American foreign and domestic policy has been the subject of many a potent protest song, but perhaps few more powerful than this acclaimed single from punk metal band Rage Against The Machine’s 1993 debut album of the same name. And with President Donald Trump today announcing, scarily, that, “there is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” that criticism has never been a more appropriate. Does anyone have any confidence about the world’s future while that man has his hands on the controls?
Fear of white supremacy and everything it brings, with Trump’s chief adviser, Steve Bannon, running things at the White House, is also not unfounded, and the song makes no subtle references to the KKK with repeated lines such as “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses.”
But the song more generally about those white men in power who use so-called higher ideas, or religious morality, to enter into violent conflict, whereas their real motives are land grabs for power and resources. The cover of the album is Malcolm Browne's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a monk, Thích Quảng Đức's setting fire to himself in Saigon in 1963 in protest of the murder of Buddhists by the US-backed Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm's regime. And the song came out while the police beating of Rodney King was very much in the news.
Yet beyond the actual politics, it is the sheer delivery of the music, with Tom Morello’s blistering guitar and Zach De La Rocha’s forceful vocals, that hit home. This is the ultimate song of defiance, transcending its genre. It became the subject of a successful campaign in 2009 to become the No 1 single against the dominant homogeny of the Simon Cowell X Factor empire, and hilariously, on an appearance on BBC Radio 5Live’s breakfast show, where, quite hopelessly, the De La Rocha was told not to swear during the song, the radio station had to interrupt the band’s performance as the singer repeated the famous lines: “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me.” Priceless.
A year later the band played a free thank-you concert to 40,000 fans in Finsbury Park, north London, and the proceeds from royalties and sales of the single after the campaign were presented to a homeless charity, Shelter. True rebels, true to their word, and the ultimate ‘fuck you’ song, sticking it to the man.
De La Rocha left the band to work on his own music, but in 2016 the others formed Prophets of Rage, a new supergroup with Chuck D of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill.
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