Boots Riley: The Coup and the revolution

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How did you become involved in music and politics?

Growing up in Chicago and then Detroit and Oakland, my family were all interested in radical organising, so I was a political organiser from the age of about 14 and 15. At that time my musical inspiration was Prince, when everyone else in my school was just interested in rap. Through political organising I began to see instances that showed me how music can be a rallying point in campaigns and movements.

You were active in Occupy Oakland - can you tell us what you learnt?

What a lot of people learned from Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street is something that myself and a lot of other people had been arguing for some time. It's the idea that the population in the United States is a lot further to the left than the media wants you to think. And there's a reason the media portrays it that way. They want you to watch the news and think that you're the only person that wishes there was a different system.

Actually most people would agree that we should control the wealth that we create with our own labour. So the question becomes whether or not you think we can get there. So what Occupy Wall Street showed was that there are people all over the United States in small towns and bigger cities that are ready to do something about it.

When I first saw the Occupy Wall Street movement I thought it was just hippy shit! I thought it was confusing and chaotic. The meetings take two hours to figure out what they're going to do. But the reality was that, ironically, the chaos is what made people who were involved for the first time feel as if they could be involved.

Often with organisations you have a couple of lead people who are the professionals and they know what the agenda is so the people who come there have to agree or disagree and so usually leave, but this made people feel, "This is so chaotic that I have as much of a say as anyone else." So what it taught me is that we don't know how this next chapter is going to be written.

There is a radical militant labour movement emerging in the United States. So on May Day this year the unions walked out. Many of the unions in the US have not even acknowledged May Day before! And there was a militant teachers' strike in Chicago that wouldn't have been possible before. Walmart workers across the US, some of them organised by formal unions, but most of them wildcat strikes, walked out on their own. If you had suggested that would happen before the Occupy movement people would have said that was pie in the sky. Just over the border what happened there with the Quebec student strike was amazing. That was only possible in this new developing age.

What are your thoughts on Obama's foreign and domestic policies?

I think his policies are pretty much the same as George W Bush's policies. He didn't shut down Guantanamo. He pulled out of Iraq after they did everything they wanted to do so it wasn't as if they pulled out - they just finished. People are still getting killed in Afghanistan.

The truth of the whole matter is you need a militant radical mass movement that uses direct action to stop profits. You can't just have people on the streets saying, "We're militant, we're radical" - there has to be action at the point of production that stops the economic machinery from working. If you have a movement that does that you can make any politician do anything you want them to do. If you don't have a movement that does that you could elect Che Guevara and he would capitulate to the capitalist. It's not a personal thing. It's the ruling class that pulls the puppet strings of the elected officials. Even if your goal is only minor change you need mass militant direct action.

What motivates you to use music for political expression and who are your political inspirations?

I would say that most of my songs are about feelings and emotions of day to day life but I connect those feelings to the bigger picture. And so, for me, it's also about being holistic. I think music creates an intimate situation. You are talking to each listener up close and personal and you are telling them personal things about yourself so that they can relate to your thought process.

When you do that it allows people to feel a connection with not only you but also the thousands of other people who are listening to your music too. Building that kind of kinship between people is a very important part of building a movement and music can be a part of that.

One of my major political inspirations is Paul Robeson. Often when you mention revolutions people think about the states that were made, and that's valid in part, but people don't think about how revolutionaries were able to get millions of people of their community to decide to take the whole thing over. I'm quite inspired by the Zapatistas. They're still in the middle of a long process, but they were a Marxist Leninist study group that went into the jungle to organise in Chiapas.

What can fans of your previous albums expect from the new one?

Every single album we do the fans of the previous album are like, "What is this?! This is so different!" And so between Kill My Landlord and Genocide and Juice we had that problem. Then we gained more fans. Then when we went from Genocide and Juice to Steal this Album people were like, "What the fuck are you doing? This is not like the last album!" And so I think that people can expect that it will change and that this album reflects more what we have sounded like live. Usually the albums sounded much different to the live show but this sounds more lively and more organic. This is aggressive and danceable and I tried to put some hopefulness in.

How do you think the struggle against racism connects with music?

Racism takes on lots of different forms and it's interesting that this concept also comes up in music. People ask us, "What do you think about the new hip hop? It's not the same as the old hip hop, is it?" And so I say it's not about something being new; it's about the way it takes its form. Whatever music most black people are listening to at any one point is always called morally bankrupt and intellectually less developed.

It's always music from ten or 20 years before that was the "safer music", the music that instilled the virtues that black people "should" have. So the example of that is in the 1950s with be-bop, the blues was denigrated. Then in the 1960s when soul like Motown and Stax emerged it was supposed to be commercial and selling out. And now people say that real hip hop was in the 80s and 90s. The reason for this is simple - it's not possible to get people to relate to black culture without it also being an indictment of capitalism.

If the music is talking about poverty then people are going to start questioning the system. And as any movement for revolutionary change grows the right will organise itself more too. In Greece you see the fascists organising. What that tells us is that if we are not organised the right is going to be very well organised.

A lot of my friends refuse to call themselves communist, but I do. Why? Because I do attach myself to mistakes in the past. I say, "Those sure are some mistakes! Let's figure out how not to make them again." But if you say, "I'm part of some whole new thing that has never happened before", then you're free to make the same mistakes. That means you don't have to consider history as part of the equation of what you're doing.

What that comes from is totally dissociating yourself from any history because now you have a label, you don't have to defend anything or talk about the nuances. So for me part of being organised is saying whatever people want to call themselves that's fine but realise that this is part of a worldwide movement that's been going on for a long time.

People have called themselves lots of different things, but the point is people have tried what we are trying to do before and there's stuff to learn from them.

The Coup's new album, Sorry To Bother You, is out now.