“Especially if you’re a writer of color or if you’re a woman. Because if you fall into either of those categories, you’re expected to be writing of your experience. But if you’re not, then you can write about anything.” – Ayad Akhtar
Musical genres are categories of strength. There is no better example of this than in music photography, where certain photographers like Mick Rock aim to capture a musician’s aura. In the documentary “SHOT!” Mick Rock slowly but surely explains his aesthetic, which consists of capturing what it is that draws us into being fans of certain music. Whether strength be manifested as punk or hip energy, or in stoic form as seen and heard in much of what we consider to be “classical” music, one look at Mick Rock’s photos will make clear our attraction to music stars, an attraction that has some even tattoo the faces of some musical artists on their arms.
Hegel. I have no idea if Zack De La Rocha has ever read Hegel, one the 20th centuries great philosophers. This also means that I have no idea of de La Rocha either likes or would actually like or not Hegel’s work. I do know that De La Rocha was the lyricist, and vocalist, of Rage Against the Machine.
Hegel having the impact that he had on the thinking of the 20th century, I have found Hegelian-like thinking to Zack De La Rocha’s lyrics, Hegelian undercurrents. Hegel was the great theorist of the dialectic, or relation between conflicting forces in a society that define a society, like class warfare. De La Rocha, who coined the band name “Rage Against the Machine,” or rage in order to break the dialectic or end history as Hegel meant by it, has a great understanding of the dialectic that concerns many, and thus the more than 14 million albums that Rage Against the Machine has sold. It is a strength of De La Rocha, and how he asks to be understood. De La Rocha offers us a narrative “the dialectic,” explicit or implied, with a villain “the machine” and heroes “our best or better, activist, selves.”
Alexandre Kojeve: “Being is dialectical only to the extent that it is revealed by Thought, that Thought is what gives Being its dialectical character.” Kojeve was a writer who brought Hegel back in fashion during his lectures, which Sartre loved attending. De La Rocha, as vocalist and lyricist, thinks and enunciates the dialectic. Take “Maria,” from Battle of Los Angeles, released in 1999.
“The sun ablaze as Maria’s foot touches the surface of sand
On northern land, as human contraband
Some rico from Jalisco passed her name to the Boss
She stuffed into a truck bed, she clutches her cross
Here comes the exhaust and it rips through her lungs
She’s off fast to the pasture, like cattle she’ll cross
Degree 106, sweat and vomit are thrown
And she prays and suffocates upon the memories of home
Of Yanqui guns for blood debts on the loans
Of smoldering fields rape rubble and bones
Of graves hidden trapped up in visions of war
Of nothing, no one, nobody, no more!”
In “Maria,” De La Rocha is both explicit about the dialectic and implies the dialectic, offering both lyrics and shadow-lyrics, two marvels. The dialectic is the conflict between Maria’s humanity, and the inhumanity created by the machine. How does one break the dialectic? Turn to many other tracks from the album, such as “Guerilla Radio.”
“Lights out! Guerilla Radio!
Turn that shit up!”
In his book Poetics of Relation, Edouard Glissant writes the great text on the construction of identity and world, given the world is mostly built by power driver of technologies of the self to quote Michel Foucault.
“In Glissant’s view, we come to see that relation in all its senses—telling, listening, connecting, and the parallel consciousness of self and surroundings—is the key to transforming mentalities and reshaping societies.” – University of Michigan Press book description
Glissant writes that the abyss felt by black slaves in the New World was the very first stone of what would become their relation and their poetics of relation. Familiarity, tradition, language, would all add itself to what made this relation. Zack De La Rocha has said in interviews he was angered by the use of the word “wetback” by students in school. He would go on to be a singer in a band Inside Out until he discovered Hip Hop, and breakdancing. Then he would become a rapper and belong to the band Rage Against the Machine, where his relation would fuel lyrics and performance that would rock the world.
His father was Beto De La Rocha, one the LA’s great muralists and Chicano cultural activists. De La Rocha’s relation to the world was a traditional one, as much as it was a postmodern one, i.e. his being a rapper.
De La Rocha’s identifying and leading a fight against the dialectic he does not like, the paradox and paradigm created by “the machine” is his relation to the world. It is a rock relation, so rooted in eighth-note rock beats, and a rhythm section, born to life in Southern Cities as a relation, as much as it is a hip-hop connection, born to life in northern cities as a connection. Rock cities like Memphis and New Orleans have been sites of long struggles, idealism, as much as Hip Hop cities have. De La Rocha relates through the primacy of rhythm, and not harmony or melody, as in the case of other music around the world.
Is the primacy of rhythm as relation to the world born out of black body politic? It is certainly born as black subculture, aka subculture made to harbor the artifice that is “life in black skin” because of an accusation. It years to face and dance the world, its relation to abyss, racism, architecture, silence, language, and other elements of life in the US. Film, imagery, has added itself to this relation, and so has the “white” use of black music as idiom to relate to the world. De La Rocha faces and dances the world, manifesting strength as a relating animal, bard of mainly a solution but sometimes a problem, American genius.
In conclusion, Zack De La Rocha relates through the world to the imperative of agitating with music, his main form of agitation being breaking the dialectic that causes our misery, in which “the machine” is a fundamental protagonist. De La Rocha does it well, and his albums are examples of this. Despite his being a “Latino,” he relates through “black” turned “white” turned ‘alt black” turned “trans” etc. music, that in the end had always quite simply been music that focused much on rhythm. He brings lyrics to this rhythm that brings it nobility, for fundamental to his relation is his respect and love of music.