As part of our ongoing series on music and resistance, we speak to Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Boots Riley of The Coup. Their band Street Sweeper Social Club has just released a new record, The Ghetto Blaster EP. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: On Monday, we played an excerpt of Amy Goodman’s interview with guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine in the context of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s comments on President Obama and Kenyan anti-colonialism.
Well, today, as part of our ongoing series on music and resistance, we’ll play the full interview. Last month, Amy interviewed Tom Morello and Boots Riley of The Coup just before they performed at the Rock the Bells festival. They’re in a new band together called Street Sweeper Social Club.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, and we’re joined by Boots Riley and Tom Morello. Boots is with The Coup. Tom Morello is with Rage Against the Machine. But they’re actually with each other, because they formed a new group. It’s the Street Sweeper Social Club.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
BOOTS RILEY: Thanks for having us.
TOM MORELLO: Thanks for having us.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s an honor to have you. What is the Street Sweeper Social Club?
TOM MORELLO: Boots, tell her.
BOOTS RILEY: Well, a street sweeper is a big gun that shoots — that shoots — an automatic weapon that shoots shotgun rounds. And the whole idea is that our music is the weapon, and a street sweeper is the slang for that weapon on the street. And we’re Street Sweeper Social Club. We’re a group of folks that put out music that is a weapon to fight the injustices and hopefully a weapon that — a cultural weapon that people that are organizers can use to do their work.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about one of your songs.
BOOTS RILEY: Let’s see. One of the songs on this album is called — well, we have a new album out right now. It’s called The Ghetto Blaster EP. It’s an EP. We had an album last year called Street Sweeper Social Club. And off this album, “Ghetto Blaster” refers to the idea that, as an organizer, as someone working against the system, you’re a ghetto blaster, because we want to destroy the system that creates ghettos, the system that, you know, creates that wealth gap. And so, that’s what the song “Ghetto Blaster” is about.
[Street Sweeper Social Club, “Ghetto Blaster”]
AMY GOODMAN: Tom Morello, how did you and Boots get together?
TOM MORELLO: Boots and I became acquainted in 2003. We were on an acoustic tour called the Tell Us the Truth Tour with Steve Earle and Billy Bragg. And while I’d been a fan of Boots Riley’s music in his group The Coup, it was on this tour where I got to realize his lyrical brilliance in the context of an acoustic set. And we became good friends, as well. I was in a band called Audioslave. When that band disintegrated, I called Boots up. I took him out to an inexpensive Brazilian dinner, and at that dinner I told him, “We are in a band together. It’s called 'Street Sweeper Social Club.' It’s going to be revolutionary party jams.” And I handed him a cassette tape of about twenty musical ideas. And I said, “Start writing.” Now, poor Boots had hardly time to digest his plantains, and he had to start looking for a cassette deck to play that thing to begin writing the songs. But —-
BOOTS RILEY: Which was really hard to find.
TOM MORELLO: It was very difficult to find.
BOOTS RILEY: You know.
TOM MORELLO: That was the bar for his inclusion into the Social Club, but he managed to do it, and we’ve been a group ever since.
AMY GOODMAN: What was the first song you wrote?
BOOTS RILEY: “Somewhere in the World It’s Midnight.”
[Street Sweeper Social Club, “Somewhere in the World It’s Midnight”]
BOOTS RILEY: That song is just basically taking the idea that, you know, people are always saying it’s not time, we’re not ready to struggle, we’re not at that point where we can do this, we can build a mass movement. And it’s saying, look, all of these things are going on all over the world somewhere, and it’s time to take a stand right now. I mean, basically the same thing all of my songs say. You know? They all say the same thing in different ways, sorry. You know.
TOM MORELLO: One thing that Boots does which I found attractive in a band mate is that -— it’s his lyrics, they combine a wit and a satire along with a political venom. And, you know, it’s one part Huey P. Newton, and it’s one part Richard Pryor.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about your organizing. And you’re both organizers. Boots, you came out of organizing. Tom, you’re doing it right now — both of you are — in Oakland. You’re doing it around Arizona.
TOM MORELLO: This is Tom Morello for Sound Strike. Sound Strike is encouraging all artists and musicians to boycott the state of Arizona over the passage of SB 1070, the racist law that’s just basically a version of softcore apartheid. And we’re trying to get that law off the books by bringing as much economic pressure to bear on the state by withholding our creative and commercial services from the state of Arizona, encouraging all artists and musicians to join us.
TOM MORELLO: Street Sweeper and myself were part of the Sound Strike movement in Arizona. It was founded by Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha. And, you know, it’s part of the international movement to attack this festering racist legislation, which we are afraid may go viral to other states, as well, and so, you know, to use what power and voice we have as musicians to let our audience know that we’re not going to be complicit in it. And so, artists have been — you know, from actors like Chris Rock to directors like Michael Moore to a rainbow coalition of musicians, both domestically and internationally, have vowed to boycott Arizona until that legislation is put to bed once and for all. And while we’re all in favor of immigration reform that treats everyone involved — that respects everyone’s opinion and treats everyone involved with the humanity and dignity they deserve, this legislation must not — this racist legislation must not stand. And we’re going to do what we can by withdrawing our economic power from the state of Arizona until it’s changed.
AMY GOODMAN: And what response have you gotten?
TOM MORELLO: Well, I mean, the response has been great among musicians. And a lot of, surprisingly, people have come out of the woodwork, from artists that are not known for their politics, like Maroon 5 or Joe Satriani. You know, instrumental musicians like that have, you know, pitched in.
BOOTS RILEY: Kanye West.
TOM MORELLO: Kanye West — you know, have been very happy to join that movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us where you come from, Tom. Who are your parents?
TOM MORELLO: I was raised by my mom, Mary Morello, who founded an anti-censorship organization called Parents for Rock and Rap. That was the anti-PMRC, Parents Music Resource Center, founded by Tipper Gore, which is a pro-censorship organization. My father is Kenyan. My parents met in East Africa. My great uncle is Jomo Kenyatta, who was Kenya’s first president. And my mom went there to teach. You know, they have these — my mom’s from a tiny coal-mining town in central Illinois and somehow got the impetus to travel the world on her own and visited, you know, Germany, China, but ended up in Kenya, where she became part of the — Kenya’s independence struggle, met my father there. And my dad was part of Kenya’s first United Nations delegation. That’s why I was born in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: So there are some similarities between you and President Obama.
TOM MORELLO: Well, other than the fact that we’re, you know, devastatingly handsome, half-black dudes with Kenyan fathers, white American mothers, from Illinois, who both went to Harvard, no, there’s very little in common between us.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think about that?
TOM MORELLO: Well, you know, I thought I was the only guy. You know, like when he gave his breakout speech to the world at the Democratic convention, you know, I guess eight — six years ago now, I really couldn’t believe it, because he was basically reading my bio. I’m like, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” And now he’s been on the cover of Rolling Stone more times than I have, so there’s some envy in it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what has been Kenyatta’s influence on you?
TOM MORELLO: Well, I mean, it was — I grew up in Libertyville when I was a very — I literally integrated the town. I was the first person of color to reside within its borders. And it’s a very — it’s a district where Democrats don’t even run. I mean, that’s how conservative it is. But within that very, you know, at the time, exclusively white, conservative, narrow conservative bastion, you know, we had pictures of Kenyatta on the wall. We had, you know, Kwame Nkrumah’s books. There was, you know, Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare manual. It was one of the things just sort of laying that I was flipping through as a child. So the politics of my home were very, very different than the politics of the community, which I think, when I got to the sort of the age of — the teenage age of rebellion, really helped hone my politics in a way that might not have happened in other circumstances.
AMY GOODMAN: And Boots, your parents?
BOOTS RILEY: My parents were organizers. They were — my father started out in the civil rights movement, in the NAACP as an organizer in the — in Durham, North Carolina, moved to the Bay Area with CORE, then was in pretty much every group you could name, know. He was in Students for a Democratic Society and the Progressive Labor Party. And —-
TOM MORELLO: So, one thing that Boots and I share is we’re the least radical members of our families.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. And now he heads up the Haiti Action Committee, or one of the heads, actually, I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: In Oakland?
BOOTS RILEY: In Oakland, California.
AMY GOODMAN: So you continue your organizing in Oakland. Oscar Grant -—
BOOTS RILEY: Well, right now, you know, it’s so hard to — put it like this. If you’ve ever dealt with musicians, it’s hard to get them to the studio or to the show on time. So the idea of organizing at the same time as being a musician is something that I’ve really tried to figure —-
TOM MORELLO: He’s not pointing fingers at me, by the way. I’m pretty prompt.
BOOTS RILEY: —- tried to — really tried to figure out how to do. So, you know, I shy away from people saying that I am an organizer. I have been an organizer, and I try to lend my music to struggles and campaigns, as it comes about. And I’ve been involved in different campaigns, as it goes around. But there are a lot of musicians that claim that they are organizers, and I don’t want to be — I don’t want to mislead people.
AMY GOODMAN: But what do you think the issues are important to organize around now in Oakland and around the country?
BOOTS RILEY: Well, I think that those are the same issues that are important to organize around all over the world. What people are worried about is how are they going to have a roof over their heads? How are they going to put food on the table? And, you know, because of that, what wages are they getting paid? I think that a lot of the radical movements have left behind some of those regular, everyday things. You know, when I talk to people in Oakland — and throughout my time growing up in Oakland, people have said to me, you know, “What you’re talking about, this, you know, revolution, socialism, communism, all of that is great, but I’ve got to pay the bills.” There was a time when that was one and the same thing. Right now there is a lot of focus on the macroeconomic problems and what’s left — who’s left to deal with the everyday nuts and bolts of people’s lives are not the radical element. And so, I think that we need to put some revolutionary politics onto some reform struggles that have to do with feeding people, have to do with people getting higher wages. Some militant union work, basically. Things like that.
AMY GOODMAN: So I want to talk about organizing, doing music under President Obama. Tom Morello, when it came to Bush, you were really out there. You made a video that closed down Wall Street.
TOM MORELLO: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Your concert at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles closed down the concert. Talk about the different organizing you did then and what are you doing now.
TOM MORELLO: You’ve got a big event that needs to be closed down, you get Rage Against the Machine to show up. It’s likely that it will. I mean, I didn’t choose to be a guitar player; that chose me. So, what that as my de facto calling, throughout my career — you know, since I started playing guitar at seventeen years old, I’ve tried to find ways to wend my music with my politics.
AMY GOODMAN: But weren’t you the scheduler for Senator Alan Cranston?
TOM MORELLO: Yeah, I was Alan Cranston’s scheduling secretary for a couple of years, which was — it was basically just a day job. It was the one job I could get with my Harvard degree. I couldn’t — I had no work experience. I couldn’t get hired to sell Iron Maiden T-shirts on Hollywood Boulevard, but they would hire me to do Senator Cranston’s schedule. And so, but — I mean, that was actually very instructive, because during my time at Alan Cranston — you know, God rest his soul. He was as progressive a senator as you’d want. He still spent most of his time on the phone asking rich guys for money. That was my day-to-day experience, which was very instructive, and it made me think that — and also it was — there was a pressure in that office to sort of conform to this rigid decorum, which was, you know, as a dyed-in-wool punk rocker, was just not going to fly.
For example, one day a woman called up, wanted to speak to the senator. He was unavailable, so I fielded her call. And she was complaining because Mexicans were moving into her neighborhood. She was — wanted to let the senator know that she was opposed to that. And I said, “Ma’am, you’re a damn racist, and you can go to hell,” thinking that I had done the senator’s good work that day. Well, I was yelled at for about two weeks and, you know, up and down — up and down the ladder. And I realized then that if I’m in a job where I can’t tell damn racists to go to hell, then I’m not in the correct job. So that’s when I vowed that I would continue with my guitar playing and perhaps leave the senatorial work to someone else.
AMY GOODMAN: What about your guitar style?
TOM MORELLO: My guitar style was — I mean, it was born and bred of late '70s, 7-Eleven parking lot rock. I grew up loving the hard rock bands of the ’70s. But then it was groups like The Clash and Public Enemy that I could relate to the lyrics. And I tried to incorporate styles that went beyond traditional guitar playing. In Rage Against the Machine, I was the DJ as the guitar player, and so I started incorporating styles that went beyond sort of the normal Chuck Berry, Keith Richards riffs and — until I found my own voice on the instrument.
AMY GOODMAN: You're also influenced by Pete Seeger?
TOM MORELLO: Sure, very much. In my — when not playing with Street Sweeper or with Rage Against the Machine, I have a solo project called The Nightwatchman, and it’s a — I came to folk music late, but I really love it. And I’ve made a couple of records, and I have another one in the can now. And I’ve found that — I’ve always been drawn to music that is heavy. And I realized, in discovering folk music, the music of Pete Seeger in particular, the early Dylan and the Springsteen acoustic albums, that music doesn’t require Marshall Stacks in order to be very heavy and that three chords and the truth can be just as devastating as any powerful riff.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there a song from Nightwatchman you’d like us to play?
TOM MORELLO: Sure. You could play the song “Whatever It Takes” off the Fabled City CD.
[The Nightwatchman, “Whatever It Takes”]
TOM MORELLO: Most of the Nightwatchman songs are self-referential to the point of — you know, they’re sort of myopic in that way. Nightwatchman songs are about the Nightwatchman being the Nightwatchman and sort of finding personal redemption through struggling for social justice. And that song certainly does that.
AMY GOODMAN: Boots Riley, your album, what, more than nine years ago now, about ten years ago, famous CD cover, the Twin Towers blowing up —-
BOOTS RILEY: Mmm, yes, Party Music, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: For people who aren’t familiar with it now, how did that shape, and the reaction to it? That was before 9/11.
BOOTS RILEY: Mm-hmm. You said how did -—
AMY GOODMAN: How did it affect the way you deal with music —-
TOM MORELLO: That poorly timed promotional campaign.
AMY GOODMAN: —- today, and the response to it?
BOOTS RILEY: Hmm. I’m not really aware of it changing the way that I deal with music. I got into music specifically to deal with those issues that came up because of that. Because of that controversy with the album cover —-
AMY GOODMAN: They wanted you to remove it after 9/11.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, well, not just -— the controversy really came because I put out a press release that said that the atrocity that happened on 9/11 was nothing in comparison to the atrocities that the US has done throughout the world. And I name-checked one, which was that just before that — and right now it’s — I’m blanking on it — but the World Court had found the US guilty of killing 30,000 people in Nicaragua, of funding death squads, and the US thumbed their nose at that decision. And I put that out in a press release, and this got the — what I said in that press release got the right-wing journalists in a frenzy, more so than the album cover. But the point is, is that that’s what I got into doing the music for in the first place. As you said, I started out as an organizer. I didn’t get into doing music just so that I could figure out how to, you know, quietly do my thing and hope nobody cares what I’m saying. You know, so my approach has been the same since.
AMY GOODMAN: Which song should we go out with?
TOM MORELLO: We do a cover of — a hard-rocking cover of MIA’s “Paper Planes,” which is the first single from The Ghetto Blaster EP, so I think rocking out would be good.
AMY GOODMAN: And tell us about it.
BOOTS RILEY: Well, I changed the lyrics to make it more radical. And he played the guitar to make it harder.
TOM MORELLO: To make a more radical.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go out with — let’s fly away with “Paper Planes.” Tom Morello, Boots Riley, thanks so much for being here.
TOM MORELLO: Thanks very much for having us. I really appreciate it.
BOOTS RILEY: Peace. Thanks for having us. I’m a big fan.
[Street Sweeper Social Club, “Paper Planes”]