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Boots Riley: The Music And The Man Behind Sorry To Bother You

by Denise Sullivan

Boots Riley (photo by Amelia Kennedy)

Boots Riley (photo by Amelia Kennedy)


Before a handful of musicians rallied behind the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, and decades before the current moment of resistance, there was Boots Riley.

Born into the movement in Oakland, California, Riley was politicized from the gate. Since the early ‘90s he’s used his innate talent and acquired knowledge to make change as a community worker and as a hip hop artist, leading The Coup.  Now the activist and auteur’s latest project, in case you haven’t heard, is the film he wrote and directed, Sorry to Bother You.

The film is everything people have said it is, though mostly, it’s wonderful: from the storyline and direction, the lead actors, the locations and set design to the music, it’s fresh, eye-popping, intelligent, funny, scary and moving. Some folks might see it as a love letter: to Oakland, to Black people, to working people and to all people engaged in struggle; it’s a head-nodding confirmation of everything that’s wrong with our world. It’s also an affirmation of what we can get right, if we take action and do what we can do. There is hard information that gets passed on during the course of Riley’s self-described magical realist science fiction story, and it’s wildly entertaining, considering it’s about  everyday survival of the masses in these days of late-stage capitalism. And that’s pretty much all I’m going to say about it.

I previewed Sorry To Bother You in April at the San Francisco International Film Festival and we were asked to hold our reviews; now that the film’s arrived, so much has been written and said about it in the press that Riley has asked via Twitter that writers be more mindful of spoilers. I’m heeding the suggestion, mostly because I want every American working person to see the film. But what about The Coup, the political rap collective that’s been waging revolutionary ideas in songs and videos since the ‘90s and whose 2012 concept album, Sorry To Bother You, served as the film’s aural equivalent and prequel? They’re one of the most politically shrewd acts to come out of the Bay Area since…well, maybe ever…and the album that birthed the film, as I recall, didn’t get a ton of recognition at the time of its release. Though first, a prelude.

Back in the day of West Coast gangsta rap, The Coup offered their answer to it: From the debut album, Kill My Landlord, “Not Yet Free” took on oppression in the capitalist state. On quick glance, its music video featured the earmarks of gangsta style (cars, guns), but listen and you’ll hear Riley likening conspicuous consumption and capitalism to a spider: “the web is getting tighter/I’m strugglin like a fighter/just to bust loose/it’s like a noose…”

“Fuck A Perm,” takes on the politics of Black hair. Writing in his collected lyrics book, he remembered when he and E-Roc took their show on the road and the reaction the song got in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (not good). Riley disclaims much of his earlier material and says it wasn’t really his intention to offend anyone’s savoir faire. “I heard a quote that the Panthers supposedly used to say, ‘It’s not what’s on your head, it’s what’s in it,’” he wrote.

On 1998’s Steal This Album, (its title a reference to ‘60s revolutionary Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book), it was “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A ’79 Granada Last Night” that again, called on then-contemporary street style and attitudes and turned them on their heads: The song is actually a political analysis concerning revolution and sexism. “Anyway, I don’t know if any of that comes through in the song, but that’s what I wanted to do,” wrote Riley. Here’s the video, starring actor Roger Guenveur Smith as Jesus the Pimp, and Riley’s character, a son seeking his revenge for his mother’s death.

In 2001, The Coup’s album Party Music made the news because it originally featured a cover image of the Twin Towers in flames, designed months before the events of 9/11.  The album sleeve was ultimately changed to a picture of a flaming drink, though the party of the title wasn’t referring to a gathering where cocktails are served. In reference to the song, “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO,” Riley explained that he tries write substantive songs that offer hope. “So when I do talk about things like this and the terrible things that the ruling class has done, I talk about it with the optimism and hope of changing it. And when I try to draw class lines in my songs, I do so with humor, with showing the irony that exists in the world.”

There is perhaps no better illustration of how fine and far out The Coup can go at the same time than “The Guillotine.”  Riley said he came up with the song after Occupy Oakland and that it is meant to be anthemic. Once you hear it, you can’t forget it, and it is a key piece in the suite of songs that is 2012’s Sorry To Bother You (the album), partly informed by the conceptual work of The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Not long after the release of the album, Sorry To Bother You (the film) went into development and into production and the resulting triumph has been distributed to theaters nationwide this summer.  I said I wasn’t going to say much more but in case you live in a bubble and haven’t heard, Lakeith Stanfield (Selma) plays telemarketer Cassius Green who starts to strike gold when he’s told to use his “white voice.” Tessa Thompson (Westworld, Thor: Ragnarok) plays an artist and his girlfriend and Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger) is… the white guy.

The Coup may or may not exist as a recording and performing entity as Riley makes his way in the world of film, but he’s created a catalog of prescient and timely songs that serve to inspire, and should they care to listen, just might wake up any folks who haven’t yet gotten the memo that a new day is rising. And for that, all that’s left to say is thanks, Boots Riley.

Final note: Rest in Power, DJ Pam The Funkstress, a longtime contributing member of The Coup who passed away at the end of 2017.

Denise_Sullivan_70Denise Sullivan is a California-based author of books on music including Keep on Pushing:  Black Power Music From Blues to Hip HopThe White Stripes:  Sweethearts of the Blues and Shaman’s Blues:  The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors. Follow her @4DeniseSullivan and at her blog.

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