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Prophets of Rage head north of the border to… Make Canada Rage Again?

August 26, 2016

A lifelong Rage fan wonders about Canada's place on their Make America Rage Again tour.

I’m standing at the front of the lawn section of the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre surrounded by a sea of heavily tattooed, sunburnt white dudes waiting for Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, Brad Wilk, Chuck D, DJ Lord, and B-Real to come onstage. Collectively, these are the Prophets of Rage.

A new supergroup expressly formed as what Morello describes as an “elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of [American] election year bullshit,” they’re currently touring cuts from their respective catalogues, and tonight, they will reiterate that compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission, ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, and the elite are American dreams. But, on the second of the three Canadian stops on their Make America Rage Again tour, I wonder where I fit into all of this.

It’s a welcome if confusing opportunity to hear from three catalogues I once crossed the border and pulled an all-nighter in New York City for, especially considering the Republican nominee the tour name was inspired by wants to build literal walls around the country, and Toronto hasn’t seen anything this close to a RATM set since touring behind The Battle of Los Angeles brought them here twice in 1999. Still, with Election Day less than three months out, I can’t help but think this unit has better places to be.

Photo By: Riley Taylor

I’m thinking about all of this when Public Enemy mix master DJ Lord approaches a pair of decks and calls the ceremony to order.

“Check one two, one two, Toronto. What the fuck is up, eh?” Lord says. “One love. Pay attention.”

Hand on his heart, he spins forward a distorted electric guitar cover of “O Canada” before chopping up mainstream rap and rock classics by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Run D.M.C., and Queen in a tribute to late heroes like Phife Dawg, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Jam Master Jay, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Freddy Mercury, and David Bowie, but in the 20-minute introduction, it’s nods to Nirvana and, for some reason, Metallica and the White Stripes, that get the most response.

So when a siren wails out across the stadium, the lights go down on the crowd, and our silhouetted heroes walk out with fists raised to the sky, I already have a feeling how this is all going to go.

Opening with their reimagined version of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’s “Prophets of Rage,” the stadium lights up, but the real fervour doesn’t come until the band chases it with “Guerilla Radio.”

Rage originals count for half of the night’s 20-song set, and they’re the ones that go over best. So when the band leaves the stage while B-Real and Chuck D step into the pit while trading mic duties on a medley that collided Cypress Hill’s “Hand on the Pump,” “Insane in the Brain,” and “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That” with Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” and Anthrax collab “Bring the Noise,” from the lawns, I note an uptick in tribal tattooed bros finding an opportunity to refuel on overpriced Molson products.

Photo By: Riley Taylor

At the amphitheatre, you can cut the testosterone with a knife. But rather than challenging the fans focused more on rage than the machine, Prophets of Rage trade the stirring messages Zack de la Rocha once delivered between tracks with corny banter that serves no real purpose beyond letting the group catch their breath between songs (“We came to blow shit up… we just lit the fuse,” B-Real tells us before the band dives into “Bombtrack”).

Instead of drawing our attention to the plights of political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Chuck D interpellates the crowd by shouting out to the Blue Jays.

“I don’t know what the fuck is going on down there [in the United States], but stay as smart as you are,” he says. “Stay woke.”

Pulling double duty opening Prophets of Rage’s tour dates fronting prog-influenced punk band Wakrat, earlier in the night Tim Commerford – the band member whose experience is most represented in the crowd – uses his privilege to tell the audience that most of the songs his new band is playing are “about your moms.”

Prophets of Rage’s campaign to #takethepowerback and #makeamericarageagain hasn’t all been this limp. In the lead up to their current tour of stadiums throughout the US and Canada, this election’s had the rap rock supergroup assume meaningful platforms outside the Republican National Convention in Clevland, Ohio, and in front of a state prison in Norco, California after complaints from “right-wing nuts” got them barred from performing inside just minutes before their Jail Guitar Doors presentation was scheduled to start.

As on all other Make America Rage Again tour stops, Prophets of Rage have donated a portion of the night’s proceedings to a local charity. So when Tom Morello puts on his Nightwatchman shoes and introduces a duet cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (assisted here by touring opener AWOLNATION’s Aaron Bruno) we’re encouraged to donate more to Co-op Cred, a non-wage-based alternative currency program based in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood that enables marginalized groups facing food insecurity and economic marginalization to collect “credits” they can use to purchase healthy food in exchange for their hours of labour.

In a truly unexpected move, Dave Grohl steps out with a guitar to join the group in putting the “motherfucker!” in the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” too.

But in Toronto I’m looking for a Canadian value add, and beyond the red MAKE CANADA RAGE AGAIN hat ($30) at the merch tent (also here: six different tour t-shirt designs ($35), a hoodie ($75), two bandanas ($20), and a messenger bag ($50)) and the scrim they leave the crowd with, I don’t see it.  There’s no breakdown explaining why we should care about what’s happening south of the border, no engagement with our own socio-political landscape.

When I leave the amphitheatre through the literal carnival outside the venue, after the band closes with “Killing in the Name,” it’s hard not to think of this as anything more than a strategic retreat from national politics – a thinly-veiled opportunity for a marquee-exploding lineup to put an interesting spin on a march of their hits. Prophets of Rage left us chanting “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” but as we waddle towards Ferris wheels and mindless amusement park pleasures, there’s a shirtless, punch drunk fan chanting “Four more years.”

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