Rage Against the Machine once performed at the Democratic National convention in an attempt to protest (both republican and democrat) presidential nominees for the 2000 election. Now, as the two parties seem all but set on their nominees, it’s a good opportunity to take a slight look back. After all, the current election did introduce candidates that only a few years ago would have held no chance at winning, whether because of their political views (Bernie Sanders introduced himself as a democratic socialist) or personal history (Donald Trump is a multi -millionaire and occasional reality TV start). It is perhaps a paradigm shift or just an example showing that the electorate system in the U.S. is in fact democratic and working. As Clinton and Sanders are set to go all the way to the Democratic National Convention to secure their nomination, we take a look back at the DNC in 2000.
RATM comes to mind as the last big rock band to express a voice of discontent towards,politics, big business and abuse of human rights. Rock music has a long history of protesting against authority. Most of these have been in an attempt to show human rights violations and abuse of power. In fact, you can make the case that rock music is in fact protest music. Okay, protest music played against as a steady beat, in most cases.
In 2000 the Democratic Party in the U.S. was about to hold it’s National Convention at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The goal of the convention is to decide on the party’s nominee for the Presidential race against the Republican candidate. The two democratic nominees were vice president Al Gore (who would go on to lose by a small margin the Presidency to George W. Bush) and senator Joe Lieberman. TheDemocrats had won the last two elections through then-current president Bill Clinton who was to give as speech at the convention. Opinions about Clinton’s term in office were divided. Some saw his 8 years as president as a time of sound administration of the U.S. resources and some pointed to the many scandals he had been involved in and the growing involvement of large businesses in national politics.
Several protests occurred around the area where the convention was being held. The Democratic party had in a way held power in the country for the last years and were seen as having to show accountability. It was also a time when the “American dream machine” and culture were being exported in large doses to countries throughout the word. Both democratic candidates were seen by polls to have strong chances ofwinning against their Republican rival. History would prove otherwise. And the Republican candidate that would eventually win office would spark for many more protests, especially for military intervention in the middle- East.
There were protests organized by independent media, anarchist groups and artists. A special zone where these activities could take place was organized outside of the Staples center in an attempt to maintain the security of the Convention, as well as that of the protesters. What received the most attention and media coverage was the concert held by alt-metal band Rage Against the Machine. The band was perhapsthe most prominent bands in the U.S. in terms of a political message. They had been courted to participate in media efforts to get young people to vote but ultimately it had been decided that RATM’s message, or the way that message was conveyed was too aggressive for the general public. RATM themselves showed criticism not only to current government and complacency within the young population, but with the two party system itself. RATM’s message at the time seemed guided more towards showing that political systems themselves throughout the world included too much greed and corruption to ensure that any choice would bring about positive change.
Rage Against the Machine were the alternative metal equivalent of the Clash for the 2000s. They were the most popular rock group out of the ones using music as a means of protest. The music and especially the lyrics were confrontational and the topics of choice were usually cultural imperialism, the decay of western society because of ruthless capitalism and a distrust of authority. To some Rage were theinstigators to a new revolution, a cultural one especially, where their new fans would become familiar with leftist politics and socialist ideology because of the band. RATM made use of imagery either depicting revolutionary heroes like Che Guevara or imagery inspired by rebel movements in Mexico or South America.
Rage had it’s critics of course, as well. Some questioned their motifs and honesty, choosing to highlight the fact that the band were signed to a major label that did, for all intents and purposes, represent big business. Their albums and the promotion by the label had ensured that the band was one of the most popular bands around the 2000’s. Their fan base was of curse not limited to college students with a major in politics, anarchists and dreamy idealists. This was the time when nu metal and post-grunge were the dominating sounds on rock radio and RATM’s own sound was not that much out of place.
Some other harsher critics pointed to the fact that Rage Against the Machine could protest, perform and be successful with their political sloganeering in a country that allowed them to so. I still remember one of their critics saying to me: “If they’re such socialists, they should try living a communist country in Eastern Europe or Asia and see how much freedom they get there“. One had to be honest in admitting that even for a culture accused of overpowering the culture of other countries and replacing it with it’s own, the voice of criticism could exist and had the opportunity to find it’s followers. This was a point that could be made for democracy existing in theU.S., but most likely it wasn’t the good guys who’d won.
Police expressed fears that the concert would attract violent audiences and attempts were made to stop RATM from performing. In the end the concert and the protest did take place in light of the 1st Amendment right to free speech. Although the sound of Rage Against the Machine and singer Zach de la Rocha’s lyrics were considered by some to be too militant, the concert went through without any violence. However, following the end of the band’s performance, protesters clashed with police. Reports of the incidents differed with some calling out the police as having provoked a riot in which they used violence as a means to stop it. Other reports however suggested that protesters threw rocks at the police and the force used was in some ways justified. Another report made mention of two protesters climbing the walls surrounding thegathering and waiving black flags. The action was met with some hostility by police who maced one of the protester in face (reported news agency CNN at the time).
As for the concert, it came as part of a lineage of rock concerts intended as protests, political gatherings and a voice lent towards human rights. The Detroit proto-punk MC5 had played at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. The group was seen as somewhat of an equivalent of the Rage Against the Machine for the ’60s. The scope of the protest was to stop the Vietnam war and MC5 were known as a band that promoted left wing politics. Their protest was dispersed by the police using tear gas. Other bands like Neil Young had been scheduled to appear at the gathering but the riot put a stop to the rest of the concert. Zach de la Rocha would refer to the influence that the MC5 had had on his own band.
In 1963 on the “March on Washington protest for human rights and equality, Dr. martin Luther Kind held his famous “I have a dream” speech. Performers at the event included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Bob Dylan was in fact seen as a “protest singer” and his music directly inspired by the folk tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, both of whose music focused on worker’s rights, dignity and equality.Dylan was perhaps the most popular of a host of musicians whose music was directly criticizing certain aspects of government and most notably the war efforts. In fact when Dylan seemed to change his sound and music, he famously was received with large criticism by the public that had to that point adored him.
The RATM concert began with de la Rocha speaking to the audience and saying : “Apparently there’s another show going on across the street, but it’s all sold out. Brothers and sisters, our democracy has been hijacked“. The band then went into Bulls on parade off of the group’s first album. It was a strange place for a rock concert. The space of the concert was drawn out with high chain-link fences. Police were sitting nearby with ammunition, ready to stop any activity that could result in violence.
That band also played some of their most well known songs like Freedom and Sleep now in the fire. De la Rocha decried the power of the groups they were protesting against. He also called the concert and the rally a normal right to protest against something that the band and their public saw as causes that needed their support.
Rage Against the Machine’s first run as a group would end soon, with the band disbanding. The remaining musicians, apart from singer de la Rocha continued working together as Audioslave, joined by singer Chris Cornell. In light of the 2001 terrorist attacks there were discussions in the media about the content of the band’s lyrics. If anything, the next decade showed the importance of a group like RATM as a voice acting towards promoting freedom and ensuring that governments use their power and resources in ways that support their people.