cash. Morello has always been a one-man revolution. He grew up the only black kid in the nearly all-white Illinois town of Libertyville, where the Ku Klux Klan once placed a noose in his garage that he found after school. He was the only anarchist at a conservative high school, and the only rock and roll guitar player at Harvard, where he stuck to a strict eight-hours-a-day practicing regimen in addition to his political science studies.