Free Speech Zone | New American Songbook

Sep 26, 2017

Prophets of Rage
Credit Travis Shinn

The 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta incorporated ‘designated protest zones’--later more commonly known as ‘free speech zones’--as a way to control and limit the impact that protests might have on the convention. A parcel of land near, but not too close or visible to the event center, was cordoned off, making protests and demonstrations a curious sideshow.

Listening to the new album from the so-called supergroup ‘Prophets of Rage’ feels a lot like listening to a free speech zone: all the elements of successful protest music are there, but bewilderingly ineffective, anemic and pointless. It’s not as if the group doesn’t have street cred: Chuck D of Public Enemy, B Real of Cypress Hill and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine are the front men, and each have plenty of history that they bring to this new group. But maybe that’s the problem, it’s all history and the revolution has developed new modalities of resistance. The creation of the first free speech zone was also the bifurcation of traditional protest methods: now some folks protested inside the zones, while others embraced their marginalization and took to new streets.

A recent NPR interview with Chuck D suggested that these were ‘angry times’ and that the Prophets of Rage gave people a way to be angry, as if anger itself was the point. But in neither hip hop nor punk rock is anger the end—it is both a symptom and a weapon—you rage against the machine, after all. Or, from the punk collective Crass: the nature of your oppression is the aesthetic of our anger. Anger is always directional, causal. The Prophets of Rage miss this essential feature, and in doing so they inhabit the zone provided for them: catchy, marketable and diffuse anger that you can really tap your foot to.

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