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Serj Tankian and Tom Morello

By: Jon DolanRadicalizing Metal One Head at a Time

No one associates Ozzfest with political activism–unless you count fighting for your rightful place in the line foroverpriced bottled water. This year, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and System of a Down’s Serj Tankian tried to change that.Their “Axis of Justice” center at each Ozzfest 2002 tour stop offered information on such issues as racism, human rights, globalization,and corporate crime. As the tour wound down, Morello and Tankian talked to Spin about “Axis” and rock politics in a post-9/11 world.

Spin: Why do you think hard-rock fans are pigeonholed as apolitical?

Serj Tankian: I think it has to do with the music being a bit more aggressive and people thinking that kids who participate inthis type of music are not thinking about justice or nonviolence in any way. But that’s absolutely not true. An organization likeAmnesty [International] signing up 300 people per show through Axis–to me, those are great numbers. The organizations affiliated withAxis are nonprofit, and the kids working have no motive except their own hearts and morals. That’s very exciting.

Why did you do it?

Tom Morello: The germ of it was conceived last year at the Los Angeles Ozzfest. I was sitting there stuck in traffic on my wayto the show, and I was really shocked at the number of people who were sporting SS and Klan tattoos. I was like, “That’s just crazy,this is my music, too.” Look at the main stage of Ozzfest. This year, the majority of the bands were multiethnic. What we tried to dowith Axis of Justice was to really broaden awareness.

So the response was good?

Tankian: Kids were tremendously responsive. The only complaint I’ve heard is that there’s not enough literature. I thinkthere’s great respect for people who are not doing something for their own gain. These kids working for Axis are out there atOzzfest from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in these little booths. They work their asses off. Kids come and see that these people aren’t sellingtheir own jewelry, and they appreciate that.

Do you think that 9/11 has had an influence on the way music is being made and listened to?

Morello: One thing that seems very clear is the amount of humanism and empathy that Americans feel for the suffering ofinnocent people–the outpouring of feeling and grief at the events is touching. It speaks to a genuine goodness in the soul of averageAmericans. One of my hopes is that the empathy and goodness can be translated across our border and that innocents who suffer in otherplaces can receive the same empathy. Vowing never to allow innocents to be hurt anywhere would be a good lesson to take away.

Tankian: I think everyone is affected personally. To be honest, I don’t see any major change in music after 9/11, and to me,that’s a little disappointing. I would expect there to be a little more consciousness based on the things we’ve experienced and learnedas a mass culture.

Has either of you considered getting directly involved in politics, à la Bono’s recent series of public dialogues with TreasurySecretary Paul O’Neill?

Morello: The way change happens is by organizing on a grassroots level. The reason we have an eight-hour workday is becauseworkers stood up to Pinkerton [Detective Agency] agents who were shooting them dead. The reason lunch counters were desegregated inthis country isn’t because some brilliant politician had an idea and got lobbied by a rock star. It’s because people stood up for theirrights and were unbending and unbreaking. My hope for the Axis of Justice is that you can reach people and help ignite that spark, theway that bands like the Clash or Public Enemy did.

If you had five minutes to talk to George Dubya, what would you say to him?

Morello: [Pause] Man, your daughters sure like to party.