Love for the Underdog: PA Talks with Raptivist Boots Riley
By Abdul Hassan 1-25-06, 1:00 pm
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Abdul Hassan on behalf of PA.
PA: When people want to listen to hip hop with politics, they listen to The Coup. Who do you listen to and where do you get your revolutionary motivation from?
BR: Back in the day, I would have been listening to Public Enemy. I would also include Dead Prez. I don’t know if I listen to stuff that’s considered political to get that feeling. I listen to Fela, but to me, his stuff is more about the music. But I listen to everything from Parliament to James Brown: all kinds of music that has a certain edge and emotional feeling to it. For instance, anger is an emotion, anger about all sorts of things. You can be on any end of the political spectrum and feel that anger. If you take one person who is right wing that anger can be put in a song in a way that is politically very right wing. I can express the same feeling – and get that feeling across – but at the same time make it clear where those feelings are coming from. My anger comes from a different point of view.
PA: So you want to take that anger and turn it into political power?
BR: Yes. And I want to put hope behind my stuff. I really like music that is hopeful and want it to effect my music.
PA: With that in mind, what can we expect from your next album?
BR: Anthems for the struggle are what we are attempting, anthems people can use as they fight and engage in struggle. Some are engaging in struggle individually and hopefully more will start engaging collectively. The album is called Pick a Bigger Weapon, because obviously what we’ve been doing so far isn’t working. I try to make the feeling like “We are Coming” with driving beats. It’s a little edgier musically.
PA: Even more than your last album? Because in that one you guys really jazzed it up with funk and hardcore party music.
BR: This album is more “Funkadelic” than “Parliament” in its sound. It’s more “uptown” than “Purple Rain,” more “John Lennon” than “Paul McCartney.” Like I said, it’s a little edgier and funkier than what we did before.
PA: What about the content. Do you take a special approach to how messages are conveyed in music?
BR: The whole dialogue that “Black folks are violent” or “where did the generation go wrong,” etc. is a really racist dialogue that says we are in a place right now because we put ourselves there. That’s not just something you hear from white people: you also hear Black people saying that all the time. Even with people who are supposed to be conscious, you hear, “We got to get our shit together.” And that’s just some self-hatred. There’s a lot of music that supposed to be conscious music that could have been made by the sergeant on Soldiers Story.
PA: You were at the last anti-war demonstration. That protest was largely, but not entirely, white. What do you think kept Blacks and Latinos home?
BR: Well you just can’t say it was mostly white folks, it was white folks from a certain background, people who had been privy to this kind of politics. It wasn’t a white person working in a factory somewhere in the Midwest, or just slightly above the minimum wage who goes home tired every day, the folks that still are against the Bush regime but aren’t involved in the movement, because the struggle isn’t about what they are talking about.
To a large extent, this is the same reason that Black folk aren’t involved. We are all involved in the struggle against the system, but so far the movements that are making themselves known are not the ones that are collectivizing the struggle we are all in.
We need struggles that are fighting for higher wages, and better housing. Once these things are addressed, then we will see the movement grow.
When questions are addressed, like why aren’t Black folk at the demonstrations against the WTO, the reason is because we aren’t engaged in those struggles now. However, we need to collectivize the struggle we are all in and that’s not happening. Like, for example, having more militant real unions at fast food places.
When people are already struggling by themselves they are not about to all of the sudden begin struggling against the war and go all the way to Washington DC.
The movement is skipping some steps now. During the 1920’s and 1930’s the CPUSA, for example, had many members, which is not to say that there weren’t problems, but they were able to bring in white working-class people, because they were able to show that struggle was going to solve something right in the here and now.
We don’t have anything like that now for anyone including people of color, where it’s possible to say: “Here is how things are going to change in your life this week if we get 1,000 people together now.” It’s always such a nebulous thing. Even driving the Bush regime out is nebulous.
PA: The movement at large seems to have disengaged the every day reality and bread-and-butter issues of working-class people.
BR: Those struggles alone just aren’t enough: they have to be militant and revolutionary. In times like this movements are making themselves irrelevant by not addressing those struggles. If people feel like “I would get involved in a movement but I have to pay my bills,” it means the movement isn’t addressing the problems. It didn’t used to be like that. Before, it used to be: “I’m going to get involved in the movement and I’m going to be able to pay my bills.” It has to address the crux of what issues people are facing every day: that we are being exploited and because of that exploitation, there all sorts of imperialist wars going on with people being killed. But we don’t address it: People are scared or think it’s too hard to address. Or maybe they think it’s not glamorous. But if so you’re never going to have a moment that has average everyday working-class people in it.
PA: With the lack of response of the government to Hurricane Katrina, what do you think the reaction of Black and working-class families to this inaction is?
BR: I think it had to destroy any illusions that anyone ever had. People already knew that any emergency management they ever had was only about protecting property but not about protecting people. We already know that Black folk were not cared about as far as being part of the working class that are unemployed or expendable. I think people were so incensed, but again there was no outlet for people to express it.
PA: What about Kanye West who commented that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people?” After that some artists came out and denounced his comments.
BR: I didn’t know that. Who denounced his comments?
PA: Usher, Master P and some others. Usher said this is a time for us to come together etc. What was your reaction to what Kanye West said?
BR: It was very true. However, putting it only on George Bush lets other people off the hook, like the mayor of New Orleans. From what I’ve read you can ask, why weren’t city buses going to pick up people? What about them not allowing school buses to be used because they thought people were going to steal them? So to look at it as a personality thing doesn’t teach us how the world works.
PA: On Bill Mahrer’s Politically Incorrect you announced you were a Communist. What does that mean for you? What role should Communists play right now?
BR: Well like I said on the show, I think the people should have power. So what does power mean? It means having control of our surroundings and resources. And who are the people? Who’s going to collectively control it? How you decide that. It has to be a democratic process. There are profits we create in the labor process in all these institutions. The people should have democratic control over those resources. We should be able to decide what’s done with those profits that are being made by these governments and corporations that we work for. These are corporations that depend not only on the buildings that we build, but the products that are coming out of those buildings. We need to democratically control those profits we create and that’s called socialism or communism. People can call it what they want, so long as that’s the structure.
PA: When did you realize you wanted to dedicate yourself to this goal?
BR: I joined my first really serious revolutionary organization, where I committed myself to be a revolutionary, when I was 15. By the time I was 19 I was burned out. But that experience, because I was put in a leadership role right away, allowed me to gain some confidence in understanding how things could be organized. That actually came before the rap.
PA: How many MC’s must be dissed?
BR: Anyone who thinks it doesn’t matter to be relevant to the people who are listening to them [should be dissed].