All photos by Pete Voelker
Outside the Agora Theater, two miles from the political pantomime and cable news sideshow of Cleveland’s East 4th Street, around 200 people are scrummaging towards a dimly-lit lobby, sweating. A thick-necked man in an “ALL TAXES ARE STEALING” T-shirt chuckles as he turns down a copy of the Socialist Worker from the old woman peddling them on the street. A fat man in a too-small tank top with fading, stretched tattoos brushes up against a scrawny adolescent in an Against Me! tee. It’s the same claustrophobic, clammy excitement that you’d expect at any returning legacy act’s club show.
But there’s an edge to it. The members of Cypress Hill, Rage Against the Machine, and Public Enemy that came together to form Prophets of Rage did so in response to a nasty bastard of an election cycle that is now mercifully approaching its last throes. Tonight’s show is a direct response to the Republican National Convention that has taken over the city like a bacterial disease and, after an opening day that went by without too much incident, things started to mutate, scab, and rot through the city today. The Westboro Baptist Church held their “God Hates Fags” signs up to antagonize Black Lives Matter protesters; anarchists, the kind you see in bad movies about anarchists, ran around in a futile attempt to piss off cops; Bikers for Trump paraded around with firearms strapped to their sides.
And all this has been done in the presence of thousands of very visible police officers from just about every state, a few of whom sit in squad cars at the Agora’s entrance tonight. Fracas, terrorist attack, demonstration, take your pick: this show was always going to be a hotspot.
In fact, that’s the whole point of all this. “Make America Rage Again” is the slogan that Prophets of Rage have been using, a mantra they keep repeating and printing on those bright red baseball caps. It’s an open invitation.
But right now, before the show starts, it’s just a chubby guy with a dumb T-shirt who doesn’t want a copy of the Socialist Worker.
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The question hanging over Prophets of Rage, and over this set in particular, is what their slogan is out to achieve. “Make America Rage Again” would be an apt statement in a somnambulant year, one of those sleepy election cycles between two indistinct candidates that the nation responds to with ambivalence. “Rage,” in that case, is about shaking people up, getting them to care about their choices, inspiring some anti-establishment action.
But this year has been defined by rage. Donald Trump rages at Mexicans, Muslims, women, black people, protesters, journalists, anyone who doesn’t fall in line; in turn a chunk of his supporters go on the offensive and channel their newly-awakened rage into violence; anti-fascists, liberals, and those with a shred of fucking empathy then rage against the intimidation. There’s no calm, no ambivalence. More than ever, people have a horse in the race.
On the first night of the Republican National Convention, former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani stood on the stage at the Quicken Loans Arena and began frothing at the mouth, building himself up to a terrifying crescendo. Comical videos shot round Twitter comparing Giuliani’s speech to punk songs and hardcore singers. And while it was funny at first, it was also terrifying. Punk rock has so often been about exposing the hostility beneath the passive-aggressive pieties of those in power; when those same powerful people adopt that pissed-off tone and combine it with a vague notion of fucking with The Establishment, they start to co-opt the messages that punk, metal, activism, protest, and resistance of all kinds have been working on for years. Yes, America has seen anger and vitriol in its past, but nothing has been quite this vicious or openly hostile from the top down in decades.
“It’s aggressive, hard music,” Morello tells me in an interview at the empty theatre earlier in the day. “That’s non-denominational when it comes to politics. A lot of Rage fans have been exposed to ideas that are very different from the other hard rock music they’ve heard. Sometimes they change their mind, sometimes—like Paul Ryan—they pull their hands over their ears and don’t listen to all of the lyrics.”
Tom Morello speaks incredibly quickly and with a great deal of intent. The words tumble from his lips so fast that you momentarily forget how well rehearsed he is. He has learned, after 20 years, that speaking slowly and without the necessary depth of knowledge can be dangerous, that a writer will twist words and that, in turn, will harm the cause. He is vastly intelligent, engaging, passionate, and almost impenetrable. He has learned, like any activist, protester, even politician, that you stick to the script and get the message across.
“It’s music that casts the net wide and certainly, in this election season where there is a lot of rage on the right that I think is being misguided into this horrible Trump thing—those people are welcome. Because there’s a different way to channel that rage into creating a better, more positive, unified world; a more humane world than the one that Trump is proposing.”
So, to really change the status quo, to achieve what they’ve set out to do by forming this band, the members of Prophets of Rage need to do the same thing they’ve been doing in their own bands for decades: draw people in with the beats, and hope that the message—of control, collective power, strength in unity, fucking things up—connects with the other side.
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Inside the Agora at 8 PM, the house lights dim, a spotlight falls on the decks in the back right of the stage, and DJ Lord walks on stage. People hurry up from the bar, spilling warm beer from the sides of their plastic cups. Those in the seats up at the back stand in unison when he plays out Hendrix’s Woodstock “Star-Spangled Banner,” half out of an odd patriotism, half out of the expectation that the other five members of Prophets of Rage are about to walk out.
Half an hour later, DJ Lord is still mixing, alone. He’s moved through some Led Zepplin, Bob Marley, and Dr Dre. Quickly, it becomes a Hits of Yesteryear club night with “Sweet Child O’ Mine” blending into “Sweet Dreams” and “Seven Nation Army,” complete with a soccer-style chant-along.
Fun enough, but why the retrospective? Prophets of Rage have released two new singles since reforming—“Prophets of Rage” and “Make America Rage Again”—and they’ll release more in time, but for now, they’re playing the classics, dipping into their canons. And DJ Lord’s set—a masterpiece of technique and efficiency, all based on songs at least a decade old— only goes to reinforce that.
“When we started this, we didn’t have any new music,” says B-Real through his sunglasses. “But people were excited and they came out to see it because they were hungry for the word of that music that speaks to them. That’s how powerful some music it. It transcends time.”
He’s right, to a point. The number of Rage Against the Machine T-shirts being worn by middle-aged men in the crowd tonight speaks to the fact that Prophets of Rage still have a committed audience, that their message still resonates with a lot of people, whatever that message may be. It’s an old fashioned take on revolution, the notion that some principles are immutable and timeless and that, if the government hasn’t caught up, we need to go back to where we started and shout our demands for those rights even louder.
DJ Lord set finishes with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The response is polite, mildly defiant, a smattering of fists in the air.
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The stage lights go up, house lights go out, and Prophets of Rage walk on to play an opening one-two of “Prophets of Rage” and “Guerilla Radio.” Bodies slam on the spot in the pit, shirtless dudes slap Cavaliers caps onto the barriers while stomping onto the Agora’s rickety floor.
Prophets of Rage are imperious tonight. In Zach de la Rocha’s absence, B-Real is vicious and snarling, Chuck D a mass of purposeful slow movement. Morello is still a thrilling, innovative live guitarist, now honed and precise in his poses and solos. Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford are an extremely powerful rhythm section, as they always were.
Through every track, the crowd gives back every bit of what the band puts out. They slam through “Bombtrack” and lash out to “Sleep Now in the Fire.” The energy and adrenaline never dies; it builds.
“It’s got to be a visceral,” Morello says of the band’s work. “Music speaks to people in their reptilian brain in a way that feels like the truth in a way that no other art does, in a way that no other oratory does, because it’s like the first language of humans. It’s like a community gathered round a fire, beating on stuff and expressing who they are.”
Chuck D picks up the thread: “It’s an often misunderstood science of how human beings take to music; every human being has a heartbeat, every living species has a heartbeat. The beat is already there. Rhythm is there in the human body. If a vibration comes and attaches itself to it, and it happens to be the right vibration, and the words are actually relevant to something, you’ve got something that you actually can’t put in words.”
So music can “Make America Rage Again.” But what is rage? Is it long lasting, transformative, an emotion with the potential to be channeled into something that matters? Or is it a fleeting, chaotic chemical reaction that we can’t control?
And is the crowd at the Agora in a state or rage, or in a state of catharsis?
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Prophets of Rage close, inevitably, with “Killing in the Name,” the most openly defiant song in the public consciousness for the last 20 years. When the song starts, venue security guards lead a skinny 30-something out. He wrestles himself out of the hold to run back to the balcony and scream the lyrics, but before he makes it, he’s tackled. He and the venue security clumsily bludgeon each other about the face.
Prophets of Rage want to change the world. They want a shift in public consciousness, an overhaul of the status quo, a revolution through music, art, and activism—the same thing they all wanted two decades ago. And when you watch a security guard beat three shades of shit into a fan, it’s hard to see any sort of decency or humanity or any of the things that Morello talks about. Another doomed revolution.
But as the song reaches its apex, as Chuck D and B-Real switch from snarling “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” over the clatter into screaming it over that brutal, precise riff, a man in his 50s walks up the stairs to the balcony with his son. The kid can’t be older than ten. The father puts his hands on his kid’s shoulders, stands and screams twice, pretty much into his son’s ear: “FUCK YOU I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME.” The kids eyes are wide; he smiles.
Then they leave. That’s enough.
Alex Robert Ross is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.