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Music

The unwavering politics of Zack de la Rocha

Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against The Machine makes a strong claim for being the most unmistakable frontman out there. His punk driven, rapid-fire delivery is iconic, and no matter what format we hear him, you just know it is unmistakenly Zack de la Rocha at work. It’s a testament to his style that he’s so instantly recognisable and that without him, many of our favourite rap-metal bands such as Deftones or Korn, may not have been given the confidence to take over the world during the latter half of the 1990s.

Whilst the vitriol in his delivery is something that many subsequent vocalists have tried to replicate, there’s another defining factor that has carried de la Rocha and Rage Against The Machine throughout their illustrious careers. It’s their politics. 

De la Rocha vocalises and spearheads the band’s political outlook, and this unwavering spirit permeates all of their music. His vocals were the perfect foil to the muscular music crafted by Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk. 

Like any great band, every member is a vital cog in the wheel. When they broke into the mainstream with the release of their eponymous debut album in 1992, rap-rock had already started to flourish via the likes of The Beastie Boys and Anthrax and Public Enemy’s collaboration ‘Bring The Noise’. However, when Rage burst onto the scene, nothing had ever sounded like it before. Metal, funk and rap were all wound up into one righteous fist that defended the oppressed wherever they may be.

De la Rocha’s politics are relatively self-explanatory, as is the band’s name. Left-wing, he opposes corporate America, the military-industrial complex, and government oppression in all its forms. In fact, Rage Against The Machine may be seen as much as a collection of political theses as a musical work. The album is brimming with political arguments that some may argue veer on conspiracy theory. Take this line from ‘Wake Up’ for instance: “Departments of police, the judges, the feds / Networks at work, keepin’ people calm / You know they went after King / When he spoke out on Vietnam / He turned the power to the have-nots / And then came the shot”.

Whilst cynical, you cannot fault de la Rocha for the conviction with which he delivers his point. Think Woody Guthrie on steroids. Given that he is so unrelenting in fighting the good fight, it’s unsurprising that he’s always had a definitive sense of right and wrong, something that is attributed to his upbringing as a mixed-race child and his family history. 

De la Roch is a mix of Mexican, African, Sephardi Jewish, Irish and German, a man of the world, if you will. Interestingly, his paternal grandfather, Isaac de la Rocha Beltrán, was a Mexican revolutionary who fought in the Mexican Revolution. De la Rocha witnessed the same type of struggle that his grandfather endured in the modern struggles of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a militant socialist group that occupies the majority of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico.

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This sense of loyalty to a cause runs through his veins. It was cemented after his parents divorced when he was six, and he went to live in Irvine, California, with his mother. He’d later look back on the period and describe Irvine as “one of the most racist cities imaginable”. Acutely aware of his social standing, de la Rocha explained: “If you were a Mexican in Irvine, you were there because you had a broom or a hammer in your left hand”.

This natural drive and desire to rail against economic racism in all its forms was galvanised after he got into punk as a teenager. A fan of The Clash, Minor Threat and Bad Brains, de la Rocha had found his people, and it would be through this movement that he would find the adequate platform to take the world to task over its many faults.

Aside from music, de la Rocha’s politics drive his activism, a banner that his music also fits under. In 2012 he explained: “Yeah, to get as many people as possible to join the political debate, to get the dialogue going. I was wondering today, why would anyone climb to the roof of the American Embassy with a banner that says ‘Free Mumia Abu-Jamal’, why do you do that? That’s to get the international press’s attention. The international network that Sony has available, is to me the perfect tool you know, it can get even more people to join a revolutionary awareness and fight”.

Perhaps the clearest example of de la Rocha’s left-wing, grassroots oriented politics comes via his longstanding affinity for esteemed philosopher Noam Chomsky. 

During Rage’s 2007 reunion show at Coachella, he referenced Chomsky by proclaiming: “A friend of ours said if the same laws were applied to US Presidents as were applied to the Nazis after WWII, that every single one of them, every last rich white one of them, from Truman on would be hung to death and shot. And this current administration is no exception. They should be hung and tried and shot as war criminals.”

The laws he was referring to were the Nuremberg Laws, and that was a huge statement and one that many could do with hearing. In 1999, he even got the chance to interview his hero, and it was here where the origins of his political philosophy started to make sense. Introducing Chomsky he said: “Noam Chomsky is the most…intellectual alive today. His books have made me understand the nature of globalisation and its effects on people and societies throughout the world”.

Left-wing in every sense of the word, de la Rocha‘s Anarchist beliefs give Rage Against The Machine and his other projects a zest that his peers could only dream of achieving. Be it Evil Empire or One Day as a Lion, his tremendous character has created some of the most essential political records ever made. 

Watch de la Rocha interview Noam Chomsky below.