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12 min readDec 28, 2020

The Problem with the Right Wing and Rage Against the Machine

Rage Against the Machine are a staple in modern American music. At this point in our country’s history, they’ve risen above being a symbol of the 90s alternative scene and become one of the most distinguished and recognizable names in the last 40 years. They’re an enigma because of that. How did such a politically polarizing and heavy rap metal band climb so high in the world of rock music?

I suppose you could say it was the timing. They came about during the Bush era, that’s the first George Bush who plundered the Middle East before his son took the reigns and brought new terror to the Eastern world. This was a time when the left had really had enough of the right wing oppression brought on by the Reaganism of the 80s and carried on into the 90s by Bush. Rage Against the Machine was the right band at the right time, they made anthems for the disillusioned gen-x youth who were drawn by the expression of the band both in their lyrics and musical skill.

Rage Against the Machine did not sound like any other band coming out of the alternative scene of the 90s, they still don’t to this day. Tom Morello’s guitar work is the culprit behind that, take a listen to any song and you can always tell when he’s behind the axe, his whirly-bird sound has over the decades become almost as recognizable as Eddie Van Halen’s signature “tapping.” It’s that effect that allowed Rage’s music to be tied to hip-hop as it mimics the sound of a DJ scratching a turntable common in the classic hip-hop sound. Along with the forceful, youthful and politically charged voice of Zack de la Rocha, Rage’s brand was enticing from the get-go. Finally a band had mixed both heavy metal and rap and made their own distinct sound from this chemical combination.

The 90s music scene was a time where underground and heavy music suddenly became cool, largely thanks to the success of Nirvana and MTV. Bands such as TOOL came up around this time, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins and countless other bands that would’ve been laughed at by any major label back in the early 80s. Rage Against the Machine came about at just the right moment in history with their self-titled debut and its historic track “Killing In The Name.”

“Killing In The Name,” a brief yet biting critique of police brutality in America was unleashed unto the world on November 2, 1992, a year of haunting police brutality and violence erupting after the Rodney King trial. The song allies the police forces of America with the Ku Klux Klan with the famous line “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses.” There’s great anger in these lyrics coming from the mouth of MC Zack de la Rocha, a black man from Los Angeles. The song also famously contains the screamed line “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!” a whopping 17 times. The built up anger of the previous repeated verses finally coming to a climactic eruption. It still lights a fire under your ass no matter how many times you hear it.

So what does all of this have to do with Trump and American conservatives? There’s many answers to this question and to explain it we must look at the biggest contributor to Rage’s longevity: major label marketing.

As stated before, Rage Against the Machine came at the perfect time when alternative music was finally drawing attention from the masses. Record labels in the 90s were signing bands whom they would have considered undesirable artists en masse. How the hell did a band like the Melvins make it onto Atlantic records? Public interest… and a helpful nudge by Kurt Cobain. The 90s was a time where the underground rose out of the ashes and gained traction among mass audiences. It brought an angrier sound in music into the mainstream and young people all across the world were turning onto it all. This music blew the Beatles out of the water and generation x had its soundtrack for revolution… but in the end it all kind of faded away.

The problem with such talented bands being signed to major labels is they are subject to the scummy practices of the music industry. While they stand to make a lot of money themselves they are not always afforded the right amount of creative control or ownership of their music. It runs bands into the ground and Rage Against the Machine was unfortunately a part of this process despite maintaining creative control. They weren’t able to anticipate how they’d be perceived however.

Rage signed to Epic records, a subsidiary of Sony Music, after a little less than a year of being a band. Rage had not put out a single official release other than a 12 song demo that was released at shows. By 1992 the band had their first major label release and it was a critical and commercial success for a band who had only been around for a year. They were praised for mixing the hard political raps from MC de la Rocha with the kick ass funk infused metallic riffs and rhythm section provided by axeman Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk. Many people had never heard such a mixture of genres at the time, but Rage Against the Machine was not the first to blend the two.

Many bands before Rage had tried to blend the two genres but the sound was usually just a heavier version of Run-DMC. Biohazard from Brooklyn, NY is recognized as being one of the first bands that successfully mixed the two and made their own sound out of it which flew under the radar when their self-titled debut dropped in 1990. Biohazard did however help usher the genre into the MTV crowd with their music video for “Punishment” in 1992, the same year Rage broke through and while Rage became the more successful of the two Biohazard still maintains a strong fanbase in the hardcore and metal scene.

The point being made here is that Rage Against the Machine had been provided the marketing opportunity that other rap metal bands before them had. They burst onto the scene before rap metal became a thorn in the side of heavy music in the late 90s thanks to nu-metal. Now we arrive here at 2020, a full 20 years since Rage Against the Machine first broke up and their music still serves as a soundtrack to disenfranchised youths of America who recognize severe race and class issues in America, the lyrics unfortunately hold true to this very day.

The Trump administration brought about massive protests almost every year as racial injustices, gender discrimination, economic downturn and the lackluster response to coronavirus had finally unsheathed the country’s true colors to the masses. This seemed the perfect time for Rage Against the Machine’s music to be utilized for the revolution the band screamed for in its tracks. While their music did fuel the revolutionary attitudes that brought protestors to the streets, the music was also utilized as a driving force for the very people who were perpetuating this oppression.

As recently as the 2020 election there were twitter videos of Trump supporters blasting “Killing in the Name” at a “Stop the Count” protest in Pennsylvania, the state that turned the tide in President elect Joe Biden’s favor. The video features a woman and two men, “dancing” around and singing to the tracks repeated verse “Now you do what they told ya” and the chorus “Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge they’re the chosen whites.” The irony of this video clearly is lost on all 3 of them as the blonde woman sports an American flag tank top, a MAGA hat and a thin blue line flag worn like a cape around her back. The two men in the video are seen waving around Trump 2020 flags.

The response to these videos from the metal scene is always either surprise or defense from those who intend to troll commenters. The surprised response from the scene is usually people questioning what these Trump supporters would find relatable to Rage Against the Machine’s music. People who listened to Rage and share similar views to the band will always respond with outrage to these ironic videos as they should, the people in them have not dissected the lyrics at all and are busy dancing joyfully in their white privilege.

What do these people find relatable about a staunchly left leaning band? Why do they hear lyrics about cops being KKK members and find solace in them? The answer is they don’t. The lyrics go unheeded, they are just white noise to these people. The feeling of the music is what drives them. You can already picture a white man in a bible belt state turning the keys in his lifted heavy duty pickup truck, Punisher thin blue line and Trump 2020 stickers on his back window or rear bumper, connecting his bluetooth and blasting Rage’s entire 1999 classic The Battle of Los Angeles on his way to work or hunt or whatever those kooks do.

It’s impossible for fans to prevent these people from listening to the music as everyone has their own tastes in music and will tune out both the lyrics and their meaning and anyone who tries to correct them. White people such as those in the video may have grown up in the 90s and enjoyed this music and may have even had some of that rebellion in them back in those days. Maybe they attended a RATM concert and held those lyrics close to their heart but later on in life they unknowingly turned against the actual music and picked up political agendas that would have disgusted them twenty-years prior. They are able to do this because the things Zack rapped about in those songs do not apply to them and they don’t allow them to apply to them because they don’t truly support those who have been oppressed. They’ll see a BLM protest and start complaining about the property damage, or they’ll drive around sporting a thin blue line sticker on their car for whatever reason people have for adorn their vehicles with them, I can’t think of any.

It should come as no surprise to listeners that there are just as many ignorant people in the world as there are sensible individuals who listen to Rage Against the Machine, yet there always seems to be outrage when a right winger utilizes their music. A band with such an established platform is going to have ignorant listeners, the band cannot control that especially in today’s wannabe defiant world. People who sit in a position of privilege who are turned on by Rage’s music will remain ignorant to the issues of racism and continue to simply drown out the lyrics the way they have the BLM protests earlier this year. Yet each time there is no shortage of surprise when these ironic moments in music history occur. Tom Morello reposted the video mentioned earlier on his twitter stating “Not exactly what we had in mind” feigning some surprise to the fact that these Trump supporters clearly ignored the lyrical content. He has to expect this however at this point in his career, the fans he used to play in front of are now turning old and put their revolutionary youth behind them in favor of sitting in the comfort of their white privilege.

We all enjoy a little bit of rebellion in our lives, whether it be against society at large or just your parents or a high school keg party, we as Americans love to paint ourselves as rebellious. Rage Against the Machine and the heavy metal crowd are seen as rebellious music, something the masses with their pop music sensibilities do not understand. Heavy metal fans find their “community” in this type of music and take claim it as it’s not something everyone around them listens to and they want to think they’re controversial. It’s no more shocking than your 16 year old cousin with a lip ring and a Marilyn Manson shirt at thanksgiving.

It is time to admit though that heavy metal music has become part of the mainstream at this point in its history. Millions of people across the globe love it, mention a band like Metallica to someone in Kandahar and they will have some idea of who they are. Rage Against the Machine may not be as widespread as Metallica ahs become but they certainly hold a great influence in metal for their individuality. So their music is widespread especially across America and that brings it into the homes of even republican voters.

The music is what really drives it across, it’s heavy, it’s bombastic and moves a room around like a blender. This is what attracts people like those “protesters” in Pennsylvania, the music is the attention grabber as Rage intended it to be, they were meant to draw people in for them to analyze Zach’s lyrics. These people in Pennsylvania did not analyze those lyrics. It’s like that scene in White Men Can’t Jump where Wesley Snipes tells Woody Harrelson “you can listen to Jimi but you’re not hearing Jimi.” These people heard “Fuck you I won’t do whatcha tell me!” screamed by Zack and immediately jumped out of their chairs and romp around thinking of their liberal relatives who ruin family dinners with their political rhetoric. They yell these lyrics when people online tell them their racist, homophobic and sexist jokes or statement are in fact racist, sexist and homophobic.

It does seem like a band like this would never become a Trump supporters soundtrack but it does because of that one thing stated before: record label marketing. Being signed to Epic, a subsidiary of Sony Music allowed Rage Against the Machine to spread their message to millions across the globe, they headlined massive tours after a very short amount of time of being together. They achieved a huge amount of success from 1992 to 1999 with their three studio albums each going multi-platinum and playing massive festivals, they famously burned American flags at the infamous Woodstock ’99, another act which should steer Trump supporters away from them.

Bands such as these usually dwell in the underground, de la Rocha himself came from the underground before achieving success in Rage. Inside Out was a hardcore band that Zach de la Rocha performed vocals for from 1988 to 1993. His lyrical content was not much different from his days Rage but a bit more akin with the hardcore scene; unity, survival against a malevolent higher power and inner spirituality. Inside Out never achieved the same success as Rage Against the Machine because they were not signed to a major label but independent hardcore label Revelation Records, founded by Ray Cappo of Youth of Today and Shelter fame.

Signing to a major label both benefitted and harmed Rage Against the Machine in the long run. While their music, their message was spread across the world to those who it mattered to, it also fell victim to the practices of major labels who were looking to squeeze every last drop of money from this staunchly political band. This is how these songs has come into the hands and ears of the Trump supporters who enjoy their songs and play them at the rallies they crowd around to voice their support for the 46th President and other republican candidates. Them playing those songs puts money in the label executives pockets, that’s all the record execs care about. If it gets their favorite politician elected then even better.

It’s the major label influence that allows politicians like Paul Ryan to cite Rage Against the Machine as one of his favorite bands while being the machine they in fact are raging against. It should not be any surprise any why Rage is catching on with todays republicans and right wingers in general, they all grew up with that music being prominent in their youth. This is the right wing also attempting to establish a sense of relatability with them, they will tell us how they listen to bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden and other popular heavy metal bands because these are the most prominent bands of the time they grew up in, Slayer of course may be a bit too extreme for them given their lyrical content.

Rage Against the Machine is in no doubt a great band on their own, looking back on their career it’s a miracle such a band has been able to become so part of the lexicon in American popular music. They may not be the defining American band but they’ve made their voice heard and young people will be ignited by their lyricism accompanied by the powerful guitars. The issue with the band becoming this present in the American popular music however is that they are not in control of how their voice carries. There will always been different interpretations people will force onto the music even with it’s direct lyricism. They will remain well liked by millions and the problem with that is those millions will always contain the ignorant listener who forces their own interpretation onto the song “Killing In The Name” “Bulls On Parade” and other classic tracks.

While it seems like these people can never be informed and we should just throw our hands into the air and give up on them, in doing so we are allowing them to continue their sexist, racist and homophobic rhetoric all with a nice soundtrack. Music is meant to be one of the most unifying forces that we have in this world yet moments like this and the many more that will come point to the disconnect that America is currently facing; people are not listening to the messages being presented to them, they’re only paying attention to the noise.

It’s a waste of breath being surprised every time we see a right-wing Trump supporter blasting Rage Against the Machine out of a speaker, you should be angry at the fact that they are spewing their bigoted bile all across the country and generation after generation will continue to do so without taking a proper look at our country itself. What institutions failed us to create a certain kind of understanding between those who believe in basic human rights and those who stand with the oppressors? It’s a long battle to fight but it’s worth it nonetheless.