Activism is #trending. Always has been. Still, every time angst levels rise, there always seems to be something new that steals the public’s interest. After a summer of perpetual bad news, from Ray Rice to the Ebola breakout, it seems attention has begun to fade. Police brutality, at least for those of us who don’t endure the constant threat of it each day, grows less terrifying. Internationally, North Korean missile games become stale news. Plus, the whole “Hands Up” thing in response to violence in Ferguson, Missouri, made our elbows tired. We’re trying to be engaged in a time where we’re expected to be engaged in so much.
As the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge heated up and melted, the very definition of “activism” came under scrutiny, largely by folks who have no business being arbiters. “Are these people actually donating?” they asked. “Isn’t this a self-promotional endeavor?” they skewered. “What about the California drought?”
At the end of the day, our Facebook feeds cluttered and we didn’t know the difference between caring and not caring. We applauded the Foo Fighters for riffing off the film Carrie, while our parents took delight in sharing Stephen King’s contribution. Over $100 million has been raised for ALS, thousands of people donated to additional unlisted organizations, and however the rest of that fairy tale goes.
It’s easy to knock the activist efforts of celebrities. They’re rich, they fly in private jets, and they don’t care where they drop their dough. Conservatives especially love hammering the likes of George Clooney for speaking up. At the same time, had more notable characters supported Occupy Wall Street, the movement may have garnered needed sympathy from everyday Americans. If more movie stars got arrested for environmental causes, perhaps we would be facing less devastation.
All it takes is one pamphlet for someone to discover a progressive cause they will rally with for years. If there’s one kind of figure in a person’s life that might be such a catalyst, it’s probably an entertainer. One who uses the spotlight to illuminate the fight for human rights. And that’s where Rise Against enters the picture.
When Rise Against formed in Chicago in 1999, the then-fledgling punk outfit wasn’t angling for widespread popularity, nor were they expecting to break ground as a melodic hardcore band. “We wanted to play punk rock shows and maybe one day share a bill with Bad Religion,” lead guitarist Zach Blair says in a phone interview. “We never thought we’d become this big.”
The four-piece has since cut seven albums, three of which are certified gold in America. They’ve repeatedly peaked on several Billboard charts, and headlined festivals across the world. While peers like Taking Back Sunday and Anti-Flag are riding the nostalgia factor, touring on the merit of their classic albums having anniversaries, Rise Against are selling tickets off their new material, the bulk of which brings a decisively more radical message than most of younger, more vapid apolitical punk rock with a significant fanbase. They’re giving voices to those enduring emotional abuse and taking down child hostages in one fell swoop.
To climb into the headspace where he writes lyrics, Rise Against singer Tim McIlrath says he goes into a dark place. For a happily married father of two who’s got plenty to make him grin, that’s a challenge. “It’s tough,” Blair says. “He submerges himself to write from this possessed perspective.”
The title of their latest, The Black Market, is a tongue-in-cheek jab at their own job: McIlrath’s darkness is sold, purchased, and marketed, sprawled across highway billboards. Rise Against aren’t trying to recapture old fans, though that’s always nice. Rather they’re luring a whole new generation. And they’re doing it by raising fists.
“When you’re a kid getting into punk rock, there’s always political action at shows,” Blair explains. “There’s tabling for Food Not Bombs or PETA. People go out on Warped Tour to reach out to younger kids. Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat were talking about politics, a lot of which wasn’t on kids’ radars. It was a no-brainer when we started that we wanted to align ourselves with that ethos.”
Their motivation hasn’t strayed. All four members still advocate for organizations like Amnesty International and the It Gets Better Project. While most of their time is spent promoting animal rights and the benefits of straight edge living, on The Black Market Rise Against expands its repertoire with tracks about relationship abuse, the plight of Pussy Riot, and immigration reform. On the creative side, they’re always looking for new causes. If there is a wind of change blowing, they’re harnessing its power.
FROM THE ASHES
The Black Market’s lead single, “I Don’t Want To Be Here Anymore,” finds McIlrath singing about the frustration of feeling helpless in this decade, where the wholesale violence mirrors the comparable epidemics of decades ago. Like all powerful singles, the song needed to exist. In a sense, it wrote itself.
“It encapsulates what the album’s about,” says Blair. “It sounds familiar, there’s breathing room with new information, and it’s pushing this agenda of scuttling through darkness. It’s like building Ikea furniture where sometimes you see all these random parts left around you, but as long as you have that couch in front of you that you built, you know you did it. It’s frustrating, but you can build something that’s useful.”
As they soldier on, Rise Against is sparking debate and in effect motivating others to create change. In some cases, they’re teaching through personal experiences. When Blair brings up a toxic relationship he used to be in, he struggles to describe how the unhealthy came to seem normal, and how questioning another way of living just wasn’t an option.
“No matter who you are,” he says “you’ve had a situation where you didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel – that’s ranging from emotional abuse to a job you fucking hated … There’s personal liberation out there, so we need to know how to seize it.”
With a miserable summer in the U.S. and around the world begetting what promises to be an even fouler fall, Rise Against keeps pumping protest music. The band’s most recent major contribution, the viral video for “I Don’t Want To Be Here Anymore,” seeds topics ranging from the kidnapping of children in Africa, to physical abuse in the household, to our crooked government.
“There’s shocking content,” explains Blair. “If people don’t look away, though, maybe it inspires them to pick up activism for a particular cause that resonates with them. There’s free help. There’s free therapy. Sometimes people can’t get to a phone or get to the Internet, and that’s a difficult situation. The goal is to educate so people can arm themselves with tools to get out of that situation. Unfortunately that’s not always possible, and those are the situations in the video.”
THE CHOICE IS YOURS
Activism is old hat in music. See: John Lennon. See: Public Enemy. Even Radiohead speaks out about Tibetan freedom, Fall Out Boy has addressed Ugandan water purification, and Arcade Fire has collected contributions for Haiti. As for Rise Against and how they sit on the continuum — while a lot of other preach, McIlrath and his gang don’t necessarily force people to give. Or volunteer. Or dump shit on their heads. The choice is yours. Like Ice Bucket Challenge-takers, Rise Against fans can learn about activist campaigns in the venue, or not.
The band’s decision to flank multiple causes, they say, is all about choice. Atrocities happen overseas, across the country, and in our own neighborhoods. “It’s so easy to bite off more than you can chew, but if you find yourself in a terrible situation and you’re educated as much as possible, you’ll have more escape options,” Blair says. For the band, the strategy enables them to keep an open mind about which causes are important.
“I’m a liberal from Texas,” Blair laughs. “I’m such a contradiction. Everything I’m active in is informed by how much I’ve been lied to my whole childhood regarding who to trust, who to vote for, and how to eat. We have trigger-happy cops. We have people who are proud to go into a Chipotle and show off they have a gun in their belt loop. There’s a fine line between personal politics and national politics.”
The longer Blair continues, the clearer it becomes this isn’t just a personal choice to pursue new forms of activism. For them, it’s in their DNA. “No matter how large the band gets, the one thing we never thought about doing was dropping the political activism. As long as people are paying attention and listening, they will get involved, research what we’re saying, and step up. If one cause doesn’t resonate with them, maybe another we mention will.”