The RW Interview

Boots from the Coup:
Standing Our Ground

Revolutionary Worker #1122, October 14, 2001, posted at

The RW Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics.

The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in the Revolutionary Worker and on this website.

Have you thought about it too?
Because we are here for you.
When you have nothing to lose,
All the people feel it too.

You do have a way out baby
And together we can breathe free air.

I know they wanna isolate you
Give you nothing to relate to
we're gonna have to break this whole muthafucka down
so loneliness
don't let it overtake you.

When you feel so all alone
Know you have a home.

"Thought About It 2," words by Boots,
sung by Martin Luther on The Coup's
new album,
Party Music

Two hours after the planes hit the World Trade Center, Boots Riley's name was in the press all over the world. Together with Pam the Funkstress, Boots is a member of the radical hip hop band, The Coup. And controversy over the cover of their forthcoming CD, Party Music, was hitting the airwaves. Newspapers that have never even reviewed an album by The Coup or even acknowledged their existence suddenly had opinions on their music and their politics. Radio station dj's who have never played a song from The Coup spent hours talking trash about them. Suddenly, all the official culture critics had opinions about The Coup and their music.

Recently, Boots talked with the RW about the controversy and his views on the current situation.

RW: You have a new album--Party Music --hitting the streets on November 6 and there has already been more controversy over this album than any of your previous three albums--Kill My Landlord, Genocide and Juice, and Steal this Album. Most of the controversy has centered on the original cover art for the album. Since the September 11 events The Coup has been out there in the press in a bigger way than ever before. You have really been raked over the coals in dozens of publications, and one British tabloid actually accused you of having ties to Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East and of knowing what was planned for the World Trade Center well before it happened. Why don't we start by you telling us the story behind all this.

Boots: The title of the album is Party Music--obviously there are different meanings for that. A lot of times artists who talk about the system and all the problems it causes get caught up in writing about it with a lot of doom and gloom. I think people forget that there is a lot of hope in the movement. Just having an analysis that we can change things brings a lot of hopefulness. So I wanted to put that as the theme for this album--the hopefulness that comes out of fighting for revolution. The album was also influenced by what I saw at my house growing up, my parents were organizers in Detroit, and there were always people over the house and they'd be listening to music and playing bid whist and that was part of the meetings. Another thing that influenced the album musically and politically is Fela Kuti. Fela's music was definitely party music but it addressed both general topics and some very specific criticisms of how things were going down in Nigeria.

We started the album cover back in May, about the middle of May, and then finished it sometime in June. The picture we used was not supposed to be literal. It was supposed to be symbolic. It was me holding something that was a combination of a guitar tuner and detonator and Pam holding a conductor's wand and we were standing in front of the World Trade Center towers and they were exploding in the background. The whole purpose was to make the statement that the Coup stands for destroying capitalism. We used that as a symbol. It was never supposed to be saying that this act was revolutionary at this time. What the Coup talks about is a mass movement, a revolution by the masses. We talk about violent revolution as the way it has to be done, but we're talking about mass violence carried out in a planned way by the working class.

The cover got a lot of attention when it was first sent out to publications, and when the events happened on September 11th there was a big stir around it. We got the call a couple of hours after the incident in the morning of September 11 that the distributors were not going to carry the album with that cover on it.

The cover hadn't even been printed for the CD but it was sent out to different publications and the label had it on their website. The label decided to remove it and to ask publications not to use the image. My first response was "this was censorship." I thought about using it. But I see the danger in this, the danger of people thinking I'm just being glib or I don't care about what happened, and this is why I might have come to the decision to withdraw the cover myself before the distributor came down with this censorship. I did come to that decision myself at the end of the day.

There was a humor to the cover when we first did it but that changed after the September 11 incident. The humor wasn't there any more, and it took it away from the politics of organizing the masses for revolution.... So I wouldn't have wanted the cover for that reason.

RW: So how are you doing this?

BOOTS: The important thing is to get the opportunity to expose and talk about things like the fact that a couple of years ago, when they bombed Sudan, they killed tens of thousands of people and then blocked a UN inquiry into it to try to count the number of dead. Or to talk about how the U.S. has trained terrorists all over the place and, in fact, the CIA trained terrorists in how to do their job more efficiently. So a lot of the tactics that they are now calling evil tactics were created by the CIA and, if not created by them, then trained by them. I saw a quote in the paper that Ronald Reagan called Osama bin Laden and the people he was working with "heroes." And they were fine with these forces using these evil tactics against civilians that the U.S. thinks are worthy of death.

And one thing that nobody is talking about, but that I think is important to talk about is that beyond overt military actions that the U.S. funds or is part of, many of the actions that corporations take around the world cause misery, starvation and death. And in the U.S. we are so far away from that, our lifestyles are so much better because of that [corporation exploitation around the world], we don't see the actions that we might be part of that cause starvation, death and misery around the world--and I'm including myself in this.

The CEO of a company that decided to hire people to break a strike in a third world country because they want to keep paying people six cents an hour, well they are so far removed from the reality of what's happening that they think they are not being violent people. And we think they are not violent people because we see them on their cell phones and in their cars, on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" or MTV Cribs and -- and that lifestyle is what everybody is supposed to want.

But many of these corporations are violent in the sense that what they carry out is misery and death. All these brutal dictatorships are supported by these multinational corporations based in the U.S. The U.S. supports these governments all over the world; they are held up for the sake of the corporations and they do evil shit to people all over the world.

We're conditioned to think that our world isn't violent because we get the good half of it. We get the good part of it, we don't see the violence that the U.S. does to people all over the world -- we don't understand that these two things are part of the same economy, it's one big economy that does this. It's the same economy that gives us the good half and does all the violence around the world.

Now we see violence that we recognize and I think what it is doing is that it is opening some people's eyes to the fact that capitalism is violent, that these corporations are not just caught up in it but that they are violent. They are consciously violent and they do things that are violent. The U.S. military does things that are violent and we can openly see they are violent and they do these things to hold up the profits of the corporations and not for freedom and democracy or whatever. That's what this system is based on, that kind of violence. So, I think it's a wake up call to people in a sense.

RW: How do you think things have changed, in the arts especially? What have you seen coming up?

BOOTS: In the aftermath of September 11 there is a lot of censorship going on and there's also some self-censorship going on. One group took a song off of their album because it was slightly offensive to the New York police. Some artists who would normally be saying something against the system or whatever are scared to say it right now. It's in the air, censorship is in the air. There's all these images out there -- on that Hollywood telethon they had and other places -- people standing in front of the flag and singing and in between they have these images saying "we're gonna stand together."

What does that really mean. They're not saying that we're going to stand together to go and put the buildings back up and they're not saying we're going to stand together to go and hug each other. So people have to ask what that really means. And what they mean by standing together is in fighting whoever the U.S. says the enemy is. You know they want artists to all just line up behind George W. Bush.

My label has not wanted to put out my press statements and they also tried to inject the words America and American into the statement. I was like, what the hell are you doing. You know, it was like "as Americans we all this and that." I told them I do not talk like that. There is this new beat out there now. I don't think these publicists were contacted by the FBI or anything like that. But there is this new beat that's going on that is militaristic in and of itself.

RW: Let's talk about this new beat a little. What's your take on this?

BOOTS: They have found something now that they can try to use to get people behind them. I don't think if you went out and asked artists and other people that they would say they wanted to bomb Afghanistan. But they are trying to win people over little by little. In the hip hop world they are doing this patriotic song, they are doing a remake of We Are Family. Now they wouldn't go out and ask people to do America the Beautiful because a whole lot of people would say no, we aren't gonna do that song. So instead they got Russell Simmons calling people up and asking them to do We Are Family -- and they got the gall to call up these progressive artists to do it too. And the fact that they think they can call up these people to do it tells me a lot about what they are trying to do.

They have to do We Are Family and not America the Beautiful so that people might feel like there is a way they can fit into it. And in general, what they are trying to do by getting all these people -- and these progressive artists -- in it is to show the audience that everybody is in line. You know some artists will say, 'Well you know it's called We Are Family and I kind of agree with that and my verse is just gonna be about how we are all family and beyond borders and all that. But what it is really gonna be is that they are using this tragedy to make a situation where this tragedy outshines all of the tragedy and death the U.S. has done to people. I mean why was the attack on the World Trade Center an attack on all Americans? Who says that? I do not think this attack was anything that should have happened, but why are we more connected to that than we are to people dying in another country?

RW: So what do you think needs to happen right now?

BOOTS: I think that all the artists who are down, who are not won over to what the system is doing, need to come together to make one strong statement that we are not going along with what's happening. We need to make a unified statement that says we see this as a tragedy and the grief that people are going through is not taken away by the fact that we also see the things the U.S. has done against people just in the last decade, not to mention in the last three or four decades, as tragedies. And we will not let the media and the government manipulate us into doing things that may make people think that we think it might be okay for the U.S. to go to war with other countries. And that we know that whatever war they go into, it will not be for the interests of the people but for the interests of profit.

We need to not only make statements, but we need to make it in our art. There were things that before September 11 I might not have put in my work because they were irrelevant or people weren't talking about them. It was a matter of choice. Now, I think that people are thinking about things and artists need to put things in their work that are against the police, against the army, against repression, against war, against the system. And if they already have those things in their work, then they need to put them in extra in order to make up for all those other motherfuckers who are stepping into line and going along. We got to put that out there because there are people who are thinking that to say something against the government or something unpatriotic is being unsensitive to the people that died. We got to put it out there.

So there's a climate out there. We need to create a new climate with our art. We need to create a climate where people can resist. We need to talk about these things. The only thing that will change the climate in the arts is for artists who are already committed to change to put this out in their art. This will open the door for other artists to do it too. We can change the situation where people are censoring themselves and afraid to go against the climate today by our own examples. And I think that the movement is growing stronger and having that around us will also help these artists step out. And then these artists can create work that helps inspire people to fight against the war and everything else.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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