Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello is on tour, and his next stop is at PS 200 – The James McCune Smith School. The Harlem-born musician will perform and speak to middle schoolers in his home turf on Thursday 11/2, as part of a nationwide tour of public schools in collaboration with the music education nonprofit Music Will. Morello joins us to discuss the work he’s doing with them.
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Alison Stewart: This is All Of It on WNYC. I’m Alison Stewart, activist, and Rage Against the Machine co-founder and guitarist Tom Morello is on tour, and this week he’ll be stopping in Manhattan, but this is no ordinary tour. The venues on this tour are public schools where the music education nonprofit Music Will is working with Morello to launch music programs and donate instruments and equipment to schools in need, including in California and in his home state of Illinois, and here in New York City where he was born in Harlem.
On Thursday, he’ll be back uptown at P.S. 200, the James McCune Smith School on 7th Avenue and 150th Street. To talk a little bit about the event and his work with the organization, I am joined by Tom Morello. Hey, Tom.
Tom Morello: Hi. How are you?
Alison Stewart: I’m doing great. How are you doing?
Tom Morello: I’m well, thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
Alison Stewart: I’m so excited to talk to you about Music Will, which actually happens to be based in our listening area out of Montclair, New Jersey. There are a lot of organizations that are trying to restore music programs in schools or start them in schools. What was it about the kind of work that Music Will does that connected with you?
Tom Morello: Music Will reached out to me and was kind enough to offer me something called a humanitarian award. That stuff comes across my desk from time to time. They said what comes along with that award is the ability that were going to help me open 20 music schools in public schools across the country that needed them. I was just like, what an incredible opportunity that is. I thought, where would I like those schools to be? For the first year of my life, I lived at West 142nd in Riverside with my mom and I thought we should definitely do one in Harlem.
The day before, Rage Against the Machine is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’ll be up in Harlem opening a music program at James McCune Smith School.
Alison Stewart: Your mom was a lifelong activist and educator. Anybody who follows you on Instagram knows she was like on the picket lines with hotel workers a month ago, dressed around her hundredth birthday. Happy birthday, the way. In terms of how your mom thought about activism, she was a civil rights activist, she organized parents for rock and rap against music censorship, how did she shape how you thought about activism?
Tom Morello: Well, I grew up in a very archly conservative, homogenous community in the northern suburbs of Chicago, but was always steeled in my worldview by my mom’s radical– She had taught around the world. She had taught in Kenya, in Spain, in Japan, and in Germany. Really had this internationalist point of view that she imbued me with. I thought everyone had a radical civil rights mom, fiery civil rights mom, until you get out in the world and you’re like, “Oh, I may be one of the few.” She did just turn 100 a couple of weeks ago. October 1st was her 100th birthday.
It was great to celebrate that with her. One of the ways that I’ve continued to celebrate her century on this planet is by doing this program with Music Will. She was a public high school teacher for 30 years. Bringing education and the overlap of education, music, and activism into Harlem on Thursday is going to be something that’s going to be very gratifying.
Alison Stewart: Did you have someone who taught you music and who made a difference in how you grew up and how you thought about yourself?
Tom Morello: Well, one of the great things about Music Will is it’s a non-traditional music program. I took two guitar lessons at 13 and made me put the guitar down for four years. It was so off-putting and felt that knuckle rapping, very hierarchical way. What they do is they teach kids what they want to know.
If you want to write rap lyrics or make beats or if you want to sing country and western songs or play heavy metal drums, that’s what you will learn on the first day that you enter the Music Will program. I actually taught guitar lessons during my struggling years in Hollywood. I remember those two horrible lessons that I had had at 13 years old and tried to never replicate that formula and make music. It’s called playing music.
Playing music can be such a great outlet, not just outlet for creativity, but for self-expression and finding out who you are and building community with other people and an avenue to express yourself in a number of different ways, including social change.
Alison Stewart: I went to grad school to become a teacher for a minute, and one of the things I took away from it, which I also applied to my work as a journalist, is it’s important for something to have meaning in someone’s life. That’s how you make the connection. That’s how you hold onto it, whether it’s about a history lesson or it’s about something in math. There’s something about music and having it have meaning in the kids’ life. That sounds like the way Music Will approaches it from your description.
Tom Morello: Absolutely. It’s such an incredible program. One of the things I will say, it just dismantles the wall. I remember thinking as a kid growing up, and I love the big rock bands, and I thought, in order to be a musician, I have to own a castle on a Scottish lock and have a $10,000 Les Paul and this, that, and the other. For me, it was punk rock dismantled that. What Music Will does is that it dismantles that on the first day. It’s like you will immediately become a songwriter.
You will immediately become someone who can learn your favorite Travis Scott song or Metallica song. Right away, you figure out these are not some mystical creatures who create this. They’re people exactly like you. When I was a guitar teacher in Hollywood, people would come, they get their first guitar for Christmas or whatever, and they’d show up and, “Oh, do I have to learn to tune it? Do I have to learn the C major scale?” I said, “No. The first thing we’re going to do is you’re going to write a song. See that dot there? How many times would you like to play it? The next dot. How many? Okay, let’s just repeat that pattern. You’re a songwriter. You and Paul McCartney are both songwriters.” You know what I mean? May be a greater sophistication to other songwriters, but there’s nothing intrinsically different or special about anyone else who’s written songs than you, young child at James McCune Smith School right now.
Alison Stewart: Tell us a little bit about the program on Thursday. It starts at 10:00 on a school night.
Tom Morello: Yes. No, in the morning? It’s in the morning.
Alison Stewart: Oh, in the morning, okay.
Tom Morello: It’s in the morning. We’re not going to keep the kindergartners.
Alison Stewart: I saw 10:00, I was like, “That late, man. They’re going to be rocking out late.”
Tom Morello: One thing you have to learn to do is stay up super late if you’re going to be playing music. We want to get that on the first day.
Alison Stewart: What’s on the program?
Tom Morello: What’s on the program is basically it’s a little bit about Music Will. I’ll be performing, I’ll be playing a song or two. There’ll be a reveal of the instruments that we’re donating to school and a little talk about the music program. Just like it’s a fun day. Did the first one in LA a few days ago, and it’s a great time with the kids. Well, they’ll be rocking out and jumping around on stage, and letting them know that starting tomorrow, this music program is for you to immerse yourselves.
Alison Stewart: My guest is Tom Morello. We are talking about Music Will and the opening of a music program at P.S. 200, the James McCune Smith School up in Harlem. Since you’ve done this a couple of times, kids always come up with really good questions and the unexpected ones, what did someone ask you that you were like, “Wow, all right then.”
Tom Morello: Well, when there’s an open mic out there, you get what you get and you can’t be upset. I was doing one in Van Nuys High School, and kids are asking about what age did you start playing guitar and what are your favorite songs? Someone comes up and these are high school kids, and he goes, like, “In a tweet in 2014, you suggested that China’s relationship with Tibet is A, B, and C. My view is this. Have you changed your opinion?” I’m like, “We’re going to have to have sidebar on that [laughs] because one, I don’t remember the tweet, and two, I’d like to talk about rock and roll right now.”
Alison Stewart: What kind of instruments are we talking about that are going to the schools?
Tom Morello: Well, again, it’s culturally specific. There will be the opportunity for these kids to play guitar, bass drums, to make beats. One thing that Music Will does is they come into the schools, they help the teachers in that school, they go through this training program, in this sensitivity program like, “Here’s how to best build an immediate bridge.” It’s very, very sensitive to the needs of the kids in the school. I haven’t spoken with the grade school kids there, but someone has to figure out what it is that they’d like to know and what they’d like to learn.
A lot of kids, they want to make beats and write rhymes, so they will have ample opportunity to do just that.
Alison Stewart: What do the educators tell you about what it’s like to be in these elementary schools at this time?
Tom Morello: What the educators say about being in these elementary schools is that it’s often life-changing for the kids. In a time where public schools are so grossly underfunded and programs like the one we did in Van Nuys High School, they’d never had a music program before at the high school, ever.
Alison Stewart: Really? Wow.
Tom Morello: It just opens these doors for– It’s not just self-expression, but it’s a way to find out who you are and have avenues and connectivity that doesn’t exist without music. Music predates in a written language. The truth that can resonate from a beat and a rhyme or a guitar chord is something that we feel deep in our reptilian brain. There’s some hard wiring that this is a way that humans connect and this is a way that humans tell their story.
When it’s denied to kids, especially in a grade school environment, it cuts off a limb of the tree. What educators said is like, when that limb of the tree starts blossoming, you really see the kids in other areas of their lives, from academics to social interaction is great benefit across the board.
Alison Stewart: It’s also how we communicate. There was a study done from your alma mater, Harvard, in 2019 discussing how in every culture and in every language, there’s a lullaby. There’s a song that’s sung at funerals, there’s music that’s played at weddings, and that it truly, without being cheesy, it is a universal language, music. It is a way that we can communicate with each other. It’s a way you can tell somebody you’re mad.
Tom Morello: Exactly. It’s not cheesy at all. In art, there’s never been a successful social movement in our country that hasn’t had a great soundtrack. You know what I mean? It’s like it’s one of the ways to steal the backbones of those on the front line about wind and sails of social justice movements. Let’s start them young at James McCune Smith.
Alison Stewart: My guest is Tom Morello. We are talking about Music Will, the organization helping to get instruments and music programs in school. Tom is doing his best. He’s got– Is it 20, you said? 20 schools?
Tom Morello: 20 schools, yes.
Alison Stewart: All right. Your mom turned 100 beginning of the month and she celebrated in style. You posted on Instagram, “Mary Morello’s 100th birthday celebration featured a stirring rendition of Ozzy Osbourne’s and Randy Rhoads’ Mr. Crowley, performed by at Jack Black and a kick-ass band of 12 and 13-year-olds. Mary was pleased. My son Roman on guitar.” Roman knows how to play the guitar.
Tom Morello: Roman is living proof of– He’s Music Will incarnate. First of all, when your dad is a musician, no one wants to be a musician. Get that straight right off the bat. During pandemic times, there were a lot of hours in the day and I pride him off of some video game for about five minutes of teaching him the first three notes of Stairway to Heaven and he felt– Again, much like Music Will does, it was building small successes. It wasn’t like, “Oh, you must practice for four hours to do this.” It’s like, “Here’s three notes. Tomorrow, I’ll do the next three.”
All of a sudden, he was like, “Wow, I can play the first six notes of Stairway to Heaven and it sounds like the record.” Then he asked me the next day, “Can we learn the next three notes?” He began on that path. Now, I’ve been relegated, I’ve been demoted to becoming the rhythm guitar player of the family. I just have to sit there and strum while he shreds away as is evidenced by his incredible rendition of Mr. Crowley.
Alison Stewart: Let’s listen to it a little bit. First, we’ll hear Jack Black, and then we’ll hear Roman Morello shredding.
(MUSIC – Roman Morello: Mr. Crowley)
Alison Stewart: The visuals are fine in that too because people are like, “Oh, that’s sweet. Tom’s son.” Then he starts playing, like, “Man, you see that? Do you hear that kid?”
Tom Morello: Yes.
Alison Stewart: I was curious how you’re feeling about the tour because you were born in Harlem. You’re going to open a school there. Your next stop is in Illinois, a couple of hours from where you grew up. What is it like for you to return to these places where you have a personal connection?
Tom Morello: It’s very meaningful. I really just have to thank Music Will for having that vision to create an award like this. It’s not something that gathers dust on a mantle. It’s something that lives and breathes now for generations and will continue to create links in the chain of people making music and potentially changing their worlds with it.
The next stop is Marseilles, Illinois. It’s spelled exactly like Marseille, France, but it’s in central Illinois. It’s pronounced Marseilles. That’s where the Morellos are from. They were Italian coal miners. It’s a town that’s seen some pretty hard times. You work at Walmart, you join the army, you work at a strip club or you sell meth. That’s where it’s at right now. They don’t even have a high school there anymore. We’re doing it in the middle school there. It’s a place where my family’s from.
It used to be this democratic union town and now, there’s Confederate flags in the yards. It’s a place where I thought it would just be great to give back to that community as a son who left it years– I spent every summer there as a kid, and to try to really give back. It’s these places that I have a connection to and then my hometown in Libertyville which probably is a little bit more affluent.
It may not need it as much, but the idea that this is where I’m from and this is a place where it’s going to have a different kind of music education than anything that’s ever been offered there before is very meaningful to me. I just thank Music Will a lot for that.
Alison Stewart: Well, have a great time Thursday at P.S. 200.
Tom Morello: Thank you very much.
Alison Stewart: Tom Morello, thanks for joining us.
Tom Morello: Pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.
Alison Stewart: This is All Of It.