Activist Tom Morello has made a name for himself as an incendiary guitarist and passionate activist. From his work in Rage Against the Machine to his solo efforts as the Nightwatchman and collaborator in the Prophets of Rage, Morello can be found on the frontlines of social justice issues across the globe. On June 6, the Labor 411 Foundation is recognizing Tom Morello with the Ethical Cultural Warrior Award for his tireless efforts in making this world a better place.
Labor 411: Why are topics of social justice and workers’ right so important to you?
Tom Morello: Ever since I was a little kid and the only black kid in an all-white town in Illinois, I’ve been conscious of an unfairness in the world. Also, there’s some DNA components as my father, who was Kenyan, was involved in the Kenyan independence movement; and my mom is a lifelong advocate for social justice across a wide spectrum of issues, so there’s certainly something in the DNA. But for me, it was always a matter of fighting for social justice issues being my north star, but I’m trapped being a guitar player, so finding ways to express that underlying philosophy has been the challenge of my career, and using my music as a battering ram for social justice is what I do on a good day.
Labor 411: Were members of your family involved in unionism?
TM:The Morellos were coal miners in Marseilles, Illinois, and they were very pro-union. When they were trying to unionize the mines, there was a serious incident there in which one person lost their life. It was one of the founding pillars for the Morello family with this insistence on dignity in the workplace and the fact that unions matter.
I was raised by a single mom. She was a union high school teacher for 30 years, and while we did not have a lot of money, we always had food on the table and clothes on our back because she was a union teacher.
Labor 411: And you’re a member of AFM?
TM: I’m a Musicians Local 47 Los Angeles member and a proud card carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Labor 411: Some artists shy away from speaking out on issues They don’t want to alienate potential fans or potential consumers. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for you. You seem to speak your mind.
TM: I’ve been proudly alienating fans and consumers for almost three decades. I look at it like this: When you pick up a guitar, you don’t put down your first amendment rights. One of the hottest rings of hell is reserved for those who censor themselves in the name of making an extra buck. I think it’s very important, no matter what you’re vocation is, to weave your convictions into it in an unapologetic and uncompromising way.
Labor 411: Have things gotten worse, or does it just seem like it?
TM: It is a never-ending tug of war. Each of us, in your time, have to stand and fight for the things that we believe in. I think it’s as simple as that. You can moan about one administration or the other. Those Rage Against the Machine records that were as political music as has ever been released were released during the Bill Clinton years. I think that there’s always injustice to rage against. My responsibility as somebody who is on Earth is to try to leave the planet a more decent, humane place than I found it.
Labor 411: Are you hopeful to be able to do that?
TM: Tomorrow I’m leaving for a UK tour and I’m going to be standing on stage in front of a lot of people and I’m going to be playing some crazy guitar and I’m going to be delivering a message, I’m going to be a megaphone for social justice issues local and global. That’s a guarantee. Now, am I hopeful that the planet will not be destroyed by global warming or workers’ rights will be eroded? That remains to be seen. One of my favorite musicians of all time is a fella by the name of Joe Strummer from the Clash, and he said what I think is the most important line in all of rock ‘n’ roll, which is “the future is unwritten.” History is not something that happens. History is something ….. that you make. You can either stand on the sidelines, or you can be an active agent in creating a better planet. It’s up to you.