Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

Q+A :: Tom Morello On Obama, Race & The War

As guitarist for Rage Against The Machine, Tom Morello brought turntable pyrotechnics to the guitar. This past August, he and his fellow bandmates supported anti-war demonstrators, especially Iraq Veterans Against the War, at concerts held during the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

(Click here or here or here for coverage of the Denver protest.)

But before he was a Guitar Hero, Morello worked as an aide to California Senator Alan Cranston. He has seen the political system from both inside and out.

Vibe caught up with Tom Morello performing as The Nightwatchman at a Labor Day Concert for SEIU on the first day of the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, which had been cancelled due to Hurricane Gustav.

Vibe: Do you think the 2008 election will be a historic turning point?

Tom Morello: I think it remains to be seen. I think that anytime we’ve seen real, substantive, progressive, radical, or revolutionary change, it has come from below, not from above.

Two important lessons I learned working with Senator Cranston—who is one of the most progressive guys on issues of the environment, immigration, civil rights, and peace issues—eighty percent of the time I was with him, he spent on the phone asking rich guys for money. That money doesn’t come for free. That is how this system operates. You can change the people in office, but you can’t change the system by pulling the ballot. You can’t.

How change happens, whether it’s been women’s right to vote, desegregating lunch counters, eight-hour work days, is from the people who are not in office, standing up, organizing, struggling, fighting, and demanding their rights—much like the Iraq Veterans Against the War did. Had they backed down and said, ‘we’re going to go along with it and hope for the best’, they never would have gotten that audience. It’s a small microcosm of what this is about.

As the half-Kenyan, Harvard graduate from Illinois, in his early forties, who’s not running for office, I’d say this. If Obama is elected, problems of race don’t go away. This country has four pillars: baseball, apple pie, NASCAR, and racism to hold this shit up. And so it would certainly be a step towards civilization if the electorate were able to put a moderately progressive African American in office. But it should not mean problems of race would be over. We’d have to be extra vigilant against that.

Vibe: That’s one of the things some of the protesters were trying to make a point of out in Denver. They’d say, ‘It’s about accountability and forcing the issue.’

Tom Morello: And memories tend to be short. It was two years ago when a Democratic Congress was elected, to end the war. And they cowardly rolled over like dogs, and didn’t do it. And why aren’t there barricades in the street over that? We put them in office, and they just weren’t held accountable, and that’s key. No matter who’s elected—on November 5th, is when the real work begins for you and me, because you have to make sure, if it’s McCain, you have to fight like a bobcat…in a sack! And if it’s Obama, you have to fight like a bobcat in a sack to make sure it doesn’t backslide.

Vibe: Talk a little bit about what you have been doing around the anti-war movement.

Tom Morello: Well I’ve been a part of the anti war movement since the 10 million person march before the war began. And I think Iraq veterans speak with the most authoritative voice, they set the stage. George W. Bush and I have something in common, neither one of us served under fire. Those men and women did and when you listen to their stories, it brings the reality of what that war is home. We visited them in the Veterans Hospital today, and soldiers lost half their bodies or half their heads, but that’s the reality of it. The whitewashing of the war of mainstream corporate media has been just criminal. We don’t see the maimed families and all the dead Iraqi civilians. All that is ‘Yo is the surge working or not?’ Well what the fuck does that mean? It isn’t working for the 22-year-old boy I saw who doesn’t have any body below his bellow button. It isn’t working for his 19-year-old wife, either. So, I think that Iraq Veterans Against the War not only have the right ideas, but the courage to take on whoever’s in office.

Vibe: Are there any other plans going into the fall, as the debates kick in?

Tom Morello: My touring starts right before the election, so it’ll probably ramp up to that. There’s no doubt that Obama’s going to be a better president than McCain.

Vibe: Are you going to endorse him?

Tom Morello: No. I think that in my music and in my politics, I’d like to keep them completely uncompromised. If there’s a candidate that I see eye to eye with up and down the line, then I’ll endorse that candidate. With his saber rattling about Iran, with his determination to continue an imperialist war in Afghanistan, there’s a lot that’s iffy about that, but he’s certainly better than McCain. I’m not going to give either one of them a chance to breathe when they’re in office. It’s important to continue to put the pedal down when either one of them is in office.

Vibe: Do you think we are on the verge of a new majority in this country?

Tom Morello: I think that race plays such a huge factor in anything in America. The fact that we’ve had these seven years, that we’ve had the worse presidency in the history of the republic, and that the polls show the two candidates, Republican and Democrat, in a dead heat?! Are you kidding me?! You should be able to run a barnyard animal against any Republican candidate and have it be ninety/ten.

Well there’s a simple answer to that. I think it’s an unspoken answer, but it permeates every poll and we’ll see. I was watching the Democratic Convention, and I don’t know if America can vote for a first lady who’s African American and smarter than they are.

Vibe: Whoa.

Tom Morello: I came from a small white town in central Illinois. I’m watching that through the eyes of the parents I grew up around, and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t think they can pull that trigger’. ‘I’ll take the soccer mom from Alaska who can shoot a gun.’ Part of me is screaming in front of the TV: ‘Give the Democrats a chance to fuck it up for once! Enough of that!’

For more on the 2008 election from Tom and many others, check the November issue of Vibe, on newsstands soon!

Tom Morello’s new album, a solo record as The Nightwatchman called “The Fabled City” is out this week. A record with Boots Riley of The Coup and Stanton Moore of Galactic will follow in early 2009.

Special thanks to the intern crew for the transcriptions for this interview series:

Tanya Burnett
Damon Daniels
Crystal Fairweather
David Fromayan
Jason O’Connnor
Lauren Peterson
Merichelle Villapando

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