Protest Song of the Day: ‘We are the 99 Percent’ by Tom Morello, Serj Tankian & Tim McIlrath
To recognize the power of protest music, acknowledge its role in keeping dissent alive and how musicians translate social issues and systemic problems into song, The Dissenter has launched a daily feature that highlights a protest song every weekday.
Tom Morello, reinvigorated by the one-year anniversary of the Occupy movement, recorded this song, “We are the 99 Percent,” with Rise Against singer Tim McIlrath and System of a Down singer Serj Tankian. He told Rolling Stone it was a “gift to the movement.” He had been to the Occupy encampments before authorities had them dismantled and had been to numerous protests, where he heard mostly “earnest folk songs” being played and wanted the movement to have a rock anthem it could sing.
The chorus is the chanting of, “We are the 99 percent!” McIlrath and Tankian add, “We want everything.” Morello punctuates it with a “Mic check!” And, before it is over, he says, “The future is here. The beginning is near.”
The movement is characterized in the song as one composed of people who “were asleep before but not anymore.” Tankian also suggests a number of occupiers have been out selling songs to pay the rent, which represents the reality that many of the occupiers in the movement have been poor, working or middle class people without jobs who are in debt. And, at one point, McIlrath sings out, “If you feel the wave crashing down/ Don’t just sit there and drown/ Fight back!”
There’s an interlude where the riff-rock breaks for a moment so The Nightwatchman can give a brief reflection. “Let the foes of justice tremble/This fight starts with me,” he sings, as the no-holds-barred sound crescendos and Morello comes in with a guitar solo.
In Under the Radar magazine’s August 2012 “Protest Issue,” they interviewed artists on why there was no one song people could say came from the movement. Why doesn’t it have a Woody Guthrie or a Bob Dylan or a Chuck D? Or what common musical language do all occupiers share? Morello rejected the thrust of these questions and told the magazine, “I think that one artist or song coming forward to captivate the movement is 100 percent unnecessary…This is not a movement that is waiting to be graced from above by a hit song or some rock star stepping forward. So I think it’s unlikely that a song called, ‘We are the 99 Perecent,’ is going to top the Billboard charts. I think it’s almost like a false discussion to say that the diversity of the movement prohibits there from being an anthem. My response would be ‘Who cares?’ The point of the movement is not to have an artist epitomize it. The point of the movement is to achieve a greater level of social and economic justice.”
Though this is a rock anthem for the movement and the musicians are not saying this should be the song of the movement, Morello, McIlrath and Tankian do appear to have seized upon a common musical language. There are multiple songs, like this one, that were already recorded and took, “We are the 99 Percent” or “We are the 99” as their title and as their chorus.
Here’s the song, which the musicians put out for people to download for free. And the video is a compilation of clips of occupiers being met with police force:
The Dissenter will be putting one of these up every weekday morning. If you have requests for songs that should be featured or if you have a protest song you recorded, which you would like to see featured, email firstname.lastname@example.org.