Live and direct from the muck of the Swamptown, U.S.A., Prophets of Rage vaulted onto the stage at Washington’s 9:30 Club earlier this month, eager to rattle off a list of demands. Stand up. Raise your fist. Know your enemy. Jump around. It would have felt like rap-metal wokey-pokey if not for the exquisite, two-ton guitar riffs, which were as pummeling and precise as Russell Westbrook practicing his crossover on your sternum.
But if the Prophets were hoping to clarify the role of protest music in Donald Trump’s brave, new America, their music left some question marks floating in the air, including: What do we want from a protest song in an era of alternative facts, Russian meddling, white supremacist tiki torches and Pepe the hate-frog? And what does protest music want from us? Are we sure it should still sound like rock-and-roll? Should it even sound like music?
Over the weekend — after President Trump rescinded an NBA team’s invitation to the White House, then scolded an entire league of football players for protesting police brutality — professional athletes from sea-to-shining-sea confirmed their role as the new pop avatars of resistance. This used to be the province of rock stars, of course, who once helped rally an entire generation around songs aimed at the nation’s most wicked anxieties and injustices. When nuclear paranoia spiked in the early ’60s, Bob Dylan wrote “Masters of War.” When blood spilled at Kent State in 1970, Neil Young penned “Ohio.” And yes, rock slowly lost its countercultural foothold in the decades that followed, but protest songs still remain in high supply these days. It’s just that none of them are as efficient as LeBron James calling the president “U bum.”
Don’t tell that to Prophets of Rage, a supergroup that includes Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford of Rage Against the Machine, plus co-mouthpieces Chuck D of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill. Last summer, the band emerged from the smog of a toxic election cycle, announcing its formation online: “We can no longer stand on the sidelines of history. Dangerous times demand dangerous songs.”
But when the band launched its first national tour in Virginia in August of last year, the Prophets seemed more interested in cultivating disillusionment than sparking change. Between old tunes and new, B-Real encouraged fans to write-in Prophets of Rage on their November ballots, while Morello flashed a sign on his guitar that read, “NOBODY FOR PRESIDENT.” Now, 13 months later, Morello’s guitar says, “F— TRUMP.” Too late, man.
The band’s 9:30 Club show was every bit as whiplashing. Morello, Commerford and Wilk have clearly established permanent residence inside that telepathic triangle where guitar, bass and drums speak a higher language, but the group’s motivational blah-blah between songs often felt platitudinous and imprecise.
It wasn’t until B-Real and Chuck D unveiled the refurbished lyrics of Rage Against the Machine’s signature cut, “Killing in the Name,” that the whole thing went nuclear. “Some of those who hold office are the same who burn crosses,” they chanted, accusing the president of being a white supremacist. Then the song ended, and because the Prophets had a brand-new record to sell, B-Real closed the show with a call to action: “Get the f—ing album! Get the f—ing album!” Is that all 21st-century protest music wants us to do? Reach for our debit cards?
A good protest song should inspire real action. It should make us feel something with an intensity that persuades us to act. It should ask us to change how we spend our money, how we volunteer our time, how we cast our votes, how we treat our neighbors, how we talk with our loved ones. It should ask us to change how we live, or even who we are, which means it should make us uncomfortable.
Downtown Boys — a punk quintet from Rhode Island with a jolting new album, “Cost of Living” — seems to understand all of this. The group’s lead vocalist, Victoria Ruiz, is one of the most mesmerizing voices in the game, and when Downtown Boys performed at Washington’s DC9 earlier this month, she made her wailing stage banter into a strange kind of interstitial music, splicing songs together with a roar that was half street preacher, half professional wrestler. “We need a diversity of tactics,” she shouted between numbers, apparently hip to the fact that rock-and-roll might not save the world. “We don’t know what works yet and we need more than a monolithic answer!”
What a refreshing contrast to the unblinking certitude of a Prophets of Rage gig, or a U2 concert, or any rock show where the band automatically assumes it can solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s sounds. That doesn’t make Downtown Boys a band of futurists, though. Throughout the DC9 set, the quintet had that classic punk thing going where nobody in the band was playing particularly well, but everyone was playing astonishingly well together.
So with her bandmates working to keep things tight (but ultimately sounding pretty loose), Ruiz had enough space to sway between clarity and ambiguity. Her words about “knowing which statues have to come down, which ones have to go up,” were a distinct reference to last month’s lethal white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Her relatively enigmatic lyrics to “A Wall” — “From the broad side to the hidden side . . . A wall is just a wall, and nothing more at all” — may or may not have been hurled in the direction of Trump’s promised border enclosure.
This is a band with an incredibly sharp awareness to the problems that plague our present, and a wild desire to locate the solutions hidden in our future. More importantly, they’re smart enough to know that protest music doesn’t automatically move in the direction of progress. “Culture is a weapon,” Ruiz declared at one point. “ Without intention, [you] blunt the blade!”
One last thing about this ferocious, euphoric, taut, slack, totally killing Downtown Boys gig: Ruiz wasn’t wearing an MC5 T-shirt, or a Crass patch, or even a tiny Bratmobile button. She was wearing a Colin Kaepernick jersey.