Boots Riley is lead singer of US-based hip-hop group The Coup and a radical activist, heavily involved in Occupy Oakland and other struggles.
He was a featured speaker at the Marxism 2014 conference in Melbourne over April 17-20. Green Left Weekly's Gemma Weedall spoke to him.
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Why do you think we need revolutionary change today?
I think that humanity is always on a course of making things better and more just. We have a history of trying to figure out how to organise things so that not only is it more just, but that we get more out of life.
We could have just been a group of beings that lived at the most 19, 20 years, long enough to reproduce, and eat food and then die. But we’ve organised life so that we can do more than that, more than just function.
And I think that the change that many people are talking about is one that reorganises society further, so that we are not spending all of our time producing to make someone else be able to have time to enjoy life.
We want to have time to create, to love, to enjoy the scenery around us. The way things are organised right now, people are just working to live and living to work, and maybe they get a couple of hours after work to drink a beer and watch TV, and fall asleep and get up and do it again.
That’s not what we want to do; we want to be able to feel like we have a connection to life. I think a revolution would bring a change in the day in the life of humanity.
We could work less hours because there would be more people working and production wouldn’t just be for the sake of creating some extreme surplus. We’d organise life based on what’s good for human beings, and that would include what’s good for the world at large, because that’s also what’s good for human beings.
African American activist Malcolm X famously said: “You’re living at a time of revolution…People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built”. What do you think are the best examples today of people in power abusing their power and why we need to build a better world?
We have an extreme wealth disparity; and more than that, that wealth disparity has a functional relationship. So there is a connection between the person that can barely pay their bills and works all day at a job and the person with six mansions.
Those people working all day to barely be able to pay the rent make the wealth for the person with the six mansions. And that’s an illustration of a misuse of power. It’s an illustration in one sense of the misuse of the working class’s power, to empower the ruling class.
What role do you think music and arts can play in building a revolutionary movement?
I think that music can be a rallying cry; I think that it can help people look at situations in new ways. I think that it can also encourage people to join a movement.
It can help people to feel connected; when you feel connected to something based on ideas, you often want to be around that. It helps to build that unity of thought that can lead to unity of action.
You make radical, class conscious rap music. What are your thoughts on the prevalence of sexism and homophobia in mainstream hip-hop music?
I think that’s our fault. The culture that’s out there is created due to a lack of radicals actually being involved in people’s lives, and that is our fault. It has to do with the campaigns we’ve chosen or not chosen; it has to do with the spheres of political discourse we’ve chosen to take up.
People rap based on what informs them, and what informs most people is what we learn in school. There’s nothing that those songs are saying that is not based on information that you can learn in high school; wrong information, but information no less.
I mean, we’re taught that the economy is based on the survival of the fittest, that if you’re smart, you make money, point blank. That leads to the idea that anything you do in order to make money is fair game.
It also has people believing that people are able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and that’s basically who the rich are. That’s what we’re taught, that the rich are the ones who were smart enough and cunning enough to make it happen.
So that’s what’s being put out there, so we really can’t have a critique of the folks that are putting out this art, we can only have a critique of us and the world that we’ve let happen.
How do you think the left should relate to broader movements like Occupy, and what lessons did you learn from your involvement in Occupy Oakland?
The lesson that I got was that the Occupy encampments that radicals left alone didn’t do the same things that the Occupy encampments did. So folks need to be in broader movements, and just be one of the people in those broader movements ― putting out ideas, and working with people and struggling.
When we’re in a revolutionary situation, it’s not going to be the same parties or the same groupings that exist right now. People’s lives are gonna change, groups will form and split and form, different things will happen ― but whatever it is, it’ll be something that has to do with folks working together, so we might as well be doing that now.
There are differences about exactly how the revolution will look later on. But that’s something we need to talk about in struggle while we’re doing stuff, it’s not something we can work out beforehand.
What are your thoughts on the need for the left to unite, work together and avoid sectarianism?
Well the only way to get around stuff like that is to be involved in a winnable campaign. When you’re not involved in a winnable campaign with material goals and a material strategy to get that, then that’s when it all falls apart, because then every issue is so much bigger, and it’s not handled from the standpoint of needing unity in order to win this struggle.
What do you think are the most exciting developments internationally at the moment? What inspires you?
Among student union movements, in Montreal they’ve got a really militant student body that has the possibility of becoming radicalised, and many of them are. They shut down all the universities for a long time. They technically won their battle ― not everything they wanted ― but they were able to get a change. They also came away from it with lessons learned and more people that were ready to fight.
There are some of the social centres in Italy that are moving beyond just the pre-figurative thing of creating a collective. They’ve moved onto using these places as really organised gathering places, with a bar, restaurant, venue, library and everything involved.
They’re using them as centres for organising other campaigns, and that model seems very interesting to me, because the squats in the US basically just have an isolated collective vibe.
What are your thoughts on the Latin American revolutionary processes?
Some of the documentaries I saw on Venezuela were really impressive ― the community councils and some of the women-led movements that were happening there. I don’t know what the current state of things there. I have a lot of questions about it, is that still going on?
I think it’s a great thing that’s happening there. I was disappointed in many on the progressive left, and many of the anarchists too, who fell for the idea that the [recent] rebellions were anything but what they were, which was the right-wing.
A lot of folks come with the idea that if they’re rebelling against the government, you have to support them. I think what we’re going to see is a lot of fascist movements that look different.
And that was the problem of having an aesthetic to rebellion in the first place ― it can easily be copied. I talk about that a little bit in [The Coup song] “You Are Not a Riot”.
You called yourself a revolutionary at the age of 15. What would be your message to young activists?