Musician-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley discusses his award-winning film “Sorry To Bother You,” and the importance of incorporating politics into his work. Riley is also a founding member and lead vocalist of The Coup, a hip-hop group with a penchant for political discourse. In this wide-ranging conversation, Riley describes growing up surrounded by labor organizers and theater.
Photo credit: John Duah
Josh Hamilton: I'm Josh Hamilton.
Joe Skinner: And I'm Joe Skinner.
Josh Hamilton: And this is the American Masters Podcast, where we have conversations with the people who change us. Today, Joe talks with Boots Riley, musician and writer-director of the film Sorry To Bother You.
Boots Riley: When you try to write a scene, what you have to do is fight cliché, because we'll write these scenes that seem a lot like all these other scenes that were written. We write about the world in the way that it's been written before. So rebellion ends up not being in a lot of the art, and it shapes what we think is possible.
Josh Hamilton: Boots was raised with radical politics from a young age. A self-described and vocal communist he formed the influential political hip hop group The Coup in 1991. But since studying film in college, Boots has long been gearing up to direct and at 47 he achieved this dream with his debut film, Sorry To Bother You. Recently American Masters Podcast producer Joe Skinner was able to sit down and talk with Boots.
Joe Skinner: Hey we're thrilled to have Boots Riley in the studio today, writer-director of the film, Sorry To Bother You, an essential film for our time about media, capitalism, labor and race. Boots, me and you have something in common. My dad started his career as a UPS driver.
Boots Riley: Ha ha ha ha. Oh yeah. See, I actually wasn't a driver, I was working loading the plane bellies so the drivers would come deliver there and we'd load up the plane bellies and then hide in the you know and whenever we could if there was a plane that was gonna be leaving much later we'd go hide in the bellies either take a nap or rap with each other or whatever just hang out there.
Joe Skinner: And that's what started The Coup?
Boots Riley: What started The Coup is I was tired of working there and just telling everybody that I was gonna make it out, make an album and one New Year's Eve, 10:00, I decided you know with the sort of resolution thing not only was I gonna make a resolution to actually record something it was gonna be the next morning and so I went through the phone book and decided whatever studio answered I was going to take all my money from U.P.S. and spend it with them that next day whichever one would answer and open up on New Year's Day. And that was New Year's Day 1991. And I didn't have a car but my boy E-Roc did who ended up becoming the other rapper in the coup has on the way to the studio. I was like you should be in it too.
Joe Skinner: Yeah I feel like the squeaky wheel gets the grease is kind of a recurring theme in your career. And your parents - they're involved in the NAACP right? And your grandmother was involved in the Oakland Ensemble Theater?
Boots Riley: So my father was in the NAACP from the time that he was twelve in Durham North Carolina and then joined CORE then moved to the Bay Area and joined more radical organizations like SDS and Progressive Labor Party. And by the time I was eight he was burnt out. He went back years later and started getting more involved in stuff. But yeah my grandmother on my mother's side ran Oakland Ensemble Theater in the 70s and 80s.
Joe Skinner: And was all of this influential in your work?
Boots Riley: I think so yeah. I mean, you know there's several ways to tell a story and it's kind of sometimes it's just whatever you're thinking about right then and you forget something that was really influential or whatever but I, you know, being around, I remember seeing my grandmother put on a production of Flash Gordon. You know it wasn't just a play because I'd seen my sister in plays and stuff like that and, which was for me as a kid like just a lot of talking and arguing onstage or something like that. But this was like people in space suits and running and laser guns going off and I just remember thinking about just this the spectacle that was being had and so that was from a young age and then seeing her act and do poetry and things like that that definitely had a lot to do with me feeling like you can just go out and do the things you want to do. I mean that comeback combination with stuff that my father did. So it's hard to say exactly what it is.
Joe Skinner: Did they want you to get involved in politics when you were young?
Boots Riley: No I think that's why I did get involved in it. I mean they didn't they didn't not want me to but it wasn't pushed. And like I said, by the time I was eight my father had gone back to law school and become a lawyer and his form of activism at the time was being a criminal defense lawyer and then later doing civil rights stuff. Had they been pushing that on me then I wouldn't have seen it as my own. And although I knew they had been involved in stuff so I knew that once I started getting involved in organizing, I started getting involved in helping farmworkers organize a union in central California valley. But I knew that I wouldn't be one of those kids whose parents were mad at them for doing that. But yeah no it was very much. It felt like my own thing.
Joe Skinner: Was it art that came first or was it the activist roots?
Boots Riley: It's hard to say. I mean yeah all I mean all those things were around like when I was a kid I remember my father coming home with his ribs bandaged up and me asking him what happened and he said well we went to fight the Klan in Chicago because we were in Detroit at the time. We went to fight the Klan in Chicago and one of them got me with the two by four in the back and you know, as opposed you know. And I remember thinking how he wasn't feeling sorry for himself he was just feeling like ‘Oh man you know I let them get me.’ You know that sort of thing. Yeah. So I knew that all of that was there. But then later when I was like 11 and 12 I definitely wanted to be Prince. So that existed and at the same time I was addicted to television, and then by the time I was 14 I got involved in organizing so it feels like--and I was taking piano, trumpet, guitar. All of those things were happening at the same time.
Joe Skinner: You've talked a lot about in other interviews about how those worlds aren't that separate anyway. You know, the story about the two by four is such a striking image. And it's just a powerful story. And you've talked a lot about the power of storytelling in politics through art. And so I guess I'm curious how does popular art inform our collective politics?
Boots Riley: Well it's interesting I think one way to investigate that is if anybody listening is a writer or someone that creates in some way especially with writing music or a novel or a screenwriter you'll notice that when you try to write a scene a lot of what you tend to do at first is tending to lean toward cliche whether you write it down or not but in your mind what you have to do is fight cliche because we'll write these scenes that seem a lot like all these other scenes that were written and you start thinking about it. And so much of what's in our brain is this other art that we've seen that represents life not life not the life itself because then if you like try to transcribe a breakup that you had it will feel weird because it's not like these movie scenes that you've seen, it won't feel cinematic. It won't have the beats that they gave it. If I think about Delhi and India I've never been there and I actually have never seen a documentary that takes place there. But I have a picture of it in my head. It feels clear it feels vivid like what the people are wearing what the street sounds sound like. Even some of the textures and all of that stuff and it’s not from me, it’s not from my life, but it's probably from a James Bond movie or something like that. But if I'm to visually picture that, that's the picture that's in my head and therefore like it also makes up my idea of what the world is. And you see that when people write films or are songs like. it's not that they haven't experienced a life that has rebellion and movements and things like that. Why. Because there's no way you can get away from it, it's around us.
Like even the lack of it that people are going, you know, ‘I want to get away from my small town in Idaho and I want to go there.’ It's because they know about something that they want to get to. Right. But when we write about this stuff we write about the world in the way that it's been written before or we have this tendency to feel like that is the world and anything else is--so rebellion ends up not being in a lot of the art. And it shapes what we think is possible. So I think that's the influence that pop culture and art has on us is it shapes our idea of the world in what's possible.
Joe Skinner: Yeah. Well something I really appreciated about Sorry To Bother You is that every time I see a film about class I feel like it's approaching it with a hyper-natural form and I feel like you've really cut against that grain with your film. That is something special about your movie.
Boots Riley: Thank you. I mean part of it is just having just the years of trying to do it. And so for me it's not something special it's just that I've spent a lot of time trying to figure it out.
Joe Skinner: Well the film had a pretty circuitous origin. How did the idea first come to you?
Boots Riley: Well I've done telemarketing a couple times in my life. One time in my life was when I had like what I thought was a mid-life crisis when I was 24 and I decided that I'd been wasting my life being an artist, my adult life being an artist, and gotten away from organizing and so I quit doing music and we created an organization called the Young Comrades and I knew I was good at sales so I did that and a lot of really funny stories, most of them that didn't make it into the movie, got in there because really the movie is not so much about telemarketing as just life. And I didn't want it to just be the telemarketing movie. You know I went to film school and quit when we got a record deal so I'd been wanting to make a film.
Joe Skinner: I went to film school and ever since then I've run into this problem over and over again trying to help out friends with films where it's just really hard to find money, and of all the art forms I feel like film is deeply tied to money and it just presents these challenges I imagine, kind of balancing your political values with attracting money and funding for your work. How do you navigate that as an activist and sometimes self-labeled communist?
Boots Riley: Well I didn't have problems around the, at least the problems around the politics - and first of all I always call myself communist - but the problems were more with the form. Nobody when we tried to get this funding talked about the fact that the background of it was a militant strike. They're too busy looking at seeing whether I'm going to pull the rabbit out of the hat to see what's happening in this hand. So you know that wasn't literally. So there were way more people that would have been on board supposedly according to them, had I not had some of the stranger things that were in the movie in there. That actually wasn't a problem for me. The politics of it. However maybe it would have been had I not had the other stuff that was way more out there. You know.
Joe Skinner: What do you say to people that reject the idea of Communism still and still compare it to the way it was in the 50s? How do you respond to people that react harshly to the term communism?
Boots Riley: Well first I give them what the definition of communism that I believe that defines what people are fighting for or hope for the world and how I define it is that we want a world in which the people democratically control the wealth that we create with our labor. Very few people can disagree with that. No matter fact I've been in some debates with people that were staunchly saying ‘I'm against communism.’ And can you disagree with that we should have that? No they can't disagree with that. So here's the thing. The big question then becomes, well how do we have a world like that? How do we create a world like that? You know, what are these things? Where are these things that we put in place? How do we make sure that we don't keep being exploited and have economic theft going on? Those things are called communism. It doesn't mean that there have been victories and defeats and mistakes and terrible things that have happened. But I could rattle off you know thing after thing that's happened under capitalism, you know, under folks that consider themselves capitalists and were capitalists and because of capitalism I could do that we could play that game and I'd win. But my point is this, is that just because other folks have claimed that they were going towards something and either went veered off in a different way or whatever doesn't mean we shouldn't keep fighting for what's right. It's just like if you know if someone was saying that they were trying to stop murders but they didn't stop a murder would you be like, ‘We should stop trying to stop murders.’ You wouldn't. You know what people that call themselves communists and socialists are doing is saying they want to stop economic exploitation. Most people will agree that that's something that shouldn't be. The question is how do we get there? And we should look at mistakes of the past. There are some people that would be like I'm not going to call myself communist or socialist because you know there were these mistakes of the past and they want to separate themselves from that critique but we're all born of the past. Well you know none of us came here out of the blue and we have to look at those things so that we don't make those same mistakes. And you know sometimes if you separate yourself from that word or that tradition then you can separate yourself from that critique and re redo those same things. Many of the folks that would have you know 20 years ago been like you know, there's surveillance going on in the Soviet Union, as a statement of the problems that were happening in the Soviet Union many of them are accepting of all the surveillance we have going on here under capitalism. They’re accepting of every all of the bad things that they said were going on under the Soviet Union, and many of which were are accepted under capitalism. None of the good things about people having the things that they need are happening under capitalism. But all of the bad things are.
Joe Skinner: So if you had to address a union organizer out there or political activist out there would you encourage them to pursue the arts to tell their message?
Boots Riley: Well first, I would encourage someone who is an artist to also become an organizer so that they understand what they should what they should be talking about. You know like not just like what the campaigns are and what other organizations are talking about but meaning like interacting with folks and trying to get them to do things and figuring out what questions people have about their life like should I be involved with this. You know, where do I drop my kids off? You know any little thing like what are the questions that artists should be asking or answering. Because otherwise without having some experience organizing and talking to folks and trying to get them to do things, we think that the question is this whole other thing because we see it on social media or we see it in the news and we start asking these questions that are misguided in the first place that aren't the point. So I would say that. Separately, I would say that everyone every human should be an artist you know unfortunately many of us don't have the time to do that, right. Everyone has some sort of thing that they should be able to express and it should be beyond, be able to be beyond a conversation you can have it should have to do with those words in between words, and we all have those things that we should be able to express. But the way that we work, you know we barely have time to you know, be around our loved ones after we work or whatever. So that's hard. But being that I think every person should be an artist. I think that you organizers should express themselves in many ways too. And it helps you to just understand other folks. And here's the thing I don't think I have to say that most of the organizers that I've met are some sort of artists as well because we're all looking for ways to express it, it's not like I have to like encourage organizers to figure out how to create it. Sometimes it just seems many times to be hand in hand.
Joe Skinner: A good friend of mine is a union organizer and a drummer on the side and I'm constantly seeing those worlds intermingle. But so what's really on your mind right now? What do you think is an especially important thought for today?
Boots Riley: Well I think that right now so many people are incensed with the things that are blatantly happening in our world. You know everything from these companies acting more and more like they're acting in my film, just bare naked capital being unafraid to show itself in the political realm, and the interests of the ruling class, those sorts of things. Everyone is incensed. What I'm worried about is all of these problems have existed before the Trump presidency and what I saw happen during Bush's presidency was people attributed all the problems to Bush and it was just about getting Bush out and many of those same problems kept existing while Obama was in office. Because we had attributed the problems to Bush, people gave up on fighting those things. What I'm hoping is that there is more of a direct line of analysis to show the connection between many of these problems that we're having to capitalism itself, to the economic system that we're having. Because we have an opportunity here for people to join movements and to create movements. In drawing that and showing that analysis, having people see where their actual power is and that power isn't just at the ballot box. It's in literally at their place of work, where they work because you know we all understand that those with the wealth are the ones with the power, that that wealth gives them the power but we give them the wealth you know we can turn the purse strings that they have into our own puppet strings and control the whole system through that. So I'm hoping that people start organizing at their places of work around the things that we need which are things like increases in wages and health care and things like that. But extending to other social issues as well. There's an interesting documentary that happens to be on YouTube but it's from Sydney, Australia in the 70s and it's called Breaking the Foundations and it's about this construction union that that actually got so powerful that they would shut things down to help out grassroots political campaigns of for things that were happening in other cities because they were able to just shut down production and shut down and stop profit. And win victories in that way. And I think that that's what I'm concerned with is that I think that if we don't show people how they can change things that people will just start throwing up their hands even more and just decide that there's nothing they can do.
Joe Skinner: Just before we sign off, the theme of our season is heroes and people that have inspired you, and I was just wondering real quick if you could rattle off three people; three artists or political figures that have really inspired you.
Boots Riley: Paul Robeson, Amiri Baraka, and Joe Hill.
Joe Skinner: Thanks so much for coming in.
Boots Riley: All right thank you.
Josh Hamilton: Paul Robeson was a full-on renaissance man, a gifted athlete, actor, singer, scholar, author and political activist. His talents made him a revered man of his era. But his radical politics wiped him from the history books for a long time. Blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his sympathies towards Communism, Robeson's a hero to many for his performances and for his political stances. Here's his son and archivist Paul Robeson, Jr.
Paul Robeson, Jr.: I think Dad consciously prepared me for the job I would have to do as the next generation, and to do that, I think he consciously freed me from a certain relation to authority. He needed to teach me to overcome fear and rage. You have to be able to control both rage and fear and channel it into useful energy. If you can't do that either you'll eat your heart out or you'll suppress the rage and go through life with your head down all the time. If you're going to challenge anything, you have to be under total control.