When I first heard about Prophets of Rage forming earlier this year I ugh-ed. I’m not trying to be cute by using “ugh” as a verb. That’s exactly what happened. I read the news online, and the sound ugh came out of my mouth. More a sigh than a grunt. I mean, Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, Cypress Hill—I loved all those bands. In high school, 20 years ago. The whole idea felt so dated, same as the two presidential nominees. It also felt unnecessary. There has been no shortage of vital protest music released over the last year. Vince Staples. The most excellent debut from trippy Atlanta rockers Algiers. Beyoncé and Kendrick, obviously. “Alright” is the new “Fight the Power.”
We’re lucky that we have young artists unafraid of making powerful statements about our time. We’re lucky that we aren’t forced to call upon older artists to dust-off powerful statements about that time. Sure, the message would remain valid; I mean, Woody Guthrie wrote “Deportee” in 1948. But the music, the conduit by which that message is delivered, bypassing the head and going straight to gut where it can stir feeling and compel action—the music always has to be new.
Prophets of Rage had released a single, but it sounded slapped together. I wondered if maybe it had something to do with Audioslave, the other supergroup the Rage guys were in before this one. Maybe supergrouping is like inbreeding. Doing it once is risky enough. Twice, and whatever you’re bringing into this world is going to be mush.
So I didn’t have high expectations for Tuesday night’s concert at the Agora Theatre, two miles from the Convention Hall. Also, from a journalistic standpoint, the concert was much less of a story after the band had played two free surprise shows around town on Monday. But I didn’t feel like going back into the hall after Monday night. I was still queasy from the garishness and self-importance of it all—not just the folks on the floor but the media, too. I was looking forward to putting my head next to a throbbing speaker for an hour or two, see if that might help blast out all the bullshit I’d been hearing.
This country would be a lot healthier if people went to more rock shows and kicked the shit out of each other in the darkness and grime of the club.
That’s exactly where I positioned myself, on the floor at stage right, eight rows back. The rest of the crowd looked a lot like me: white guys in their thirties. It definitely had taken them a couple minutes to squeeze into their faded Rage T-shirts left over from sophomore year. A few of them weren’t wearing shirts at all. Before the show even began they were stalking around bare-chested, primed to kick some ass in the pit.
It started as soon as the house lights went down. Sweat flying. Water bottles flying. People flying—getting surfed up to the front and crashing against the rocky shoal of bouncer biceps. Naturally, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between this and Trump rallies. This was just as violent as the one in Chicago looked like on TV. Dudes were throwing vicious haymakers and chest-high kicks. They were all around the same age as those guys in Chicago. And, like those guys, they were almost all white. So why were they here, at an anti-Trump concert, and not down at Public Square brawling with protesters? Who the hell knows. Maybe they had jobs and the Trump crowd didn’t. Maybe it was racism. I’m not looking to play sociologist. Every person is different. But I will say: I think this country would be a lot healthier if people went to more rock shows and kicked the shit out of each other in the darkness and grime of the club and then went back out into the everyday world feeling a little less angry.
Anti-Trump though they might’ve been, the overwhelming whiteness in the Agora was still a thing. All I think of when I hear “Fight the Power” is that mind-blowing Spike Lee video with the massive black crowd marching through the streets of Brooklyn. And then there you are three decades later hearing Chuck D do it live on the east side of Cleveland, an area still all black and not gentrified the way Brooklyn is now, and there is just a sea of white people with their middle fingers in air.
Hell, even I threw mine up. It was impossible not to—to not get swept up in the energy of the room. The band was incredible, and the most incredible part was that they actually seemed like a band. Not a supergroup. Not a cover band. A band. It didn’t matter what songs they played: Rage, PE, Cypress, their own stuff. It was only a month and a half ago that they announced their existence, yet they never flubbed a line, never looked at each other to correct their timing. And they made all the songs feel cohesive, as if they’d originally been written by this same unit. Chuck D and B-Real weren’t trying to do a Zack de la Rocha impersonation. More like jazz musicians than rappers, they interpreted the songs differently, subtly varying the cadence and even the emphasis on particular syllables.
Mostly the setlist was Rage songs. And all that stuff I said earlier about protest music needing to be new to be effective…Well, either I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about or, way more likely, the band pulled a John Connor and sent themselves from the future back to 1991 in order to make music for 2016. (Don’t think about it too hard.) “Killing in the Name,” “Bullet In the Head,” “Bombtrack”: those songs might be 25 years old but feel like they’re about now, about this time. They don’t feel at all like they were unearthed from a time capsule. They don’t feel like the songs that were playing before the show started: Creedence and CSNY and “Revolution.”
It certainly helps that the guys are still fairly young and in tremendous shape. B-Real and Chuck D are definitely hitting the LA Fitness together on tour. But even if they looked like Vince Neil and Nic Cage walking out of the Aria, they still would’ve slayed because they meant it. “This band was made to be here for this fucked up night,” Chuck D said. This wasn’t some ego trip. This was no vanity project. These guys could have all been off doing other things. Things way more glamorous than spending a couple swamp-ass humid days in Cleveland. Things that paid a hell of a lot better. That paid at all. All the proceeds from the show went to a local homeless charity.
“This is the sort of Robin Hood wealth distribution that they’re so afraid of at the RNC,” said Tom Morello toward the end of the show.
It ended a little after ten. B-Real was the last to leave the stage. “One more thing,” he said with a grin. “Legalize it.”
He pulled out a joint and sparked it and took a deep drag, sending a huge cloud of smoke and a few hundred phones into the air. There was no encore. The house lights came on and everybody headed out the front exit. Some people went into the bar next door. There were three or four TVs behind the bar. All of them had sports on.
Follow Sean Manning on Twitter: @talkingcovers.