Boots Riley of the Coup on striking at Walmart, the Occupy movement and the art of rebellion
A number of your songs have, thankfully, gotten under the skin of a number of people who probably need to have their cage rattled. Is that something you aim for in writing a song?
No, I mean, I think of my songs of not trying to be preachy like, "You should do something different," as opposed to, "Hey, we have a common enemy, let's go after it." I think that's the difference in most of the songs. It's not telling people that they have something that they need to fix within themselves, but someone else has something we need to go fix. So it's more inclusive.
Some of the songs might get under some folks' skin -- "Five Million Ways to Kill a CEO." There is a very small percentage of the population that are CEOs. Sometimes on some of the YouTube videos there are a couple of people that are staunch Ayn Rand followers. Like the Ayn Rand folks have latched on to commenting about a couple of things. There aren't that many of them but somehow they're on all of my [stuff on the internet].
You taught a class called, was it, "Culture and Resistance: Persuasive Lyric Writing"?
It was just called "Persuasive Lyric Writing"? That was a high school class.
What did you try to teach your students, and how did that opportunity come about?
I was working a lot with teachers who had gotten their students to be very active and involved. They managed to close the school down a few times. Then the school district came and asked the teachers, "Hey, how would you like to have your own school?" Like, "Get out of here and do your own thing and get out of our hair." So they did their own school called the High School of Social Justice. They invited me to teach a course, so that's what I taught.
It was kind of like how I wish a poetry class would be taught. Which is analyzing what other folks did and then giving assignments. But the point was that it wasn't just appreciation; it was looking at tools that people used to be persuasive. You know, making songs that aren't just observational but are trying to get someone to want to do something. We listened to all sorts of songs and talked about various techniques and styles people used in describing things. Those sorts of things.
How did you get involved in Galactic, and what it is about their music that you found interesting?
A couple things kind of happened at the same time. Galactic was on Epitaph, and they were already thinking of asking me to do a song for an album. Separately, me and Tom Morello were in New Orleans doing a benefit. We happened to walk into this bar, and there was a band playing. We were talking about Street Sweeper Social Club, which we were about to do. Then the band was playing in the other room, and Tom was like, "That is the best drummer I have ever heard in my life? Who is that? Who is that guy? We need him to play in Street Sweeper Social Club. It was Stanton Moore. We didn't know who he was, but we talked to him, and he said, "Oh, I'm in Galactic."
Separately they asked me to do a song, and I did that. Then they asked me to come with them to SXSW and Bonaroo. I did those, and they ended up saying, "Let's not just play our songs; we learned some Coup songs." They had me come out, and little by little, it turned into this whole thing where I go and play five or six songs with them in the middle of their set. I liked it because they're cool people and easy going. They're very skilled musicians. The reason for doing so was a way to get the Coup's music out there.
However, I found, unfortunately with that scene, it's about getting drunk and getting high, and nobody's hearing whatever the hell I'm saying, so it was very unsatisfying. When people are drunk and high, they're going to be dancing all night no matter what. I could say my name or the Coup's name over and over, they don't know what I'm saying. They all thought I was part of Galactic.
Why did you invoke the name of the social realist painter David Siqueiros and Andy Warhol in "You Are Not a Riot"?
I wanted to talk about art and the aesthetic of rebellion that people use. Even in rock and roll, there's this rebellious aesthetic. I don't care if it's the Beatles or the Rolling Stones: "We're against something!" Why is that attractive? It's attractive because we know that the system is fucked up. And we know that we should be rebelling against it. So folks get that rebellious aesthetic, not only without being rebellious, but by selling us the opposite of rebellion and using that rebellious aesthetic to reinforce the ideas that the system gives us, that not only should we stay in our place, but that anything that challenges the system is problematic. I think Andy Warhol fell into this category.
But I wanted to talk about that in general, and David Siqueiros was like a crazy dude. He actually was in the Mexican Revolution and rolled with Pancho Villa and [Emiliano] Zapata and all that kind of shit, right? He was a revolutionary, and just through rumors years later, he was accused of having tried to kill [Leon] Trotsky. He wasn't only revolutionary that way; he was also revolutionary aesthetically. He did these big murals that were cutting edge but also got his point across.
He wasn't only social realist. It was clear, pretty much, what he was trying to do. He also invented the technique of putting paint in a fire extinguisher to be able to hit up walls real quick. At one point at the Venice Biannale, in the '50s, he started chiding all these South American artists coming there with all this abstract art. There were revolutions going on all over European countries and all of the world and you choose to do some shit that nobody knows what the fuck you're talking about? He was probably going overboard, but he was accusing artists of being CIA agents and things like that.
Now, he was kind of crazy, but it turns out there is a little truth to what he was saying, in that the FBI was giving money to foundations to fund abstract art -- apolitical art -- purposefully to counteract the movement because artists were drawn to the Communist Party and were drawn towards doing art that meant something. So the FBI wanted to counteract that by making sure there was funding for a movement in art that was abstract and they funded Jackson Pollock through foundations.
And Andy Warhol was famous for the idea of being disconnected -- like none of it matters. This is all a show. And being all about the money. So it's like this cutting edge aesthetic and different, as if it's challenging norms, but it isn't really. I used those two figures to talk about something more. So I imagined what would happen if Andy Warhol had sent David Siqueiros an invitation to a party. And the song was David Siqueiros' answer, his RSVP.