Poet, rapper, and filmmaker Boots Riley has just published Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb, a collection of songs, commentaries, and stories from his work with the Oakland hip-hop group the Coup and the band Street Sweeper Social Club. Riley has been involved in political activism for decades, from police-brutality protests to supporting Occupy Oakland. This interview has been adapted from The Laura Flanders Show.
LF: How would you describe what you do?
BR: I try to find creative ways to put ideas out to make the ground fertile for organizers.
LF: Your family were organizers.
BR: My father joined the NAACP when he was 12, in the ’50s. He was part of the organizing efforts that led to some of the first sit-ins in North Carolina. Then CORE moved him to San Francisco, and he joined SDS and the Progressive Labor Party. He was involved in the San Francisco State strike, where he met my mother. What I remember of their organizing days was parties: They’d be sitting around talking, and then it would turn into people dancing and playing cards. So I had a different view of organizing; it meant the local neighborhood. If you’re an organizer, you should not be in a city and not know the people.
LF: Is there anybody on the 2016 political scene who turns you on?
BR: Nope. Not in the 2012 scene, 2008, or 2004. I think that right now, one of the things that needs to happen is that social movements need to connect—join with labor struggles like the Fight for 15, and have shutdowns around larger social issues.
LF: You were very involved in Occupy Oakland. What do you tell people who ask what came of that?
BR: I think that for those folks that got burned out when they were in Occupy, that has to do with the fact that there was a lot of energy—and instead of combining spectacle with the withholding of labor, we got stuck on spectacle.
LF: Stanley Nelson’s documentary shows how the Black Panthers used spectacle.
BR: The Panthers stopped wearing the berets and the leather jackets in 1968 because they realized that the spectacle was making people feel like, “Wow, that is something [apart from me] to look up to.” We don’t need to bring back the 1960s; we need to bring back the ’20s and ’30s as far as strategy.
LF: What did you make of the confrontation between Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter?
BR: Elections are a dead end. We have taken our energy away from organizing at the workplace and put it into voting for this or that candidate. I’m not going to be naïve and say that there aren’t differences in candidates. There’s a little wiggle room, but the couple things you can get are far outweighed by the decimation of mass movements that happens when any election comes around.
LF: Do you have any thoughts on the film Straight Outta Compton?
BR: There was a sea change in organizing when [NWA’s] “Fuck tha Police” came out. Before, even dope dealers I knew had this feeling, like, the police are the good guys. “Fuck tha Police” changed that orientation; it kind of chronicles that. [Their songs have] got misogyny, they’ve got glorifying murdering each other, things like that, because it comes out of the culture that capitalism has created. I think it’s important for us not just to edit the culture that capitalism creates, but to create the material basis for a culture that we want. The 12-year-old right now that is involved in that movement may be the next Dr. Dre, right?
LF: There’s a line in the Coup song “Underdogs”: “They’d tear this motherfucker up if they really loved you.” What would we be doing today if we really loved each other?
BR: Cornel West has that famous line: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” I like that. I think what we would be doing is making a society based on what we know is right. We know that there shouldn’t be a few people on top taking everything, and we know that if two people work on making this table, and it’s sold for $300, they shouldn’t get $10. If we created a society based on love, it would be a society without exploitation.