Tom Morello and Serj Tankian are best known for their rock and roll accomplishments, but their latest triumph is a journalistic one.
The co-founders of the Axis of Justice political organization recently scored a rare interview with Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Pennsylvania activist and author who has been on death row since his controversial murder trial in 1982.
"He's a difficult person to interview as he only gets two 15-minute telephone calls a week," Morello said. "So it has to be planned pretty meticulously, but we were able to get it done and it was pretty great."
The interview will air Friday on the Axis of Justice Radio Network, but Morello offered a preview Tuesday.
"What surprised me most was how he's so well-versed on so many topics," the Audioslave guitarist explained. "We talked about everything from foreign affairs to the latest intricacies of the Iraq situation, to a very interesting discussion of activism and the arts."
Since Mumia was convicted, several artists have spoken out in support of a retrial — including Sting, Mos Def and Bad Religion — but perhaps no one more than Morello's former band, Rage Against the Machine. The band played a massive Mumia defense-fund concert with the Beastie Boys in 1999 and even visited him on death row around that time (see "Weeding Through The Rhetoric: What's The Rage/Beasties Benefit About?").
"The thing I felt then and is certainly evident on our interview is how alive and vibrant this guy is," Morello said. "He's an author of four or five books, he's more literate about current affairs than any of the talking heads on CNN, he's a voracious reader and someone very much engaged in the world and trying, even though he's behind bars, to change the world. It was pretty inspirational."
Jamal was a member of the Black Panther Party and a radio journalist who had alleged police violence against minorities when he was arrested in 1981 for the shooting of a Philadelphia police officer. Jamal contended he was set up and evidence, such as the recantation of a key eyewitness, has since surfaced suggesting the same. The American Lawyer legal journal called his trial "grotesquely unfair" and his sentencing hearing "clearly unconstitutional."
In January, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Philadelphia, issued a decision that could lead to a retrial. "The next round of legal doing is trying to get new legal evidence introduced," Morello explained. "For instance, there was another guy who confessed."
Despite the new updates, Jamal only lightly touched on his own politics in his interview with Morello and Tankian.
"He does not wallow in self-pity," Morello said. "His main efforts are about changing the outside world, not groveling to improve his own situation, although he is adamant about his innocence."
The interview instead addressed the prison system, government oppression, racism, social-justice movements and Hurricane Katrina.
"He talked about how class and race are almost taboo topics in the American media and then Katrina thrust them onto everyone's television for a few days," Morello said. "And what would have happened if it happened in Georgetown or Bel Air."
The interview will air Friday at 7 p.m. on KPFK in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, online at KPFK.org. The show will also be archived at AxisofJustice.org, and a podcast will be available at Feeds.Feedburner.com/AxisofJustice/pod.
Tankian and Morello have been hosting weekly Axis of Justice Radio Network shows for three years and have interviewed a number of controversial figures, including Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Professor Griff of Public Enemy. The show also features a variety of music.
"The purpose is to expose our audience to rebel music of different genres and let people know there's a tether between Bob Dylan and Rage and Pete Seeger and System of a Down and Public Enemy," Morello said.
And speaking of rebel music, Morello's Nightwatchman side project will perform March 25 in San Francisco and in Washington, D.C., later in the spring. There are no plans for an album, however.
"When the Nightwatchman is called to serve, he will answer," Morello said, laughing. "I enjoy doing it for benefit causes. It feels very organic and Woody Guthrie-esque."