He’s a poet, rapper, songwriter, music producer, screenwriter, and director, but Boots Riley and his influence extend beyond the arts. In his role as lead vocalist for The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, he’s an outspoken social critic and a provocateur. A community organizer and public speaker who seeks to motivate his listeners to work for social change, Riley uses art as a tool, as a weapon, like a sword.
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 11, Riley appears at the Lensic Performing Arts Center (211 W. San Francisco St.) as part of the Lannan Foundation’s Readings & Conversations series. He’ll talk with Robin D.G. Kelley, a distinguished professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Aurum, 2013).
Riley was born in Chicago to a family of community organizers in 1971. Twenty years later, while living in Oakland, California, he founded The Coup, a political hip-hop band. Known for bold and witty lyrics that pack a powerful message, the band recorded six studio albums. Their last, Sorry to Bother You (2012), was inspired by Riley’s screenplay for a science-fiction comedy of the same name, which was realized as a film in 2018. The album features the standout “You Are Not a Riot (An RSVP from David Siqueiros to Andy Warhol),” which hits on themes of art as a tour de force — a vital means of self-expression.
A rebellion is both love and lust
And a riot is when lightning hits the right spot
And my painting isn’t finished till it kills you
And it makes you feel more powerful than pills do
Riley is an outspoken critic of capitalist society, injustice, and police brutality, much of which is also reflected in his songs. In 2011, he helped organize the Occupy Oakland movement, a series of staged occupations in front of Oakland’s city hall in protest of police misconduct, wealth inequality, and corporatism. In 2015, he released his first book, Tell Homeland Security — We Are the Bomb (Haymarket), to critical acclaim. The book features many of his lyrics, with telling stories about what inspired them, and it touches on many of the subjects expressed in his music.
Riley’s appearance is the first event of Lannan’s 2019-2020 season of 10 talks and is followed by a conversation between Marxist historian and journalist Vijay Prashad and University of New Mexico professor Melanie K. Yazzie on Sept. 25; author Deborah Levy and former Granta editor John Freeman on Oct. 30; sociologist Eve L. Ewing and educator and activist Wayne Au on Nov. 13; and Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and assistant professor at Rutgers University, with Janine Jackson, program director of the media watch group FAIR, on Dec. 4. Other talks continue through the spring of 2020. For a complete schedule visit lannan.org.
Pasatiempo spoke with Riley about his songs and, taking a cue from “You Are Not A Riot,” about art as a mere product versus art with something vital to say.
Pasatiempo: Your book, Tell Homeland Security — We Are the Bomb, is atypical in that it’s not a straightforward narrative but uses the lyrics you write in your songs as an in, to talk about what motivates and inspires you. You don’t often get the backstory on why a singer wrote a certain song.
Boots Riley: Unfortunately, people leave out a lot of the great things that are going through their heads. The best art that I can make is going to be something that I really feel, and therefore, I really understand. Or maybe the song is me trying to understand it. For me, art is all about passion.
Pasa: You take a story from 20th-century art history that could be apocryphal — Mexican painter David Siqueiros at the Venice Biennale getting into it with other Latin American artists [accusing them of colluding with the CIA to promote their art] — and that story inspires “You Are Not a Riot.” You present the song as a “what if,” in which he responds to an invitation to a party from Andy Warhol, who you describe in the book as a very shallow person. And Siqueiros rejects him. But the alleged incident in Venice, what was he driving at?
Riley: Siqueiros, he was calling out certain artists, and saying, you know, I think you might be working for the CIA, based on the fact that your art isn’t saying anything. Everybody thought he was crazy for saying that. And it turns out, it was true. [The CIA is known to have actively supported Abstract Expressionism, promoting it through the agency’s contacts as an example of the kind of artistic freedom afforded to artists living in a democracy.] He wasn’t going off of any real knowledge behind the scenes, I don’t think. I think he was just looking at the context of everything going on in the world. As an artist, you’re trying to put out there what’s inside you, so how could what’s inside you not be affected by all the things going on in the world?
Pasa: There was a time when Abstract Expressionism was the thing. But I think, sometimes, it can be a safe way of making art. Maybe it wasn’t really seen as a threat to the status quo because there was nothing overtly political in it.
Riley: To be fair, a lot of those Abstract Expressionists — like Jackson Pollock worked with Diego Rivera for a while — their politics wouldn’t be one where they would knowingly have worked for the CIA. It’s just about what certain trends are allowed to happen. They didn’t think of themselves as supporting that. The biggest question is what are you saying? There’s a place for abstract art, and I definitely think we need creativity that’s not definable because we have to experiment with certain ways. In my art, especially with my film, I’m influenced by people that try different things, that play with color, play with things that weren’t immediately decipherable. I use those as tools to get to the emotional result that I want in a larger context of meaning. I’m not one of those people who think there shouldn’t be any abstract art. But, in reality, the reason that was being pushed as the current trend [in the 1950s] was to separate artists from movements.
Pasa: That reflects on capitalist society, in a way, as something that takes an art of the people and co-opts it. I see it happening right now with street art and graffiti art. You could see it as a kind of raw expression — people making art where they could, using what was available as their canvas. Street artists and graffiti artists, now, are celebrated with museum shows. On the one hand, it’s great that they get this recognition, but I wonder, does that take away some of its power?
Riley: They’re trying to figure out a way to survive and keep doing their art. If we had a world where people had jobs to survive — even if it wasn’t in art, but where they had a lot more time left in their day, to where they could create whatever they want — we’d have way more artists. The movement doesn’t stop, even if you have a revolution. There would still be street artists doing things to cause a reaction. But you’d have people that didn’t have to do it in order to survive. Maybe you’d have 90 percent of the people creating art, because they’ve got the time to develop it themselves.
You think about it like this, where photography used to be — you used to have all this stuff, all this time, all this equipment. Now, everybody’s got a phone, and everybody takes pictures. A lot of it is terrible, but a lot of it is great. There’s so many people that can take a great photo. It’s not the technology, it’s that there’s a lot of people who, in the past, would not have been able to express themselves artistically.
The real thing with street artists now is, maybe it takes some of the edge off of it, but the reality is that we’re forced to make our art a commodity by the world we live in, sometimes just to get it to people. The channels that people are plugged into to listen to music are ones that are part of the whole commercial situation. You’re not even going to get to people, sometimes, without making your art a commodity, unless you change your whole life to being about the distribution of art.
Pasa: So, to a certain extent, you have to play the game, and it all depends on how you play it.
Riley: It also depends on what your endpoint is. My endpoint is wanting my art to be part of helping people to want to join a movement. That just means I need people to see, hear, and interact with my art. Then, they have to do something with it. Hopefully, there’s a movement around that they can join. My thing is to get it out there. It’s not so much how they got it, but that they got it. ◀
▼ Boots Riley with Robin D.G. Kelley
Lannan’s Readings & Conversations series
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 11
▼ $8 ($5 for students and seniors with ID), available at Lensic box office or