Rock's axis of activism

Audioslave's Tom Morello and System of a Down's Serj Tankian on Bush's war plans, the corporate media after 9/11 and how their Axis of Justice can reach America's alienated youth.

Published February 6, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Tom Morello is unapologetic for his "left of Ralph Nader" politics. At first, with agitprop rockers Rage Against the Machine, and more recently with his new band Audioslave, the guitarist has used music as a conduit for social and political commitment. "That was the mission statement from day one," he says. "I had to find a way to work my convictions into my life's work."

After the World Trade Center attack, Morello wanted to promote a peaceful alternative to what he considered the vengeful, militaristic rhetoric of politicians. Responding in particular to George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech, Morello -- once a scheduling secretary for former Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) -- developed the Axis of Justice, a traveling "freedom school" that would accompany Rage Against the Machine as it headlined the Ozzfest tour. It was an ambitious idea written into the band's contract: Big screens would feature the work of filmmaker Michael Moore; a gigantic, eye-catching display would house 10 nonprofit organizations; and there would be an on-site counselor to assist victims of violence. There was one glitch, though. Rage Against the Machine broke up, and the Axis of Justice was left with no contract and no champion.

Morello enlisted the support of Serj Tankian, lead singer of the multiplatinum-selling nu metal band System of a Down, who were also slated for Ozzfest. Tankian, a well-read and articulate rocker himself, wanted to help save the installation from oblivion, partly to rescue an exhibit about the Armenian genocide, the relatively little-known massacre of approximately 1.5 million Armenians by Turkish forces in 1915. (Tankian is of Armenian heritage by way of Southern California.)

Tankian did in fact revive a bare-bones version of the Axis of Justice. Although the giant display was reduced to a card table, shoved to the back of the music fest and pared down to four or five nonprofit organizations -- when they showed up at all -- the advocates insist that the tour has made an important impact.

"That [diminished display] doesn't really matter," maintains Tankian. "Because as far as I'm concerned, if you have the truth on your side, you don't need huge video screens and whatever to get your point across. Each of the organizations is reporting a lot of sign-ups, people are joining on, subscribing and reading their information and passing around their stickers. It's very positive."

"This is just the beginning," says Morello. Axis of Justice is now a nonprofit organization, he adds, with Morello, Tankian and Rage staffer Jake Sexton as directors. The idea is to attach it to rock shows all over the world, to introduce the idea of a personalized Axis of Justice to other bands and to eventually produce Axis of Justice benefit CDs.

Now that Ozzfest is over, what is the plan for the Axis of Justice?

Tom Morello: We hope to provide more progressive-minded bands with a warehouse of information and ideas and to facilitate ways for them to have an Axis installation at their own shows. Say, for a band in Amarillo, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala., we will help to bridge them to organizations and information for their own issues. If you're in Peoria, Ill., it's not that easy to generate enthusiasm or energy about the plight of the Zapatistas, but there may be a strike at the McDonald's there where the high school kids work. Or maybe the local Wal-Mart is not allowing stickered albums. It's a way for young people to organize. Then, when they get some victories under their belt, all of a sudden they have their hand on the wheel.

You've been politically active supporting progressive causes for a long time. Was the axis of evil speech the inception of this particular organization?

The inception was a year before at Ozzfest in San Bernardino [Calif.]. I was shocked and horrified at the number of people with white-power tattoos [who felt] comfortable with their Nazi and Klan shit. I couldn't believe it. As someone who played in a hard-rock band for a long time, I thought, this is my music too. So the idea germinated there. At this year's Ozzfest, the majority of bands on the main stage are multiethnic. With Rage, we had done [political action] more haphazardly, sort of throwing a dart against the activist wall to see what I could get in, say, Pennsylvania. Now, we're looking to create a well-structured, organized opportunity for kids who go to concerts to really plug in, get information, become active and get help. I called Serj initially, when we were going to be sharing the main stage. [He and System of a Down] were pretty thrilled to be a part of it and had some good ideas.

So you formalized it after 9/11?

Yes, that's where it got its name. Bush was describing the negative impact that the "axis of evil" would have on society, and I thought that could apply to the "axis of profit," particularly now with the unparalleled corporate crime.

So, what wisdom do you have now, more than a year later, about 9/11?

The true lesson of 9/11, which has been obfuscated by war-makers, is that it humanized international violence. And by reading the obituaries, seeing the stories of loved ones left behind and the transcriptions of the last cellphone calls of people who died and people who experience the loss, [people realized] that it was us -- you and me. You felt it and sympathized and empathized in a way that you don't when it was Norman Schwarzkopf pointing at a map. Often the victims of international violence are at the hands of our tax dollars -- yours and mine. There are grieving families there and lives that are shattered. The lesson is that the taking of innocent lives is always devastating to society. The idea is to stop the international cycle of violence, and to look with the same humanism on people beyond our borders who suffer the same things.

The story line that is too often missing is how deep-feeling and good American people are. It shows that we are not callous. The reason why hundreds of thousands of people protested the Vietnam War was because they saw the victims, the little girls burning with napalm. They can't let that happen, the American people. And the people making war learned a lesson; so now, you don't see those [victims] anymore.

Why? Do you blame that on media consolidation?

It does seem like there is total corporate control with a firm propagandist agenda. That seems pretty clear in the way debate is narrowly framed and its limited options. When experts are discussing the issues, all we hear from is a general, a former general and the defense secretary, and they are considered the competing viewpoints of the accidental bombing of Lebanon. We don't get the story of the real mothers, fathers, sisters.

And free speech?

It is critically important to the bands and something we've come under fire for countless times in the past. We've had our songs pulled off the radio and blacklisted. I think that has passed now. It's funny how Clear Channel first sent out the list of songs to censor [from its radio stations, after 9/11], and when they were confronted by journalists, they said there was no list. They actually said the list doesn't exist -- until they were presented with it. Then, they called it a "general guide."

So what can people do in the face of this control of information?

People have to find the [alternative] magazines and [news sources].

Like Pacifica Radio?

Unfortunately, [the people] I see in my line of work are young America, and they think that Pacifica is boring. Why? Because it is. It's a good source of information, but when you're competing with the sexy headline news, there has to be another way. At least with the Axis of Justice, we take our cache of trust from making music. I can't own the New York Times and put the stories I want in there. What I can do is exert influence as an artist. As a band, you develop a cache of trust and mutual respect with your audience. And what you parlay that into is up to you. Many artists use it to sell products, whether it's a show or a Jaguar. They take that trust, which is meaningful to young people, and cash it in. We try to parlay it into political action and positive change.

Turning now to Serj Tankian: In terms of free speech after 9/11, you got in some trouble because of your published opinions.

Serj Tankian: I was criticizing the U.S. government for its past involvement in the Middle East and how our foreign policy has been very unjust based on the profits for multinationals. I made a statement that was completely factual. It was really a statement of peace; I was asking for peace. I spoke about Israel and Palestine, and I said that was a huge fundamental issue having to do with all of this. Sept. 11 isn't an issue by itself. It's tied into everything else. It's not a cause; it's a reaction. So once you realize that, you can go back and say, why did this happen? Then you can read your history and see why we've been involved there [in the Middle East], why someone would do that and why the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, rather than my house or your house.

At the same time, I understand the reaction from the American public because when I was watching, the first thing I felt was insecurity. It was very scary, which is, I think, what everyone felt. It's very important to note that the same organization that I was criticizing, the U.S. government and its foreign policy, was the only organization that could save us from this mess. So people didn't want to hear criticism even though they knew in their hearts that I was right.

So you think people generally agree with your perspective?

Yeah, whether they're from the Midwest or the South, and I tour everywhere. After Sept. 11, people have been moving from cities to rural areas. It's not just fear, but an understanding that this cannot last forever. Stocks are going down. There's no confidence in corporations; there's corporate thievery and scams. It's all coming out. People are investing more in real property, and real property value is going up. Europeans know better; they get better information. They know more blatantly what the U.S. is doing regarding world policies and events. Everyone knows the complicity of our institutions in screwing things up in the world. It's not a secret.

And if that's true in the Midwest and the South, to what do you attribute President Bush's popularity?

Because we're still in a war. George Bush had a very bad rating before 9/11, didn't he? You know, the relationship between a lot of people and our government is like that of abused children. Even if your dad has beaten you, he's still your dad, especially if there's someone else coming into your house. Imagine this situation: You're an abused child with a father in the house and a social worker who is maybe not even saving you but fighting with your father, and you're 5 or 6 years old. Who are you going to hate? Your abusive father or the social worker?

Tom, do you have anything to add on the Middle East situation?

Morello: It's the perfect example of the cycle of violence, the perfect illustration of how not to resolve an issue. Every suicide bomber feels perfectly justified. Then every Israeli soldier feels fully justified destroying [lives in] Bethlehem. We've played in Israel a couple of times, and it's heartbreaking. Because of the geopolitics involved, I don't know how it can be resolved. I do think that through common interests you can achieve peace and justice, and the common interest is that people work for a living. I have no experience organizing in the Middle East, but people who work for a wage have that in common, and maybe it could transcend centuries-old grudges. I don't know.

What are your thoughts about George W. Bush now?

Tankian: He doesn't deserve to be there. Most of the people voted for another guy.

Morello: It's immaterial who is there because of the amount of compromise it takes for one to maintain the seat of power. Whether it's Bush or Gore is not that big of a difference. [They] are beholden to their [funders]. God rest Sen. Cranston -- he was a nice guy, but he would be on the phone every waking moment asking rich guys for money. At the end of the day, yes, you want to save the desert, but those phone calls don't come for free.

So you would argue for further campaign finance reform?

Morello: It will never happen. I'm a firm believer in the adage that if voting mattered, they'd make it illegal. If it really mattered, if it would change the balance of power, the polls would be closed.

Would you agree with Ralph Nader's philosophy, about what he calls the two-party duopoly?

Morello: Absolutely, but I'm about 15 degrees to the left of Ralph. Who wants Gore to be president? I believe progressive change doesn't come that way. There's a long and obvious history of what makes change, and that is average people standing up to power.

Do you ever get resigned, as if it's futile?

Morello: Not at all. That's why we're doing what we're doing. Each day with each breath, you try to do the right thing. Axis of Justice is about organizing this mass of intelligent, energetic, alienated and often pissed-off group of people who can make a big difference.

Tankian: I think there's always hope and possibility of changing things. It only takes a small 1 percent of a focused public to make any historic change in reality. I don't even mean a fully active 1 percent. Do you think the French Revolution took 90 percent? A lot has to do with timing and focused energy and people that can visualize things and make things happen.

Are the rest of your band members as compelled toward social and political matters as you are?

Morello: Probably not, but I don't think that lessens the participation and support. Some band members may be uncomfortable with questions about union organizing in Guatemala. So with the Axis of Justice, a separate entity, we can sort of separate it out from the band, and the band can just support Axis.

Tankian: My band is not very involved. They're aware of the issues. They completely back it up and go with it. But I represent the political stuff. Everyone has what they spend their time doing. This one is my realm.

It seems that most bands these days shy away from making political statements with their music. Do you think there are bands out there who will help your message proliferate?

Morello: Absolutely. There are many artists who express strong political viewpoints who are not at the top of the Billboard charts. Rage Against the Machine was an anomaly, like the Clash or Public Enemy, and a number of others who are short-lived. But that is not something I overanalyze. The silent majority of rock bands are looking for a way to plug in. And Axis is a way to divorce a band's mundane business from the politics.

What politicized you?

Morello: I've always been political. My mom was involved in civil rights causes, and my dad was a Mau Mau. The [Mau Mau freedom fighters] were the Kenyans that led the rebellion against the British in East Africa. I integrated the small, white town of Libertyville early on and then worked for Sen. Cranston as his scheduling secretary while playing in rock bands at night.

Tankian: For me, the Armenian genocide was the firecracker -- seeing the injustice behind it and discovering the whole industrial reasons for it not being accepted by America and Turkey. I say industrial reasons because that's what they are. They're profit motives. Post-World War I, when Turkey was defeated, America, Britain and the other powers that defeated Turkey went over, and there were supposed to be borders for Armenia. All of the war criminals from Turkey that perpetrated the genocide were incriminated by the world court at the time, the international court. They were given sentences and all that, but all those people never served their sentences and were allowed to reenter the government, because the Ottoman Empire owned what is now known as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It brokered some deals with the West for a lot of oil rights. In lieu of that, they looked away from the Armenian genocide.

Would you relate these "industrial" reasons to what goes on in other conflicts such as Israel and Palestine?

Tankian: Everything in American foreign policy is profit-based. But not even for the benefit of the American people, only for a few companies that don't even consider themselves American, that would cut American jobs in a second to go hire 10,000 people in a Third World country, then put up the [American] flag. They're not doing the American people any justice. Neither is the administration, especially not the CIA and some of its operatives.

Do you think that artists have a social responsibility?

Tankian: No. The only reason people think they have responsibility is if they're open enough to reflect on what's already in the universe. Everyone has that ability, not just artists. If there were no feelings of change and disappointment and everything going on at the time, if that mood wasn't already in the air, the artists wouldn't reflect that. They wouldn't have been the spokespeople for the '60s revolution. They would not be in the forefront.

We're all instruments, tools of the universe. I don't "have" anything; whatever music I create doesn't belong to me really. In my belief, the artists are just speaking the message that is just moving through them. Artists don't create anything that isn't already in the universe. I do believe in talent and working and developing your skills to be able to deliver in a nicer way. But again, the message isn't purely from the artist, although most artists don't recognize that.

By Maria Armoudian

Maria Armoudian is a legislative advisor to the California State Senate and a journalist. She lives in Los Angeles.

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