Oakland-based duo conjures beats of activism

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Warner Music Group/Courtesy

Although it’s been a year since their last studio collaboration as Street Sweeper Social Club, Tom Morello and Boots Riley have both been two of the most politically active musicians in the past few years. While SSSC mixed in slick, playful raps with socially conscious lyrics, Morello and Riley have individually become much more involved as activists this year, even coming together occasionally for short performances.

Though most know him as the genre-melding guitarist from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, Morello has built a new persona for himself as folk singer The Nightwatchman. Originally starting out as a purely acoustic chord-chucker — with some twangy harmonica thrown in as well — The Nightwatchman has evolved into a fiery Molotov cocktail of squealing electric riffs and powerful acoustic jams.

Regardless of how his solo style has changed, many of Morello’s lyrics have been about fighting for individual rights. His released his EP Union Town during the height of the nation’s worker union struggles. In addition to all of the proceeds from the album going to the unions, Morello went down to numerous union protests and played for the striking workers. From playing and speaking at multiple Occupy movements to naming his Ibanez Galvador guitar “Whatever it Takes,” Morello projects a presence that refuses to be silenced.

With Riley’s East Bay background and involvement in various activist groups, it isn’t surprising to see why Morello chose to partner with him for SSSC. Riley started out as the front-man for hip-hop renegades The Coup, where Riley vocalized his criticisms on topics like American politics and capitalism in his own cynical, witty way. With the formation of SSSC in 2009, Riley was able to further expand his lyrical bombs by collaborating with Morello. Recently, Riley has been participating in the Occupy Oakland movement in addition to being a vital member in organizing the West Coast Port Shutdown that will take place on December 12th.

The duo of Morello and Riley boasts a body of work that resists conformity and remains vigilant to the working man’s plights. While fans diligently await the next SSSC album, Morello and Riley will continue to support the people and express their opinions — as well as their own — through their protest anthems.

Ian Birnam is the lead music critic.