Interview: Boots Riley

Interview: Boots Riley

Political activist and rapper

On 16 and 17 April, political activist and rapper Boots Riley visited Dunedin to give a public lecture and acoustic performance. Radio Oneís Olivier Jutel caught up with Riley for a post-lecture, pre-gig discussion.

Kia ora, good morning Boots!

Kia ora, whatís happening?

Hey. Listen Ė itís Thursday, weíre here, we did this, man!

Yeah, man, you guys have really rolled out the works and I feel the love here. Everyone seems to want to be engaged with the world and I see why people come here and stay.

Well, I wasnít fishing for compliments, but Iíll take them! But, listen, and this is kinda what everyone wants to know when somebody international comes over and checks us out Ė and I know youíve only been in the country for more-or-less 48 hours Ė but what have you made of New Zealand and your experience here, and how is talking at this University different from others? I mean, obviously there was some stuff going on the campus at Western Michigan a few weeks back Ö I mean, you do a lot of public lectures, you engage with a lot of people, what was last night like for you?

Honestly, there are a lot of things that are very similar all over the world. On Friday night, no matter where you are in the world, at about six oíclock, people start calling their friends up asking whatís going on tonight. Thatís happening all over the world, no matter what continent youíre on. All over the world, around the first of the month, people start worrying about bills and money. Thatís a truism. And all over the world, people are thinking about ways in which their life, their world, could be different. And Iíd like to say that things are so different here Ė the way people walk, or the way people phrase questions Ė Iím sure thereís differences, but the truth is that the students and faculty here, like all over the world, wanna figure out how they can be part of making a different system, and changing the way the world works, and thatís what Iím seeing all over the world. Iím seeing people trying and those ideas growing, and the amount of folks that came last night was Ö I didnít even know that people knew who I was out here, so the fact that there were, like, four overflow rooms Ö

Amazing. No one since Bill McKibben Ö that was the only other time that anyone kinda flirted with 400 at an open lecture, so that was something right there.

And Iíd like to say even that, just on that thing with Bill McKibben, climate change, without going back over what I said last night, but thatís an example of why labour needs to be part of any radical change, you know. You had scientists that came out a few months ago at a climate change conference in London and said, ďwait a minute, none of these measures are going to work. The only thing thatís going to work is if we shut everything down right now. And demand these drastic changes, if we shut industries down.Ē Now, it can happen that those scientistsí statements fell on curious and confused ears, because radicals have not been organising labour for so long that they would never be able to do that right now. So the changes that even need to be made for climate justice are so drastic that itís going to take people being able to control industries as opposed to asking and simply slightly pressuring industries to do it.

Well, thatís the thing with, I guess, the formulation of politics for a group like [Bill McKibbenís] 350 Ė somehow weíve got this objective number, 350 Ė people just need to realise, leaders will understand the pressure, they will understand in kind of a rational way that if you exceed this number Ö And so itís kind of not really something that conceives of changing our world or our politics so that we can address these problems, and so thereís no real formula for it. Somehow, just the truth is enough.

Yeah, and we see the truth gets exposed all the time, like, most of us understand that the way the system works is not just. We understand the idea that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. We understand the idea that there is just one per cent on top that is just leeching off the 99 per cent. The question is, can we dedicate part of our day, a big part of our day, a big part of our life, to something that we think wonít be able to change it? So itís about a winning strategy, and that winning strategy for anyone is going to be based on what their power is. And for those of us that are in the 99 per cent, our power rests in the fact that we create profit, that we create wealth.

And also just understanding where we are, where our organising is powerful, and obviously the great thing about last night, a public event, many people from across the different shades of the left were there, were unified and good vibes between folks that possibly hadnít felt good vibes between one another for a very long time. That very notion of public-ness, and that was something where Occupy was so important, was just getting out of clicktivism and actually being somewhere in the city space, you know, because democracy is nothing if not being there in the central city space. Public-ness is incredibly important. Dude, you were so generous with your time and I had to pull people off you because people want to just rap with you into the wee hours of the morning, man! How do you find the strength to come all the way across the earth Ė and Iíve seen your schedule for the next two months, youíre in Sweden, youíre in Spain, youíre in Hungary, all this kind of stuff. How do you find the strength to still be giving and contribute to people, strangers and all that?

Well, actually, you know, flying over here is pretty simple. Nowadays they have airplanes and you just sit down and they do all the work for you. They get you all the way here, so it doesnít really take a lot of energy to do this. On the other hand, I think about it like this. You know, either way weíre producing for ourselves or producing for someone else and itís not like it would be easier Ö Sometimes I think it would be easier if I just got a nine to five job and then just came home and watch TV and go to sleep Ö

And youíve got kids, man!

Yeah, you know. The truth is not easier. Most people are not having that kind of life anymore. Most people are then having to take on another job, or working longer hours, and have that combined with a sense of powerlessness, because theyíre spending all their time trying to pay the bills. So I happened to put myself into a position because of the art that I do that affords me peopleís ears, and so I feel very grateful that I have this opportunity to talk to people. Iíd rather be tired from doing this than from simply going to work for someone all day and feeling powerless.

And youíre right here with us bright and early, and some of those heads that took us out last night Ė the academic heads, man Ė theyíre sleeping in this morning, let me tell you that! Youíre putting in the hard work. Hey, listen, tonight, acoustic set. People got a taste, obviously, of what thatís going to be like, but how does that roll out?

Thereís energy in the way that I write the songs. The acoustic set focuses more on the lyrics but it still has some of the music and the rhythm and the oomph that we have. Itís definitely not the same, itís a different animal completely from when The Coup is here. When The Coup is here, itís a punk funk explosion, itís like Sly and the Family Stone mixed with The Clash, without the cocaine. But this is powerful in a whole other way and itís kind of like a punk thing. It ends up feeling, having that energy of a punk show, of hip-hop with passion and emotion. But it also allows people to listen to the lyrics. A lot of times, even if my music is played in a club or we do a show, people are just thriving off the energy and you donít really catch so many of the lyrics, and thatís just how it is. And probably if youíre in the club, youíve been drinking and then you go home and listen to the lyrics later on or read the lyrics. But I think that this setup is more primed for people to feel something at the same time as being able to hear what Iím doing with the lyrics. And so thatís a good introduction and itís a party.

And with the lecture yesterday, people are primed, man. Itís gonna be good, but I still want this Coup show! I still want the whole set up!

Yeah yeah yeah, itís a different thing! People still leave the acoustic set thinking ďI didnít know something like that could happen just with an acoustic guitar.Ē Because we donít, you know, itís not some sit-down Crosby, Stills and Nash sort of thing, itís still up in your face.

But what happens if 2015 is your big year, you get the big Hollywood movie contract, you still gonna make your way down to Australasia?

Oh, yeah, the thing about that is after having worked so long and being in debt so much, even if I strike it rich, all that money is spoken for. So Iím still gonna be hussliní to pay the rent.

And I just gotta give a plug to our homies in Melbourne Ė youíre going from Dunedin to Melbourne for Marxism 2014; what is the importance of that to you, that particular conference?

I go to places and speak to people who are looking to change the world. The Marxism conference, of course, is going to be full of a lot of people who agree with me on many things. A lot of what I talked about last night is relevant to people who already agree with me on those things; Iím not just explaining how capitalism works. But what I say is appropriate for preaching to the choir. Because I might be preaching to the choir, but Iím telling them that we need to take it up another octave. So I think most of the music that goes out with The Coup, because it does reach a lot of people, falls on the ears of folks that arenít involved in something. But what I do is I frame what Iím saying with that in mind. That there are people that agree with me on certain main issues, and then there are people who donít. So Marxism conference Ö So, I call myself a communist. I donít usually stick to saying Iím a Marxist, not because Iím afraid of that Ė people call me a Marxist and Iím fine with that Ė but Marx himself said heís not a Marxist. What that was alluding to was the idea that sometimes people get caught in text, and radicals do that a lot, too, where you find yourself looking to the future by quoting something almost as if itís scripture and using that in your argument. And so I think there are new ways of doing things. I think that we have to look to history and we have to learn from history, but weíre going to find new ways to do it. I mean, every revolution disproves a certain part of the previous theory. The Russian revolution disproves some of the way Marx said that it would happen. The Chinese revolution disproves some of the way it was thought it was going to happen beforehand. Weíre refining. And weíre moving forward and we make mistakes and we keep going.

Fail again, fail better

Yeah, exactly. Or I get knocked down, but I get up again.
This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2014.
Posted 1:58pm Sunday 27th April 2014 by Olivier Jutel.