“Movements come and movements go,” so it goes in Wake Up. “Leaders speak, movements speak when their heads are thrown.”Art by Gica Tam
Culture Music

Growing up with Rage Against the Machine

Reckoning with RATM's reunion means thinking about how the band hit me when I was much younger, and how that lingers.
Jam Pascual | Nov 19 2019

The first music video by Rage Against the Machine I ever saw was “Sleep Now In the Fire” some time after its official release, and it was on Myx. That day, my tween self wasn't planning on being bombarded by images of dissent, oppression, cops with shields and Wall Street pigs. But like most things that hit you when you're young, they leave you changed, even when you can't comprehend yet what those changes are.

I was watching Zack de la Rocha treating the hegemonic, imperialist West as a sock puppet he could speak through. "I am the noose and rapist, the fields overseer, the agents of orange, the priests of Hiroshima, the cost of my desire." Brad Wilk and Tim Crommerford were blasting airtight rhythms while Tom Morello made his guitar squeak like a police car siren gone haywire. I heard rap and rock combined before through another rock giant, Linkin Park, but I never heard it bristling with revolution, each power chord and cymbal crash demolishing silence like the rattle of chain link fences.

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You don't really know how to process such things when you're young. We were coming off the heels of EDSA Dos, a revolution whose turbulence I could barely understand. America had yet to gather strength for the Occupy movement. And like most adolescents, my ideas of rebellion were half-baked--my distaste for authority were limited to mean teachers, and by my high school days I had a habit of saying “fuck the government” before I could even understand what that meant. But that seed was planted.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is sworn in as the new President of the Philippines in January 20, 2001 by Chief Justice Hilario Davide, following the EDSA Dos that ousted Joseph Estrada. Joel Nito, AFP

I wasn’t like a lot of Gen X-ers or older millennials who discovered Rage Against the Machine well into their adulthood. To me, RATM’s hold on my impressionable kid brain was almost subconscious. It was music that permanently implanted a distaste for anything that looked like vapid displays of power and control--suits and ties, trapos making promises, pastors behind pulpits. Life became a matter, then, of detecting those instruments of control.

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I was a vocalist in a rock band in high school. We used to cover "Killing In the Name" — you know the one, the one with all the fuck yous, the one you didn’t need any tongue dexterity to rap, the one you could just scream. But the catch was, because the only gig circuit we were playing around in consisted of school fairs, I wasn't allowed to cuss. I remember one set we played in Holy Spirit, they cut us off in the middle of the cover. I yelled that “some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses,” then they killed the speakers and zhuzhed us off the platform.

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I am what you might call a wet-behind-the-ears leftist. I'm the typical jackass who built his Marxian theoretical foundation via a liberal arts education his parents paid for and swore to himself he'd change a world run by business majors, before realizing that aligning heart and praxis in the working world is about as easy as following up a ghost client for old checks.

I don’t think I’m an unusual case. Most people get their political kicks once they get to college, putting together ramshackle philosophies and politics from random professors, thinking it’ll make them a rudder that moves them reliably through the world. And as is the case with many disabused graduates, after a while those beliefs get old and tiring to uphold. I’ve seen wild activists and campus politicians get on fire for politics like a self-immolating monk during their time in college, but lose steam as soon as they get employed.

Most people get their political kicks once they get to college, putting together ramshackle philosophies and politics from random professors, thinking it’ll make them a rudder that moves them reliably through the world.

Some are more committed and stick to their political guns well after the formal education system has hurled them into the world. But it’s easy to get jaded with that way of living as well. Struggle can make you susceptible to despair, and the work of liberation can seem endless and futile. This kind of burnout isn’t exclusive to activism--part of the work of simple citizenship is keeping yourself informed and speaking truth to power, a way of going into battle every single day.

Sometimes, going to battle means a boost in morale. A boost in morale is provided by a bard. Sometimes a rap rock band from Los Angeles is a bard. There have been days where I’ll come home from a demonstration, feeling burnt out and beat, and then reinvigorate myself by listening to RATM. For days after Marcos was buried in the Heroes Cemetery, I was listening to RATM.

"Every official that come in, cripples us, leaves us maimed / silent and tamed, and with our flesh and bones, he builds his home," Zack de la Rocha sings in War Within A Breath.

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RATM announced their reunion tour a day after My Chemical Romance announced theirs, prompting an unnecessary but nonetheless interesting dichotomy, in which two species of rakista pitted their subcultures against each other. This dichotomy didn't come out of nowhere. Many people my age remember the aughts as the territory of emo, when in truth, it was locking horns with the nu metal movement for cultural relevance. Paramore and Forever the Sickest Kids were turf-warring with Limp Bizkit and Deftones for MTV airtime. Locally, Slapshock and Typecast were battling on the Myx chart. It was as though Linkin Park's emotionally lyricism and hard-chugging power chords split into two Artistophanean halves. Personally speaking, I was kind of in the middle of these two movements, an emo kid who also enjoyed raps about how wack the world is. I couldn’t see the point of this tug of war.

What a shame it is to see RATM-heads getting all snooty about their political rock when Rage decried shallow, vapid hierarchies. You'd think those people would've learned something from the most anti-establishment band of our time.

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Reckoning with RATM's reunion means thinking about how RATM hit me when I was much younger, and how that lingers. You can imagine how differently it hits now, listening to them with a working knowledge of how the state works as an instrument of bourgeois control, how those with more destroy those with less, how revolutionaries are targeted and dispatched. “Movements come and movements go,” so it goes in Wake Up. “Leaders speak, movements speak when their heads are thrown.”

You think of everybody who grew up listening to RATM and think everybody who bumped to them actually got their message. That’s why it's so surprising to see jackasses who go hogwild to Bulls on Parade but don't get riled up about the drug war. How can you listen to something as flash-bang loud as Guerilla Radio without your class consciousness fidgeting just a little from slumber? "Every official that come in, cripples us, leaves us maimed / silent and tamed, and with our flesh and bones, he builds his home," Zack de la Rocha sings in War Within A Breath--how can you hear those words, and think justice will come from politely debating xenophobes who don’t respect you?

Human rights advocates light candles in protest of President Duterte's war on drugs in Quezon City, December 3, 2017. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

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Watching Trump and Duterte take their presidential seats, I kept thinking about who the next hard-rocking political band would be to blow the system sky high. I kept thinking about RATM, about what they might say if they were together, how maybe a tour would supercharge every movement of dissent happening worldwide--the protests in Hong Kong, the drug war demonstrations here, the all-black antifa rallies that transpire in the States.

It's so surprising to see jackasses who go hogwild to Bulls on Parade but don't get riled up about the drug war. How can you listen to something as flash-bang loud as Guerilla Radio without your class consciousness fidgeting just a little from slumber?

But that’s the wrong thing to think, isn’t it? In their prime, RATM couldn’t fortify the Occupy movement, upturn the neoliberal social order, or make any meaningful system changes. Why did I imagine they could do something now, the evil beings and forces in their lyrics now front and center on the world stage? It’s a silly thing to ask of a rock band.

RATM’s music gave me a way of looking at the world, but that’s it. When they play the Coachella stage, I’m certain nothing amazing is going to happen. Bolsonaro isn’t going to suddenly stop incinerating the Amazon forest. Trump and Duterte won’t immediately step down. In order for their work to mean anything, the children who grew up listening to them will finally have to walk Rage’s walk. It’s up to us to take the power back. Us or nothing.