Q&A: The Coup's Boots Riley on Occupying Minds With Music

Activist band on tour behind new album 'Sorry to Bother You'

the coup boots riley
Amelia Kennedy
Boots Riley of The Coup.
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The Coup's Boots Riley knows the power of a dire warning. His group's second album, Genocide and Juice, first came to life as backing tracks for the late provocateur Gil Scott-Heron. Yet the deeply committed activist, a leading voice of the Occupy Oakland movement, says he'd rather make music that reflects his own optimism. There's a cheerleader vibe to "The Magic Clap," the first single from the Coup's sixth album, Sorry to Bother You, and the band (led by co-producer Damion Gallegos) strays far outside the currently accepted notion of hip-hop. However, it's not the first time a hip-hop act has used kazoos, Riley notes, citing De La Soul and KRS-One.

"I came into hip-hop as something you make that moves people," Riley tells Rolling Stone. He took a beat from the band's current tour to chat about activism and truly relevant music.

It seems like a lot of the comments about the new album have been, "Wow, it's upbeat party music," but people were surprised about the stuff you did with Tom Morello [Street Sweeper Social Club], and you actually had a record called Party Music.
I think the reality is a lot of people don't know the Coup yet, and when they hear the term "political music," they don't listen – they assume things about what it sounds like. So when they finally hear it, it surprises them. I don't like calling it political music. Everyone who makes art has a political viewpoint. Sometimes it's just that nothing matters except the fact that I want to fuck this girl, this dude, whatever. That's a political viewpoint – there's all this shit going on in the world and you don't have anything to say about it.

If you want to organize, or get people to get up and get involved, you do it with fun, upbeat music.
I don't think it's as mechanical as that. The problem with people not getting involved is not them being apathetic. It has to do with people's understanding whether or not things can change, whether they feel hopeful or not, powerful enough to do it. My outlook makes me feel optimistic about the future, so I'm gonna make music that has to do with the way I feel. For me, that's music I can dance to.

Photos: Occupy Wall Street

Have the shows been pretty up since the election?
I don't know if it has to do with the election or not. We started on November 15th, and people have been reacting well to the new songs. People have been bouncing off the walls almost. I don't think our crowd is like, "Yeah, Obama! We won!" My point has always been I don't care what person is elected – if you have a movement that can stop profits at either the production or the retail point, then you have a movement that can make any politician do what you want them to do. I don't know anyone who doesn't know this – the system is run for profit, so the folks with the wealth that controls the economy are the people who control the political system. So if you really want a democratic system in the purest sense, you have to have a system in which the people control the wealth... If anything, once an election happens, most people breathe a sigh of relief and then go back into their cubbyholes, 'cause that's what we're told to do.

How'd you get this activism in your blood?
My father got involved in the Civil Rights movement in the Fifties, when he was 12 or 13. There was no NAACP office in Durham, North Carolina, so he went to Raleigh to join. He asked where the office was, and they said, "Well, you're the Durham office now." He helped organized the first coffeeshop sit-in in [Greensboro] North Carolina, and he later joined CORE. CORE moved him to Detroit, and then San Franciso. He got involved in the San Francisco State [University, then College] strike, the thing that created ethnic studies. He met my mother in the strike. By the time I was eight, they were both burnt out. What I remember are not, like, rallies or anything. I remember the fact that there were always parties at my house, card games. I found out later the card games were meetings that would turn into card games. I had no idea this was some sort of political organizing... My father is probably just as or more involved in Occupy Oakland than I am. He's one of the main people who defend folks – they've got these crazy "stay-away" orders. He's getting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Lawyers Guild in April.

This is a good time to ask: what's next for Occupy, whether in Oakland or nationally?
Here's the thing – the whole Occupy Wall Street movement is nothing but a code word for the Left working together. Most people had been involved in other things before and are still involved in stuff. What Occupy Wall Street was able to do was get over the petty sectarianism. There were people who didn't agree on what color the money was gonna be after the revolution. But all those folks are still around doing stuff. I think what's next for the movement is already happening. I don't think anybody would say the growing Walmart workers' struggle would've happened without Occupy Wall Street. As a matter of fact, many organizers of that are or were part of Occupy Wall Street. You wouldn't have had the Chicago teachers' strike as militant or connected with the community. So it's just a question of framing. I happen to think it's important to frame it [as Occupy], because so many people who never got involved with anything have the need to see there is a movement, something definite.

Which brings us full circle to the music, which, like the Occupy umbrella, brings people together over something.
I think music fights alienation – you know somebody else is feeling the same way. And not only the singer, but anyone else listening. It fights loneliness, and that's what a movement can do. Everyone always asks about Public Enemy and X Clan. You had all these folks getting hyped off the music, wearing Malcolm X hats and medallions. And then they went home and there was still no food in the refrigerator. What that tells you is, here's some ideas encased in the music, but it has nothing to do with my real life. A movement shouldn't be theoretical or a spiritual awakening. It's about actual material things in your life. Whether it's the Walmart strike or shutting down the ports up and down the West Coast, or getting somebody back into their foreclosed home – then the music has real relevance, not just some feel-good stuff.