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The Coup's Boots Riley on Political Art and the Importance of Needing to Get Laid 

Wednesday, Jul 17 2013
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The Coup is an anomaly in the small world of socially conscious hip-hop. This radical Oakland group, led by the activist and rapper Boots Riley, makes music that is both politically charged and fun. The Coup is dead serious about its desire for revolution, yet its albums, like last year's excellent Sorry to Bother You, fit naturally at a rowdy party. How this works is one of the things we wanted to find out when we met Riley, 42, for coffee in Oakland one afternoon. He came late, held up in his West Oakland neighborhood by people asking favors — often to borrow money, and often more money than Riley, a father of four, says he sees in a year. Born in Oakland to radicalized parents, Riley was a social activist before he was a musician. He started rapping as a way to spread his message, and has since evolved into one of the Bay Area's most interesting musical voices. He is the kind of artist who imagines what would happen if Andy Warhol invited David Siqueiros, the communist Mexican muralist, to a party, and then writes a song about it ("You Are Not a Riot"). Ahead of the Coup's show at Yoshi's San Francisco this week, we spoke with Riley about the political role of artists, his life as a full-time musician, and how his music can be both revolutionary and fun at the same time.

On Music, Politics, and Andy Warhol

I don't think there's any disconnect in real life between emotion and politics. Everything is political, and I think the reason we feel certain things has to do with the world we live in, which is connected to something political.

There's nothing that I think that I'm afraid of talking about.

A lot of times songwriters have an idea of genre, and their idea of the genre is that these are the ideas that are talked about and these are the ways they are talked about. But it's not really the way they think in real life. The way people think in real life is so much more connected to everything around them.

Whether David Siqueiros was crazy or not, he definitely was someone that connected his art with real life and wanted to do things with his art, as opposed to Andy Warhol, who often blatantly said that it was for money and that he really didn't care.

I think it's really good to have an opinion on art. That's what happened to Prince: He had an opinion and then he got too good and then he could just play anything. And now his music is like a mish-mosh, and it's not really going in any direction. I say this all the time: I think musicians are better when they have to play well in order to get laid.

Making the music that feels emotionally true to me is first. Because there's a lot of revolutionary music that I don't like and that I won't listen to, no matter how much I agree with it. And there's a lot of music that I love that has nothing to do politically with where I'm at.

If something becomes rote, I am never able to finish it. It's been to my detriment, because sometimes people will send me beats to do a verse [over] for money, and I just can't write to it because I don't feel it. I have to be really passionate about what I'm doing in order to focus. Otherwise everything else will eat it up — all the bills I have to pay, the kids, whatever else is happening. Something else will take precedence in my brain if the music I'm making is not sucking me in.

Even past Steal This Album I didn't consider myself an artist. I was like, "This is what I'm doing, because nobody else is doing it." And at a certain point I just realized, well, whatever you're doing is what you are.

On Revolution and Anger

A lot of times, organizers, activists, and artists are told that the problem is inside the people they're talking to, and I don't believe that. I believe that the people I'm talking to already agree with me — they may just use different words for it — and that the main problem is that people don't think that they have the power to do anything about it. It's not, "I need to expose these wonderful facts to you so that you see them and you change your ways." It's not that you need to start eating differently, or buying different clothes, or going to different places to hang out. No. I'm saying something that everyone agrees with. The only reason people are on different sides has to do with whether or not they think anything can be done.

My whole point is just to show where that actual power conflict lies: It comes at the point of exploitation on the job, meaning how much you get paid versus how much profit is made. And [if] you see that, then you see you're on a gigantic team.

People meet me and they'll be like, "Wow, you're so much nicer than I thought you'd be." I'm like, "What did I ever say to make you think I wasn't going to be nice?" Maybe I have a couple songs that have to do with anger, but I don't think that's what motivates people. At certain points in time, anger helps in some situations. But I don't think anger causes optimism that you can change [circumstances]. Anger leads to frustration, which leads to people backing off, deciding that they're going to create collectives in the woods, or collectives in a basement somewhere.

On "Success" Versus Reality

It's definitely always a struggle — you never know where the next rent check is going to come from. But it's been like that for the whole time. I have this very un-revolutionary superstition that it's all going to end up working out. I'm always trying to make that album that will blow up, that people will just hear and pass around. People be like, "Man, what you need to do is you need to get on Conan O'Brien or something." I'm like, "Okay, yep, I forgot to do that, so that's what's going to happen next."

Obviously there are some people that are very financially successful at the music business, and I'd like to say it's just the system and things like that. But it's like a little harder to tell how that works. Some things are just unlucky. We definitely have a lot of fans, and it's kind of hard to get to them. They don't all read The New York Times.

On Perceptions of Being Poor and Black

A lot of times the working class, and especially people of color, are painted as irresponsible: "The reason people are poor is they're lazy, they're not doing work, or they're savages," or things like that. The actual culture that I've seen among people that have a lot of money and a lot of power, it's not any less [irresponsible] — it's actually more. They party more. They do more drugs. They do harder drugs. They get involved in really fucked-up situations. But the difference comes with how much money they already have in the first place.

What does economic development really mean? Because even when it goes supposedly successfully, it's not really for the people that live there at the time when it starts. In about 10 years there's going to be a Tupac museum in Oakland, and no black people. That's how it always is — the culture from 20, 30 years ago is what is to be celebrated right now, because that's black people that aren't here right now. To connect with the culture of people of color now means to accept that that culture is not what's causing poverty. We're told that the culture of people of color is what causes poverty and what causes violence, not anything systematic. Because to think [it's systematic] means you need to be part of changing the system.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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