Audioslave's Tom Morello: My five favorite protest songs. The outspoken guitarist (formerly with Rage Against the Machine) picks the tunes that have the most political meaning to him

By Brian Hiatt
Updated October 04, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Tom Morello: John Shearer/

Audioslave’s Tom Morello: My 5 favorite protest songs

After spending eight years in Rage Against the Machine, guitarist Tom Morello knows a little something about protest music. No matter that the fiery leftist band, minus frontman Zack de la Rocha, reconstituted itself in 2001 as the apolitical band Audioslave (featuring former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell) — Morello has kept on raging in his other projects. His activist band, Axis of Justice, cofounded with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, has spawned a tour and live album (due Election Day, Nov. 2), on which Morello makes his debut as a Woody Guthrie-esque singer-songwriter and unveils his imposing bass-baritone. Morello shared the protest tunes that have inspired him with senior writer Brian Hiatt.

Public Enemy, ”Fight the Power” (1989) It’s the political anthem of hip-hop. It’s a rousing battle cry that energized me when I first heard it, because it had the audacity to say ”Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant s— to me.” And I said, ”You know what? Me neither! My heroes don’t appear on stamps.” Public Enemy could really articulate what a lot of urban America was thinking, and what a lot of kids in white suburbs were thinking too. It is the embodiment of what is perhaps our most patriotic value: dissent.

The Clash, ”White Riot” (1977) ”White Riot” is a phenomenal punk rock song. It has lines that are forever emblazoned in my memory: ”Are you taking over/ Or are you taking orders?/ Are you going backwards/ Or are you going forwards?” I try to answer those questions for myself every day today. It’s a song that was written when, in the black communities of London, there were riots against police brutality. [Clash singer/guitarist] Joe Strummer was saying that white working-class youth are oppressed too, and yet we’re too chicken to get out there and join forces with our brothers and sisters of different ethnicities. It’s a great call for unity in action.

John Lennon, ”Imagine” (1971) ”Imagine” is a subtly revolutionary song. When you really listen to what he’s singing there, he’s talking about the overthrow of the existing order in a personal way and in a political way. He’s talking about the transformation of society, in a very profound way. And it’s couched in such a beautiful melody; I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It’s easy to forget that the words are very hard-hitting. It’s like the tectonic plates of the earth — it moves really, really deep. It’s a real kind of anarchist worldview he demonstrates in that song.

Woody Guthrie, ”This Land Is Your Land” (1940) It was written as an angry song, as an answer song to Irving Berlin’s ”God Bless America.” Woody Guthrie didn’t think that Irving Berlin’s song included all of us, [all] the American people. There were verses of this song that were not taught to us in the third grade that reveal the true meaning of the song. The final verse of the song goes, ”One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple/ By the relief office I saw my people/ As they stood hungry I stood there wondering/ If this land was made for you and me.” If there was any justice, this song would be our national anthem.

Peter Gabriel, ”Biko” (1980) It’s Peter Gabriel’s beautiful eulogy to the South African anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko, who was murdered [in 1977] by the security forces there because he wanted a just society and to put an end to the racist and brutal oppression of apartheid. He was the Martin Luther King Jr. of South Africa. Peter Gabriel combines the indigenous music of black South Africa with the tale of Biko’s life, death, and the power he had even after his death in transforming his country. Four lines were never truer: ”You can blow out a candle/ But you can’t blow out a fire/ Once the flame begins to catch/ The wind will blow it higher.” That’s exactly what happened in South Africa.

What are your favorite protest songs? List them below.