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A Conversation With Boots Riley, the Hip-Hop Communist Who Made the Summer’s Must-See Satire

The director of ‘Sorry to Bother You’ talks about writing political music that has sex in it, how pretty girls got him into activism, and what it’s like to finally be able to pay his bills

Boots Riley, the longtime frontman for the Coup, hip-hop’s best and most politically outspoken band since Public Enemy, has spent his three-decade career decrying institutional racism and a rigged class system, giving props to boosters, anarchists and anyone willing to help bring down the U.S. government. Taken to delivering provocative slogans, Riley perhaps summed up his life’s work most eloquently with a line from the group’s 2006 album Pick a Bigger Weapon: “I’m here to laugh, love, fuck and drink liquor / and help the damn revolution come quicker.”

The Coup’s brand of Oaktown funk is incendiary but also fun — they named one record Party Music, a play on party as “a good time” but also “political party” — and Riley has always believed that political art isn’t just about enraged commentary. Throughout the Coup’s run, they’ve also talked about sex, love and fatherhood, not afraid to crack a few jokes along the way. The 47-year-old Oakland resident may be the one self-proclaimed communist you’ll ever meet who wrote an anti-Bush song as an R&B slow jam entitled “BabyLet’sHaveaBabyBeforeBushDoSomethin’Crazy.”

For a few years, though, Riley has also had his eye on filmmaking, developing a screenplay based on his experience as a telemarketer. Some of the elements of that script found their way into the Coup’s 2012 album Sorry to Bother You, which included the track “We’ve Got a Lot to Teach You, Cassius Green,” the same name as the film’s main character, a broke-ass Oakland guy (played by Lakeith Stanfield) who discovers that he can be a superstar at his telemarketing job if he puts on a “white voice” when doing calls, tricking Caucasians into buying what he’s selling.

That film, also called Sorry to Bother You, has been one of the summer’s biggest indie hits, and certainly the season’s most talked-about movie. And like a good Coup album, it wants to be everything at once: funny, rude, sharp, raucous, sly, angry, crazy. Sex and satire, commentary and surrealism all go hand-in-hand in Sorry to Bother You, as Riley examines many of the same themes that have obsessed him as a lyricist.

During a recent interview with MEL, Riley talked about his cinematic breakthrough, but the conversation often shifted to his life as a musician and activist, and his philosophy for why he does what he does. He’s worked as a community organizer since he was a teen — his father Walter is a criminal-defense attorney and fellow activist — and he’s spent many years pondering how popular art and political engagement can coexist. And, as always, Riley had a lot to say: My first question inspired a lengthy response that touched on everything from the novels of Gabriel García Márquez to the first culture clashes that occurred when Europeans set foot in Africa.

And that was just the start. Below, he reminisces about what first got him into activism (spoiler alert: cute girls played a part); why he thinks more political art should deal with sex’ giving up on striking a healthy work/family balance; and finding himself in the strange position of finally being able to pay his rent on time.

When I saw Sorry to Bother You at Sundance, I wasn’t just impressed with the boldness of the ideas but the boldness of the style and the risk-taking. It felt like it was made by someone who said, “Hey, I may never get to make a movie again, so I’m just going to go for it.” Was that your thought process?
No, I mean, all my songs are pretty dense — they’ll have a few great ideas in them. Sometimes, they’re suites that turn into some whole other thing by the end. I mean, think of a verse in hip-hop: It’s very rarely like an old pop song, where there’s this one gimmick that they figured out how to do and everything else is supporting that one gimmick. A great verse talks about a lot of different things, but it also has this one main thrust.

I wanted to make a movie that was like a novel. Like, what’s the one idea in One Hundred Years of Solitude? Or the one idea in Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison? Or any great novel? I’m sure there’s some best-sellers that [just have one idea], but the writers I like have some denseness to them, like Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie. You feel like there’s this alive world around you because of the details.

Some great writers will just write, “He went to the store” — that’s very important, you just told what happened and you get on with it because there’s something else bigger that you’re doing. But someone like the writers that I just mentioned, I feel like they’d say, “He walked slowly to the store. In his left hand, he carried a coffee cup that, 20 years before, his grandmother had used to murder his grandfather. In the cup was coffee from last night that he was determined to finish.” It tells you a lot of stuff about the character, and it does so in a stylistic way. However, in film, most producers give you a note like, “Just show him at the store — don’t even say he walked to the store. Just show him at the store.” And many times, that’s right, but it’s also a style we’re used to seeing. That doesn’t make it right — it just means that there’s a language we’re used to seeing.

Now the question is, are we okay with that? Is that all we want [from a story]? Is that the only way to do it? Is there a way to put all these details and feelings and ideas that are closer to how we are in real life? All the details and things that are going on in our head, and the different connections that things around us have to other things in our life? Is there a way to do that? I think the answer is yes, obviously, because it’s what I was trying to do. But I think that there’s some people that’ll be like, “Wait, this isn’t what I’m used to doing.”

There were writings when Europeans first came over to Africa, and some of them were like, “These are rhythm-less people. They don’t know how to play the drums. They’re just pounding away — they’re not making a rhythm.” The thing is, if you first hear it — and you’re used to something way simpler — it might seem like it’s just happening. You’re not really understanding the patterns.

That doesn’t make either way “right” because what art is is communication. So it’s pompous for someone like me to make something and be like, “Well, you gotta learn how to listen.” [laughs] But the thing is that I think that what’s happening [with Sorry to Bother You] is working. But because it’s different than people assume [how movies are normally made], which is a lot sparser, [there’s this assumption] that this isn’t how people would normally want to do it. But part of what’s drawing people into the world of the movie has to do with all of these details. And so I went there — with the story, the themes and the production design — and we tried to create what I was calling “a beautiful clutter.” That was my pitch.

When you were growing up, what did you think you wanted to do? Were you leaning more toward activism or being an artist?
I watched TV all the time, so I would have killed to be on TV, but I wasn’t in a world where that was actually [possible]. So I’d have said that in the same breath as being a fireman. But by the time I was 12, I really just wanted to be Prince. I was taking guitar lessons, but I didn’t want to have to practice guitar — I wanted to somehow just magically have all those skills and talents and have giant crowds overtaken by what I do.

Then a couple years later, by the time I was 14, a youth organizer came to my house with a van full of 14-year-old girls and said, “Hey, you want to go to the beach?” And I was like, “Hell yeah!” [laughs] And they were like, “Yeah, but first we’re going to go support the Watsonville cannery workers’ strike, and then we’re going to go to the beach.” I was like, “Cool, whatever I got to do.”

I got in the van — these were young women that knew so much about the world. Way more than me. At that age, I was avoiding the news, partly because you don’t think you can do anything about it. But they were devouring the news and what wasn’t on the news. They had an analysis that made them feel like they could do stuff about things. So they had this knowledge, and I was like, “Wow, I want to be like that.” So I joined this organization, became an organizer at 14 and 15, and that’s what I wanted to do — just be an organizer, be a radical organizer and be part of a big movement.

My previous endeavor to be some rock star like Prince — I immediately decided that that was an individualistic thing that wasn’t in line with anything that I was doing. But what I figured out later is they were part of the same thing. We’re told that we’re not important, we’re told that nothing we do is worth anything and that we don’t have any power — but the people that we see on TV are important, they matter, they have power. So people want that thing because they want their life to matter — they don’t want to have been here for nothing, so they’re attracted by that. It’s similar to even the organizers who are behind-the-scenes and never known — you feel like your life is important and it’s going to cause ripples that go throughout time, and you want that. And so later on, I reluctantly became an artist because I felt like that was the logical extension of what I was doing as an organizer.

You mentioned admiring dense novels. When you started writing, did you notice that you always worked with a bunch of ideas? Or did that density of your verses develop over time?
The artists that I gravitated to — if you think of Rakim or Nas … I used to know Nas’ verse from “N.Y. State of Mind” … [He pauses, trying to remember]… “Bullet holes up in my peepholes / I’m suited up in street clothes / Give me a nine to defeat foes / You know my steelo with or without the airplay / Somethin’ sitting bent up in the stairway.” [Editor’s note: Riley was shockingly close to the actual lyrics.] There’s all these things that are about this one thing, but they combine all of these aspects — sometimes painful and sometimes funny — all in one painting. And the same time that he talks about possibly getting murdered, he talks about being attracted to girls because they have a beeper. It all makes sense.

When I think about your musical predecessors, like Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine, they wrote chiefly about politics — they didn’t do songs about sex or relationships. But the Coup weren’t shy about singing about those things. I was wondering if that strategy was part of what you said earlier about reflecting all different aspects of life.
The people that you just named, they’re my friends, they’re my idols. [Editor’s note: Riley has recorded with Rage guitarist Tom Morello for a hard-rock side project called Street Sweeper Social Club.]

But I have a big “however”: There’s a certain aesthetic that gets put on what’s thought of as “political art.” That aesthetic of anger is something that is, to me, more of an academic, disconnected thing. If you’ve been an organizer — if you’ve been going door-to-door, or in my case, helping people who are organizing on the job — what you come to realize is that anger doesn’t make people do things. Anger doesn’t get people to join things. It doesn’t get people to actually be part of movements.

Everybody’s angry already, right? The whole Anger Is a Gift thing, you know, it feels good because people are already angry. And that’s cool, but what makes people get involved with things is when they feel like, “Okay, there’s this crazy battle ahead, but there’s an analysis that gives me an idea that there’s a strategy that we can use to win.” Having that analysis give you a more optimistic outlook.

[The Coup] have been accused, in certain reviews and other comments, of “not being political” because our stuff sometimes is really upbeat and danceable — or is talking about a relationship or those sorts of things. You could see some YouTube comments where people are like, “I thought they were political!” But they’re just talking about a certain aesthetic, and I think that it’s not a useful aesthetic. I think it’s one that we’re used to, but it’s not as useful. And I’m not saying that those groups are all that way, at all — but that’s the stuff they’re most known for, and the style that they’re talking about is one that everyone tried to imitate.

And by the way, I have like a monthly conversation with Zack de la Rocha, trying to get him to write new stuff.

Oh, cool. Good luck with that.
I mean, [the Coup’s] music is basically a class analysis — and by saying a “class analysis” doesn’t mean that you don’t think there’s racism, but you’re talking about the way that capitalism actually works and how all these other problems are intertwined with that. It gives you an idea that there’s a way to change things. You can have this chaos of ideas — you can have this clutter — but there’s an organization to it. We have a song called “I Just Wanna Lay Around All Day in Bed With You” — it captures these moments of joy, and these intimate parts of existence, but at the same time it’s talking about what the actual nature of exploitation is.

The thing that cliché does is it wipes over all these little things that make us real. Instead, we keep saying the same thing in the same way — the first thing that comes to mind is something that some other artist did because our minds aren’t full of our own experiences as much as they are with all these other movies we’ve seen or songs we’ve heard. It takes some concentration to get to those little details. But without doing that, we keep making all this art that misses all these beautiful things, scary things and interesting things that fill our daily lives.

Every profile I read of you identifies you as “a self-proclaimed communist.” In this country, that word scares a lot of people — 
—I think that depends on where you’re from, and not just geographically. I mean what part of society you’re from. I’ve been calling myself a communist since I was a teenager, and the main thing that happens in the black community is people are like, “Cool, but I gotta pay the bills. That sounds like a great idea, you go do that.” Nobody’s like, “Oh my God!” People are like, “You got a better idea?! I’m all for it!” [Laughs] And then people are also like, “Wait a minute: Rich people and the government don’t like that idea? I’m especially all for it!” [Laughs]

There are a section of folks that have experienced things that make them scared of that word — then there’s a larger section of folks that haven’t, but are living in the past from when you were supposed to be scared of that word. I’ve toured the country for many years, and the main thing is people don’t have a reaction to the word — people have a reaction to the fact that I’m actually saying it. People aren’t against it, but they’re shocked: “Oh, it’s something I can say if I wanted to?” They thought it was this bogeyman to be afraid of.

I haven’t only been on my tours for the last twentysomething years — I’ve been on tours where we’re opening for other bands that have none of the similar politics, and I’ve been talking to those crowds, and people are cool with it. It’s the people on the news that’ll be worried about it. Especially writers. I don’t know if it’s safe to say yet — I think it is — that they’re more likely to have been in a university where they’ve had this debate. But it’s all really theoretical — people in universities arguing and using as their political fodder what they think the rest of the world and the country thinks.

That touches back on Sorry to Bother You, which is that rare movie that talks about work in America and the role that corporations have taken in our lives.
I feel like it’s not just part of the plot line — these are themes that happen to us in our lives. It’s things that people think about all the time that we keep out of movies. I don’t think anything in this film is alien to anyone. I think maybe the reason that it works is because there’s so many things in this film that we know from life that normally aren’t in film. It’s kind of like with a great stand-up comedian — you’re just bowled over laughing because they’re saying something that you’ve thought of, or that you had a feeling about but never articulated, something that you noticed already. It’s things that normally get subconsciously, or consciously, edited out of the screenplay.

A lot has been made of your notion of “the white voice” in the movie. Where did that idea first come to you? Was it during your telemarketing days?
My father’s from Durham, North Carolina, and he came to San Francisco, and his friends used to make fun of him and say he sounded like Huckleberry Hound. He’s a lawyer, very distinguished, and you’ll hear no part of North Carolina in anything that he’s saying. He’s very precise, very clear and no drawl whatsoever in anything he’s saying, and I grew up with that. But we would go back to Durham and I’d start hearing it creep out and I’d wonder, “Is he pretending right then?” So I knew that that existed.

Then in high school, I’d be on the phone with friends, and my father would be like, “Who was that?” And I’d be like, “Oh, I was talking to so-and-so.” And he’d be like, “No, who was that on the phone in this house? Because I didn’t recognize the voice.” You have a certain way — a performance — that has to do with who you think you’re supposed to be. I see that around my kids now as well.

Also, being an organizer early on, I had an analysis of the definitions of what we think race is — what they are and how they come upon us — so I did have that idea [of “the white voice”]. But I never put it to use until I was trying to get people to give me money over the phone [as a telemarketer], and I realized that when they know that I’m black, they have a different reaction. You try to be as close to their version of “friendly.” When my friends and I were younger, our version was [spirited] “Hey! What’s happening?” But if I were to be like [subdued], “Hey, how are you doing?,” that would feel a little less friendly, because I’m being more formal. However, if I talk that [first] way, it’s just read as simply “black” by some, and so, you try to be close to their version of friendly. Little by little, through the course of the conversation, you realize what you’re doing.

You gave an interview about six years ago where you talked about the challenge of balancing being a father, a romantic partner and an artist. Have you gotten any better at that over time?
No, I’ve just become okay with the idea that it’s never going to be okay. I haven’t figured it out. However, some of it had to do with just having a lot of things I want to get done in my life — and some of it had to do with some of the extra stuff that you have to do when you have absolutely no money. If you’re working for pennies, you have to collect a lot of pennies.

For the first time, I’m not worried about paying the bills. And when I say, “not worried about paying the bills,” I’m not just using a euphemism. I mean, literally, that was my worry every month for twentysomething years. A lot of my productivity had to do with the fact that I had to keep going — like I’m on this treadmill, I gotta keep running or I’m going to fall down. Just a few weeks before we started pre-production [on the movie], my electricity was off. I had to send my kids to different family members’ houses for the day [so they] didn’t have to sleep in a place with no electricity. A couple years before that, I’d been constantly 10 months behind on the rent.

Some of it was just the regular thing that happens with music, but then some of it was because I was constantly always trying to go bigger and pay it forward. So there were all sorts of things that I did that were more expensive because I had a different artistic view. And although I wasn’t going to “make it” now, I knew that it was all going to kind of add up and there would be this quantity into quality — this qualitative leap that happened, at least that’s what I was hoping for. But I went through a lot of harsh times and a lot of wondering whether I was being responsible. Right before we went into pre-production, Nina Yang Bongiovi, the lead producer, she gave me an advance on what I would be getting paid so I was able to pay some bills.

So some of that busyness is what happens when you have to struggle. What I’m hoping is that some of the money will allow me to free up some of my time, and then maybe be able to get people on the team in places where they weren’t on the team before to help make stuff. Be able to do a little bit less while still maintaining the same output.

That sounds like it was incredibly stressful, so to feel like there’s maybe a light at the end of that tunnel, that must be an amazing feeling.
Yeah, that feels really good. But then you replace it with other things, right? Right now, the stress is making my next thing blow people out. You know, it always has to be like, “Oh, you think you saw something? Well, look at this.” But it’s better to have an artistic stress than to have one where you’re worried about where you’re going to sleep.

It’s such a great problem to have, though, knowing that people are excited to see what you do next.
I mean, I definitely appreciate it. I’m a person who has a lot of trouble appreciating the moment because of how I’ve kind of had my life. But I’ve definitely been able to revel in people just reacting to and engaging with this film.