Music That Deals With Reality
Boots Riley talks about the World Trade Center, capitalism, and Party Music
By Katia Dunn

"Even politically, music has always served to narrate what’s going on," says Boots Riley, the hip-hop artist and political activist. Boots and his group, the Coup, are one of the biggest contributors to Oakland’s hip-hop scene—probably the most innovative place to be in hip-hop right now. "People think they want escapism, but I think that music that people like the most is something that deals with their reality," he explains.

In light of the Coup’s recent album, Party Music, this statement is clearly applicable not just to the music Boots admires, but also his own work. For as the twin towers were struck in New York, Party Music was going to press… featuring Boots Riley and his longtime musical partner, DJ Pam, in front of a contrived photograph of the twin towers exploding. As the news overtook the country, the photograph was switched, but since the incident Boots has proudly stood by his album, even while people made sweeping accusations that he was contributing to terrorism or turning his back on America’s grief. Instead, for Boots, the coincidence has provided an opportunity to criticize the war with a unique candor and intelligence.

"It must be said," he wrote in a bold statement to the press just a few days after the event happened. "That recent atrocities at the hands of the U.S. government and its corporate backers each dwarf the World Trade Center catastrophe. Atrocities like the bombing of Sudan by Bill Clinton in which tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives, atrocities like the bombing of thousands of civilians in Iraq, atrocities like the deaths of thousands in Haiti at the hands of U.S.-backed terrorist Emmanuel Constance, atrocities like the thousands of civilians killed in their homes in Panama by U.S. bombs, atrocities like the thousands upon thousands massacred by U.S. backed troops in East Timor. These atrocities were committed in the name of corporate profit."

And while fans continued to rally around Boots, the media approached Boots with amazement for his calm resistance to endorse the country’s desire for immediate revenge. "At first, I spoke with a lot of reporters who were very angry with me for wanting to use this unfortunate coincidence to talk about U.S. policies and to speak out against the war," Boots said in a recent interview. "But we were using the album cover as a metaphor, a symbol for the destruction for capitalism. The reason they [the twin towers] were on the cover of my album is the same reason the planes crashed into them. They’re a symbol of capitalism and the world we live in. It’s the same reason those kids at Columbine said their end goal was to get into a plane and crash into the twin towers."

Now, nearly five months later, Boots maintains that those accusations made against him—of providing a slap in the face to the victims’ families—apply more to corporate America than to himself. "Now we see major television networks coming out with fictional movies about September 11th," Boots points out. "And they’re using those images—the unfortunate and terrible death of people—for their own political interests and capital gain. Yet, when someone uses that image to speak out against the war, it’s considered a travesty."

Boots, a self-professed communist, hopes that in doing so, he can illustrate the relationship between the terrorists who are attacking the U.S., and America’s political zealots.

"Basically, what I’m saying, is that acts of individual terrorism are a trend that comes out of the right wing," he explains. "For example, take Al Qaeda. Obviously, these people are not a friend to the people at all. But the reason they have power, the reason they exist, is because of the movement, in the late ’70s, in which groups like this were funded, by the U.S., to take control all over The Middle East. In Afghanistan, for instance, the Mujahideen’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan came to power. Now, the Mujahideen weren’t the best group, but they allowed women to dress how they wanted, they provided health care… But the U.S. government didn’t like this group, because they weren’t allowing oil investments to be as successful as they liked. So the U.S. government went to the Islamic leaders and said, ‘Look, this group isn’t holding up what Islam is about.’ And they gave them billions of dollars to overthrow the Mujahideen."

"It’s about money," Boots concludes. This belief, that wealth should be more evenly distributed all over the world, is at the core of all the ideas for which Boots is an advocate. "Osama comes from a group of Saudi Arabian business men, and for them, Islamic fundamentalism has everything in line with Republicans. I mean, if you look at the way women are treated, the way they believe wealth should be distributed, and the idea of free market capitalism, they have everything in common. Osama may put a romantic twist on it with religion, but for him, it’s ultimately about the money."

So why would Osama bomb the U.S., if he has everything in common with the U.S. government? "Osama wants more control over the oil in his area," Boots says. "He needs to get a conflict going that makes it easier to bargain with the U.S. It’s about oil on both sides."

Boot’s politics seem particularly relevant at this particular moment, but his music has, since the early ’80s, relied on this combination of advocating for political change, and pushing hip-hop to its creative limits. From his first album in 1993, Kill My Landlord, to their third in 1998, Steal This Album, Boots has maintained the basics of ’70s funk, but updated them with contemporary scratching and mixing. And all the while, he has been involved in political activism both locally and nationally; he’s most famous for his leadership in the group Young Comrades, an Oakland based group which advocates political change.

Listening to Boots talk is captivating, but the best thing about Boots Riley is his music. One can feel and hear how his conviction is channeled. His lyrics are clean and tight, his voice is articulate, and the thrust of the music, the elegance in his skill and that of his band, is incredibly seductive. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that even while Boots’ politics are heavy with the weight of America’s greed and tragedy, his music is inspiring, rather than desperate. The album’s title, Party Music, is accurate, for this is music that makes one want to relax and do great things, rather than inflict further tragedy on America, or seek revenge.

Even in the second song, "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO," the melody and lightness suggest dancing, most of all, and beyond that, enthusiasm for the music, the crowd, and the solidarity between them. Which is ultimately, beyond Boots’ political studies and criticism, what he’s all about. "I think that art is about the artist communicating to another person," he says. "Politically, it can validate what people think, can bring them together with others who feel that way. I don’t think art can be used exclusively, without a political campaign behind it—I mean, you have to have a movement—but everywhere I went on my recent tour, I would speak out against the war. And everywhere, people would come up to me and say, ‘I thought I was the only person in my town who was against the war. And now I see I’m wrong.’"