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Guitarist, Activist Tom Morello: “Music Can Help Steel the Backbone of Those in the Struggle”

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The musician and activist Tom Morello has performed at a number of rallies and concerts over the past three days at the NATO protests in Chicago. Morello is the longtime guitarist of Rage Against the Machine who also performs as the Nightwatchman and with his other band, the Street Sweeper Social Club. “Across the globe, and certainly across the United States, from the Veterans Against the War movement to the rising, boomeranging-back-around union movement, social justice movements are on the rise again,” Morello says. “I hope, to some small degree, that my songs can help be a soundtrack for that struggle and they help people on the front lines.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: German peace activist Reiner Braun from Berlin, also at the NATO summit. He participated in an alternative summit and protested the NATO summit. Among those who were also there was musician and activist Tom Morello, who has performed at a number of rallies and concerts here in Chicago over the past three days. I caught up with him after he performed at the antiwar rally in Grant Park.

TOM MORELLO: Well, I was asked by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War to perform today, and I have done many solidarity actions with them through the years, and I was very happy and pleased to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: What about these soldiers who are about to return their medals? I know that it is not easy for many of them.

TOM MORELLO: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Or their families.

TOM MORELLO: I think there’s nothing more courageous than a soldier who stands up against an unjust war. And that’s what these soldiers are doing, very brave soldiers, courageous soldiers, are doing today.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of music and art in resistance?

TOM MORELLO: Yeah. Well, I mean, what music can do is it can help steel the backbone of those in the midst of a struggle and help put wind in the sails of social justice movements. And I’ve been here over the course of the last three days exhaustively playing songs for a variety of causes, but none more important than today.

AMY GOODMAN: What links do you make between—you’re going to be soon headed to Wisconsin for the race for governor. You’ll be performing in Madison and other places. And here you are at the NATO summit. What are the links?

TOM MORELLO: Well, if only we could recall NATO, would be—would be—or the G8. Those unaccountable bodies, though, are currently not within the spectrum of what we can recall. But, you know, across the globe, and certainly across the United States, from this Veterans Against the War movement to the union—you know, the rising, boomeranging-back-around union movement, social justice movements are on the rise again. And I hope, to some small degree, that my songs can help be a soundtrack for that struggle and they help people on the front lines.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say to those who say, “But NATO represents a multilateral approach to dealing with war”?

TOM MORELLO: Well, I would—I mean, the first person I would try—people that I would try to explain that to are the civilians who have lost family members from NATO’s, you know, generous actions around the globe. And, you know, there have been unforgivable war crimes that have occurred over the course of the last decade at NATO’s bloody hands. That’s what these veterans here have come to express, and they’re going to return their medals because of that.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you going to be performing today?

TOM MORELLO: It’s still—there’s still some discussion and debate about what’s going to be performed, but I have a small catalog of songs that I’ve written for veterans, Iraq Veterans Against the War. I’m going to start with those. One of them is called “Battle Hymns.” One of them is called “Stray Bullets.”

[singing] Woah oh oh
Ayy ee yay
I I I sail away
Woah oh oh
Ayy ee yay
Slide on down
Woah oh oh
Ayy ee yay
What is lost
You gave away
Stray bullets rainin’ on
Down, down, down
Stray bullets rainin’ on down.

“Stray Bullets” is a song I wrote for Tomas Young, who’s a disabled Iraq veteran who’s a good friend of mine. And he was in Iraq for five days before his spine was severed by a bullet. And it’s—you know, it’s kind of a—having spent some time talking with him about it and the very conflicting feelings he has about what patriotism means when you’ve given everything for a war that you don’t believe in.

AMY GOODMAN: So here you are in Chicago, not that far, probably, from where President Obama is. This is his home town. He made sure—

TOM MORELLO: Yeah. We’re staying at the same hotel, yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You are staying at the same hotel?

TOM MORELLO: Yeah, so I understand. So the Secret Service would have me understand.

AMY GOODMAN: Aha! Which hotel is that?

TOM MORELLO: What’s that?

AMY GOODMAN: Which hotel is that?

TOM MORELLO: The Sheraton.

AMY GOODMAN: Aha, very interesting.

TOM MORELLO: You won’t get near it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, did anyone confuse the two of you? Because, you know, it’s possible.

TOM MORELLO: I hope to share an elevator with him at some point.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your background.

TOM MORELLO: Yeah, well, I mean, we’re both—we both have Kenyan fathers and white American mothers, and we both attended Harvard University at the same time. He was in law school while I was an undergrad. And we’re both from Illinois. And we’re both pretty good basketball players, too, so—though our politics may differ.

AMY GOODMAN: And have you ever met?

TOM MORELLO: No, we’ve never met.

AMY GOODMAN: What would you say to President Obama if you met him in the elevator?

TOM MORELLO: I’d like to see him in the pit of a Rage Against the Machine show. Let’s start there. Let’s see if he’s really down with the people.


TOM MORELLO: As for NATO? Oh, well, I mean, again, I think that—I always have the strong conviction that change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. And so, it’s what we do in the streets and the kind of mass movements that we can mobilize that are going to not just—that are going to demand change, as opposed to, you know, begging elected officials to do something on our behalf.

AMY GOODMAN: And the people who are being arrested here, the raids we’re hearing about that are happening in the afternoon and the night, the people, young people, who are being charged with terrorism?

TOM MORELLO: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Well, I mean, none of that should come as any surprise. I mean, this is a—the message that is being presented here by the protesters is one that’s very, very threatening to the moneyed interests who, you know, back NATO, who back the G8. And so, you know, I think that we haven’t seen the last of the repressive measures this weekend.

AMY GOODMAN: Musician Tom Morello.

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