Hip-Hop Legend Boots Riley on #BlackLivesMatter & How His Cousin Was Acquitted in Cop Shooting

An interview with Boots Riley about his music, activism, and new book Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb.

Legendary hip-hop artist Boots Riley has just published a new book, Tell Homeland Security–We Are the Bomb, of his 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 deeply involved in political activism for decades, from taking part in protests against police brutality to supporting Occupy Oakland to speaking out on Palestinian issues. Last week, he joined more than 1,000 black activists, artists and scholars in signing on to a statement supporting “the liberation of Palestine’s land and people.” He also describes how his his cousin, Carlos Riley, who was accused of shooting a police officer in Durham, North Carolina, in 2012 was just found not guilty of shooting the police officer.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Dig It,” by The Coup, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb, that’s the name of a new book by the legendary hip-hop artist Boots Riley. He’s best known for his work with the Oakland hip-hop group The Coup and the band Street Sweeper Social Club. Boots Riley has been deeply involved in political activism for decades, from taking part in protests against police brutality to supporting Occupy Oakland, to speaking out on Palestinian issues. Last week, Boots joined more than a thousand black activists, artists, scholars in signing on to a statement supporting, quote, “the liberation of Palestine’s land and people.”

Boots Riley has also been speaking out in defense of his cousin, Carlos Riley, who was accused of shooting a police officer in Durham, North Carolina, in 2012. Well, just two weeks ago, jurors found Carlos Riley not guilty of shooting the police officer. Boots Riley joins us here in studio.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Let’s start with your cousin and what actually happened in this highly unusual trial and what he was accused of.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. So, a cop stopped my cousin, early morning in December 2012. For what, we don’t know, because somehow they lost the records of why he was stopped. And the cop started assaulting my cousin, verbally told him, “I’m going to kill you,” started to pull out his gun and shot himself while he was pulling out his gun.

AMY GOODMAN: The police officer shot his own self, himself?

BOOTS RILEY: The police officer shot himself in the leg while he pulled out his own gun. And this is actually somewhat common. And my cousin took the gun from the officer, helped him get out of the car so he could get away. And he had to take the gun because, as we’ve seen from Walter Scott, he could have been shot while he was getting away. And he didn’t want to be there while the police got there, because we wouldn’t have been talking about this story right now. And so, he ran away. He turned himself in three hours later.

He was accused of shooting the cop, accused of assaulting the cop and accused of robbing the gun from the cop, as if it was just a robbery. As we know, he took the gun so that he wouldn’t be shot. All the physical evidence, all the witnesses that the state brought to trial—this went to trial—they all corroborated my cousin’s story. But I think the DA thought that just the simple fact that there was a black man that didn’t let a cop—this was a black cop—but didn’t let a cop shoot him, they thought that the jury would be incensed and find him guilty anyway, even though all the physical evidence and witnesses backed up my cousin’s side of the story. So he was found not guilty of everything but common law robbery. And the reason that they found him guilty of common law robbery had to do with the judge’s instructions. The judge didn’t allow the jury to think about him taking the gun as self-defense.

AMY GOODMAN: So the common law robbery was, they were saying, robbing the police officer of the gun—

BOOTS RILEY: Of his gun.

AMY GOODMAN: —that he, the police officer, had shot himself with.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, yeah, after threatening to kill my cousin. And the cop even testified on the stand that when my cousin had the gun, he looked at him and said, “I don’t believe you just tried to kill me.” And then he helped the cop out and left. And by this time, the cop was in his car. It was really—it was crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: We have the police’s own gunshot report—


AMY GOODMAN: —that we are showing for our viewers. And for listeners, you can go online at It states one shot fired by officer.



BOOTS RILEY: And the DA saw this. The whole police department knew this.

AMY GOODMAN: But this didn’t come up in the trial?

BOOTS RILEY: This didn’t—this was not presented by the state during the trial. But the state knew about it. So, they tried to railroad my cousin. They tried to steal 38 years of his life. He’s still in jail right now for robbing the gun that—robbing the officer of the gun that he wanted to kill him—that the officer wanted to kill him with. So there are appeals going on.

The DA tried to get the—the first time this lawyer had ever seen that. This lawyer, Charns, Attorney Charns, had—has been doing police brutality cases for 32 years, and the DA tried to get him thrown off the case, had a private session with the judge, tried to get him taken off the case for incompetence. First time that this has ever happened. The lawyer actually put this on the record in court and stayed on the case. But so, the state gets to decide who gets to do the appeal for my cousin, and they don’t want Attorney Charns on there, because he did a good job. And what’s more, so many public defenders wouldn’t take my cousin’s case, because it was publicized as a—I suspect because it was publicized as a guy shoots a cop.

AMY GOODMAN: Though he was acquitted of this.


AMY GOODMAN: And the police’s own report said that the cop shot himself.

BOOTS RILEY: Exactly. They knew from the get-go.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about your book, Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb. What does it mean?

BOOTS RILEY: Well, in one way, you could take it as braggadocio, right? That we are the bomb, like we’re the—but in reality, we are—we are the weapon against the state. We are the weapon against the ruling class.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you perform a rap for us, one of—the shorter one, as we have not a lot of time?

BOOTS RILEY: OK. This one is from a song called “Ghetto Blaster.” It’s:

Listen to the, shotgun sonata from personas non grata
With a plot to rock harder than the Second Intifada
I do drink firewater but I’m more like Hiawatha
and will slaughter, slaughter, slaughter, your armada
Inform your scholars that our alma mater’s squalor
So my squad’ll pull your collar at your black-and-white gala
We’re canon fodder for dollars both under Bush and Obama
I’m not a baller I’m a brawler callin y’all to come harder

I’m from the land o’ the free labor that planted the plan of the
black-and-branded to scram it over to Canada
A fan of radical bandits and bandanas
who crammed in the banana clip and rat-a-tat-tat-tatted-a
They spat the grammar to scam y’all to clamor up
The damn ladder to grab for Excalibur
Not a rap battler, but the next calibre
Catch the program and not just my pentameter.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Boots Riley, American poet, rapper, songwriter, producer, screenwriter. We just have about 15 seconds. The importance of art in bringing that to your political activism?

BOOTS RILEY: Well, art is the—are the words between the words. It unifies us and allows us to know that other people are thinking the same thing we are. And it’s part of—an essential part of building a movement.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue the conversation and post it online at Boots Riley, Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with part two of our conversation with Boots Riley. His new book, Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb. That’s right. It’s by the legendary hip-hop artist Boots Riley, best known for his work with the Oakland group The Coup and the band Street Sweeper Social Club. Riley has been deeply involved in political activism for decades, from taking part in protests against police brutality to supporting Occupy Oakland, to speaking out on Palestinian issues. Last week, Boots Riley joined more than a thousand black activists, artists, scholars in signing on to a statement supporting, quote, “the liberation of Palestine’s land and people.” Boots Riley joins us again today here in studio.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Boots.

BOOTS RILEY: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about writing this book, Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb.

BOOTS RILEY: OK. Well, you know, I think I’m a little superstitious. All this music is digital now. Who knows if in 50 years there might be some sort of pulse put out, and now all of a sudden—or Google is documenting everything for us, and then they decide to lose some things? So I decided I need this stuff to be on paper, just in case. And so, these are the lyrics. And also I get tired of people misquoting me, so I wanted the lyrics to be out there. And then there’s stories that go along with it, because, you know, there’s a lot of crazy things that I’ve been through, and I want to also just make myself clear. A lot of times people sum us up as—sum The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club up as being like angry, and really that’s not the place that I come from, because I don’t—I don’t think anger and frustration makes people organize. I think—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about where these two groups came from, how you became a musician.

BOOTS RILEY: OK. Well, I started out as a youth organizer. I was in an organization called Progressive Labor Party and International Committee Against Racism. And I was—I started out helping to organize a farm workers’ union in Central California. And later on, I realized that music could be something that I could use to put these ideas out. And so, our first album, I feel like—you know, I even say it in the book—was kind of like a pamphlet on—a pamphlet on record and—because it was pretty mechanical, like, “I want to get these ideas out. I want to say these people’s names,” and all that kind of stuff. And as I went on, I became more of an artist, and I decided I was an artist and got better at it.

AMY GOODMAN: What were the influences on you? Growing up, how were you encouraged—

BOOTS RILEY: Musically?

AMY GOODMAN: —to express yourself, musically?

BOOTS RILEY: Oh, how was I encouraged to express myself? You know—

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born?

BOOTS RILEY: I was born in Chicago. I moved to Detroit until I was six and moved to Oakland at that point. And then we had a couple years in Stockton and Pasadena. And by the time I was 13, I was back in Oakland. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Your dad was a political lawyer?

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. So my father was in the civil rights movement. First, he was in the NAACP and CORE in Durham. He was part of organizing some of the first coffee shop sit-ins. He moved to San Francisco with CORE, and he got radicalized there and was part of SDS, Progressive Labor Party, different things like that. By the time I was six, he had gone—he had stopped doing that and gone back to law school and—to become a lawyer. So, he became a lawyer while I was already, you know, conscious and a bigger kid, and became a civil rights lawyer and a criminal defense lawyer. And so, you know, I already knew that whatever I was doing, he was going to support.

So, you know, it’s hard for me to say what my influences are. It’s easy to say what I was into. I just listened to the radio and Prince and, you know, those things. And I think just, you know, oddly enough, like NWA was a big, really big influence on me. But I already was—I already was an organizer, so I took certain influences from what they did, and put that into my work. I used to be mad, at first, that I couldn’t sound like Ice Cube. And I think that was probably one of the best things for me. I’d be really mad at other artists, like, “Man, they can sound exactly like Ice Cube!”

AMY GOODMAN: Pam the Funkstress and E-Roc?

BOOTS RILEY: So, Pam was a DJ around the Bay Area, and we met—I met her at like Tupac’s first album release party. And we recruited her in after we had already had a deal. And, you know, she’s one of the baddest DJs ever. She’s been on so many competitions. But she stopped doing DJ competitions because, in her words—this is maybe something she should talk about. But, you know, she would win the competitions, and her friends, who she was DJing to be around, would be mad at her, the guys. And so, she’d win competitions and be crying about it afterward, because people didn’t—weren’t supporting her. Anyway, so she’s—she doesn’t tour with us anymore. She has a restaurant and catering business.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Tupac. What kind of influence with Tupac Shakur? He also came out of a political family.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. Well, we were contemporaries. So, definitely, that still was an influence, in the fact that, I mean, you had the Bay Area—we came in the Bay Area at a time when every record label had to have someone from the Bay Area. So, you had this immense opportunity. And there was—you know, all these folks could have rapped about whatever they wanted to and got a deal, because that’s how the music industry works. Like, you know, “Oh, people with blue jackets are selling records, so let’s get this other group of people with blue jackets.”

But we—so, he definitely—he understood the performance aspect of things, the performance of these ideas, not just having the ideas, but how do you get people to buy into a certain idea. He thought about that. And a lot of what he did was performance art, and very well-thought-out performance art. And I think he doesn’t really get credit for that. And I mean not just on the stage or on video, but in his life. And it was for a certain, you know—for a larger idea. Like, a lot of people don’t know that the Outlawz, his other group, all their fathers were political prisoners. And so he had this other plan going on.

AMY GOODMAN: And the plan was?

BOOTS RILEY: I don’t know. He didn’t spell it out to me. But, you know, it all had to do with some larger idea of a movement.

AMY GOODMAN: You started The Coup. Talk about The Coup.

BOOTS RILEY: I wanted to figure out a way to put these—you know, I was organizing in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and, you know, we’d have demonstrations. There’d be eight people or, you know, 10 people, and we’d be like, “That’s a victory! You know, we’ve got to chalk this up as a victory.” And I was like, well, this really should be on a much bigger level. And I considered my art at the time one-on-one talking with people, like being able to take these bigger ideas that folks from a generation before, that—as I thought of most of the people I was in organizations with as being from a generation before me—taking these bigger ideas and cutting out the lingo that is associated with them, and just talking about the basic parts of it. And that was what I felt like my art was before I was doing music, and I wanted to put that into the music. I wanted to get the idea that there could be a rebellion, there could be a movement out there.

For me, and maybe it was just my cohort and just my group of folks, but even with all of this stuff—in high school, when I got attacked by the principal as being a communist and being, you know, loud on the loudspeaker—”Raymond Riley is a communist. Don’t listen to him. He wants to bring us back to the days of the Black Panther Party.” A high school in Oakland in 1986 didn’t know who the Black Panther Party was. And that has to do with—and the teachers were able to lie to us and tell us that the Black Panther Party was a black Ku Klux Klan—I mean, not to me, because I looked it up. But that tells you like the state of where organizing was.

This is pre-Rodney King video and all of this. So, like, we’d be trying to organize police brutality things, and before—before “F— tha Police” by NWA, there was a different feeling. Like, even if somebody was selling dope, they would think I’m the bad guy, the cops are the good guy. Right? That was like politically where it had gotten to. And NWA and Public Enemy changed all of that, and then it also then changed with—changed with the Rodney King video. But so, I wanted to be part of changing like the orientation of where—what people related to—did people relate to the system as being on their side? Where did they posit themselves?—and just kind of make the ground fertile for organizers.

AMY GOODMAN: Why the name of your group, The Coup?

BOOTS RILEY: I was kind of uninformed. I would always hear on the news them saying, “There was a coup.” And I didn’t know there was a difference between a revolution and a coup. And, you know, so I took that name without much research, and it’s really not what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about a few people taking over the state. We’re talking about the working class overthrowing the ruling class.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your use of humor in rap.

BOOTS RILEY: You know, I think that humor looks at contradiction, irony, and it exposes irony. And when someone is putting out an analysis of capitalism or an analysis of anything, you’re looking for the contradiction. You’re looking to show the contradictions in something. And definitely, if we’re talking about class analysis, that’s a giant contradiction. It’s a big irony that we look up to the wealthiest people, who have all taken—gotten their wealth from us. So, anyway, you know, humor plays into that. And also, being an organizer, you have to love people. You have to—you can’t be someone who hates people or thinks that everybody has it wrong and all that. Otherwise, you have no—you’re not going to be an effective organizer. So, I just always have been that type of person that’s cracking jokes and funny. And I always—I used to think of that as a deficit, like people don’t take me seriously because I’m always joking. But it’s really just looking at things clearly.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about signing on to the letter, a thousand black activists, artists, scholars, students recently signing on to a statement supporting, quote, “the liberation of Palestine’s land and people”? Among the signatories are Angela Davis, Cornel West, Mumia Abu-Jamal, hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors and you, Boots Riley.

BOOTS RILEY: I’ve put stuff in my lyrics, at least since like ’98, about Palestine. I have a lyric where it’s talking about how a lot black folks are accused of selling dope—as I say, “slanging rock”—so I say, “Yeah, I slang rocks, but Palestinian style.” And the truth is, is that, you know, for all that Israel is talked about being this democracy, it’s not. Most of the people that live on the land controlled by Israel can’t vote on who rules them. And it’s put out there that, “Hey, if we let these people vote, if we made it ‘one person, one vote,’ then they’re going to vote about something—they’re going to vote and say we shouldn’t be in power.” And so, that’s asinine. And I think—I’ve supported the BDS movement. It’s something that seems like—

AMY GOODMAN: Boycott, divestment, sanctions.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. It’s something that seems like at least it’s going to their economic root of power and in a way that can be accessed right now. And it’s going off the model of boycott and divestment of South Africa. But it’s the—it’s really just the right side to be on.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to a clip of Cesar Chavez, a legendary labor activist, a civil rights leader, a founder of the first successful farm workers’ union, speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. This was back in November of 1984, a few months after he had launched the third and longest grape boycott.

CESAR CHAVEZ: All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: to overthrow a farm labor system in this nation that treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings. Farm workers are not agricultural implements. They are not beasts of burden to be used and discarded.

AMY GOODMAN: How did Cesar Chavez and his organizing influence you?

BOOTS RILEY: So, in high school, I was taking part in summer projects of organizing farm workers. But this was something called the Anti-Racist Farmworkers Union. It was formed by folks who were kicked out of the UFW for being too radical. These were folks that some of them originally were students in Mexico City in 1968 when they came up to organize with the UFW. But they found that the UFW wouldn’t organize illegal immigrants, who were most of the people picking grapes. Not only did they not organize with illegal immigrants, they helped immigration officers deport illegal immigrants and, in a couple cases, manned borders to keep illegal immigrants from coming in. So, these organizers decided they were going to make a union that would work—that would organize illegal immigrants and work more with Filipino workers, and so that’s why they called themselves the Anti-Racist Farmworkers Union. So, in that way, me working with them and their analysis—because these were folks that were revolutionary in Mexico, left Mexico and came to the Central Valley to continue organizing the revolution, so that, in that way, indirectly, I was very affected by Cesar Chavez and the reaction to what happened in the Central California Valley.

AMY GOODMAN: So, jump forward now to 2014, 2015, the whole Black Lives Matter movement, how that influences you, how you influence it.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, so, yeah, it’s—I think everyone’s look—everyone’s wanting to do something to change things. You know, there was a few years ago Occupy, now there’s Black Lives Matter. There’s things happening all over the world, and everyone’s looking for a way to change things. I think that what all of these movements need, and needed, is some sort of leverage power. And a lot of times what happens with organizers is we get burned out. We’re doing demonstration after demonstration, and at some point people are like, “OK, how is this changing anything?” And a lot of us, we don’t have the answer to that, like we’re just keeping going because that’s what we have to do.

And I think there’s something that can be said that’s based on looking at the history of movements in the U.S. You had the ’20s and ’30s, where there were militant, radical labor movements in the U.S. You had—you know, going on all over the place. And from that—and almost building a revolutionary situation, where you had, in the ’20s and ’30s, a million card-carrying communists. You had the New Deal come. All those reforms came not because they tried to elect the right person, but because there was a fear of a revolutionary movement happening. I mean, there was armed struggle and armed conflicts in Alabama with miners and Pinkerton security. Later on, during the united front against fascism, the Communist Party went underground to not directly conflict with the U.S. government while it was fighting Hitler. That going underground allowed there to be an atmosphere that allowed the McCarthy era to come, where they were saying, “Hey, that person is being secretive. They are a communist.” And they could—where 20, 15 years before, they couldn’t do that, because people would be like, “I know. They said they are, and they tried to get me in the organization.” But that, combined with revelations about Stalin, caused the breakup of that gigantic radical movement, and that formed all these smaller groups that then became the New Left in the ’60s. And the New Left moved people from certain areas into cities and focused on students. And that made more of a concentration on spectacle, whereas in the ’20s and ’30s demonstrations were just that—a demonstration of power. Like, “We can shut down your industry. Look how many people we have.”

Now, we’ve turned demonstrations into the final thing, which is, we’ve got people in the streets. And what we, as radicals, are doing sometimes is we are telling people that that’s all you need to do, is get your voice in the streets, and things will change. And it kind of puts this sort of, you know, optimistic view about this system, where as long as enough people let their voices be heard, then we’ll shame power into action and into doing things.

But in reality, we know that this system works based on the exploitation of labor. And we know that our power comes in the ability to withhold our labor. And we are not telling people that. And we are not telling people that, if we don’t combine social movements with the ability to withhold labor. And what means is radicals have to organize a new labor movement, a new radical, militant labor movement that withholds labor and breaks the Taft-Hartley laws in order to do that. This will give social movements teeth, because if, when Mike Brown was shot, the left had been in a position to shut down a couple pieces of industry or any—or businesses in St. Louis, then we wouldn’t have had to wait for the grand jury to try to indict the cop. He would have been thrown out, put under the jail, because we’re talking about money there at that time.

But the left, for the last 40 years, has hidden in art and academia. And so we don’t have our—we don’t have a grounding there right now, unfortunately. And that’s where we need to be. We need to have teeth to our movement. We need to have the ability to do that. But I would say—I don’t want to get it wrong—we need spectacle. We need to get the message out. Basically, all I do is spectacle, right? And the thing is, is like—with my cousin’s trial, that DA was so sure that 12 people would convict my cousin, no matter what the evidence showed, just off of the—just off of him having the gall to not let the cop shoot him—

AMY GOODMAN: And again, the police officer, it turns out, shot himself. And the charge against your cousin, who he had stopped in a car, was that he had shot the police officer.

BOOTS RILEY: And he was found not guilty of—

AMY GOODMAN: And he was acquitted of this.

BOOTS RILEY: —not guilty of that. And so—but I think that things like the Black Lives Matter movement, public—the publicizing of all of these events, has educated the jurors.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about this presidential season, where Black Lives Matter have—the whole movement has definitely made their voice heard. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders held his first campaign rally in South Carolina. At the event, Sanders invoked the names of men and women who have been killed by police.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We must be clear that when we’re talking about racism, we are talking about Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd. We are talking about Eric Garner. We’re talking about Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and many others, many, many others over the years whose names we do not know. And these people died unnecessarily and wrongly at the hands of police officers or in police custody. That must change.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Now, he said this after a series of interruptions that have been taking place through the presidential campaign season. Last month, members of the Black Lives Matter movement staged a protest inside Netroots Nation, a conference that was held in Phoenix, by repeatedly interrupting Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. This is Patrisse Cullors interrupting Martin O’Malley’s portion of the event.

PATRISSE CULLORS: Let me be clear: Every single day folks are dying, not being able to take another breath. We are in a state of emergency. We are in a state of emergency! And if you don’t feel that emergency, you are not human.

AMY GOODMAN: That was interrupting Governor O’Malley. When Senator Sanders was interrupted, he threatened to leave the stage.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Black lives, of course, matter. And I’ve spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity. But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK.

MODERATOR: No, sir, we want you to—


MODERATOR: We want you to be here and address that and all the other questions.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: But I don’t want to out—I don’t want to out-scream people.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Governor O’Malley—meanwhile, Governor O’Malley responded to the interruption by saying, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.”

MARTIN O’MALLEY: Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter. Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.

AMY GOODMAN: And Governor O’Malley later apologized for his comment, when there was a lot of outcry around it.

MARTIN O’MALLEY: When I said those other two phrases, I meant no disrespect to the point, which I understand and that Black Lives Matter is making. For many years—many years ago, when I ran for mayor of Baltimore, majority-African-American city, when we had allowed ourselves to become the most violent, part of what—part of what I called us to, as a people, was to the justice of realizing that, yes, black lives matter, and when we allow ourselves to assume that every year, as a city, we just have to accept that 300 young black men will die violent deaths, that we have to do a checkup from the neck up and realize, as a people, that if 300 young, poor white men were dying, we would have a different reaction to this as a state and as a metro area and as a city. So I meant—that was a mistake on my part.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Governor O’Malley. So, Boots Riley, if you can talk about what’s been taking place? Ultimately, you have Senator Sanders releasing a racial justice platform on his website, and you see him in South Carolina invoking the names of people who have died at the hands of police or in custody.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, well, what I’m trying to build with the music that I do, what I hope people can build with that, has to do with a movement as I just talked about, in which people see where the crux of their power is. I don’t think that the crux of our power is in electoral politics. And so, I don’t—you know, there’s a lot of people that are listening to this that are veterans of this kind of rhetoric, right? There’s always somebody good that’s new, that’s exciting, that’s telling us vote for them, and they’re going to fix this particular problem. And so, if we have a grassroots movement that just turns into figuring out the right person to elect, that is not really us showing people where the crux of their power is. The crux of our power under capitalism has to do with our ability to withhold our labor, and it does not have to do with getting a politician to promise to enforce a certain policy.

Now, police brutality has a reasoning, that has to do with the system. It’s not just a clerical error in how policy is written. You know, you could—I don’t think—you know, if Che Guevara were running for president, it would not be the wise thing to build a movement around him running for president either. It’s not about that. It’s not a personality contest. This system is not working against us simply because the wrong personalities have been elected into office.

So, what’s happening here is, again, that the left has been reduced to our movements being only—being mainly focused on spectacle. And where do we go from there? Right? Where do we go from there? Because it’s a similar idea, like we get a million voices saying we want this, and this will happen. So, then, how do you do that? Then that ends up turning into—that ends up turning into the same idea, that if you have people voting in the right way, then capitalism will change. I think that the conflict is deeper than that. I think that politicians are controlled by the folks that have the wealth, and that if you want to control—even for reforms, if you want to control laws, if you want to get things changed, you have to be threatening to profit. And so, yeah, I think that—and again, we do need some spectacle, so that’s fine. You get a politician to show that they need—that they see what the movement is. That’s fine. But we need to have something else that can actually affect these things.

The reason that there’s so much police murder and police killing has to do with the fact that, under capitalism, there has to be a certain amount of unemployed people. Right? A certain amount of—because you can’t have full employment under capitalism.


BOOTS RILEY: If you have full employment under capitalism, they can’t threaten to fire you. They need an army of unemployed people, that they can say, this is—”Your wages are low, and stop complaining about it, because somebody else wants to take your job.” Places like Wall Street Journal and things like that, they openly worry about the unemployment rate getting low, because that means wages go up. So, under capitalism, there must be a certain amount of unemployment.

If you have a certain amount of unemployment, you have to have—you have unemployed people that want to eat. Unemployed people want to eat, and so they get involved in the employment that’s available, and that’s illegal business. All business, legal or illegal, takes violence to regulate it. If you have a legal business, a supermarket, people can’t just walk out with a cart full of groceries without paying, because someone will meet them with a physical force—the police or the security, the store itself. That’s the physical violence, and that’s the—the legal business has the police. Illegal business doesn’t have that. So there’s, quote-unquote, “crime,” that is really just part of the capitalist system.

And there’s a racist idea that’s put out about people of color that says—that says, “Look, these folks are poor because of their bad culture, their bad upbringing. They’re violent people.” And what this does is say—is say to everyone that poverty comes from bad choices, that poverty—and so, this says to the white working classes—well, so, this is the utility of racism, because then you get a group of white people identifying with the ruling class, identifying with the system, even when it’s not in their economic interest to. And that’s where racism has its utility. And then you have—you have this idea that to stop, quote-unquote, “crime” in neighborhoods of color, you have to go and arrest people, that they are these savages. Right? Because that’s the utilitarian image that’s put up that helps keep the whole working class down. So, until—and so, there’s a fascist need for police violence and police abuse. And you’re not going to get rid of that unless you start working on getting rid of this system. And that’s the sad truth. And, you know, you have more police violence. And in reality, we end up having this—like this guy, O’Malley, whatever his name is. He—

AMY GOODMAN: Governor O’Malley.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, O’Malley. He was saying that, OK, this many people got killed in Baltimore, and this is a problem. But the truth is, Tim Wise put out these PDFs from the CDC a few months ago that showed that black-on-black violence is a third less than it was in 1950. Yet we keep hearing all this stuff talking about it. And it’s part of that same idea that gets put out. And not only the right wing is saying this, but liberals and the left are repeating this, because that’s what we’re told, that’s the information we’re given. And so it puts out this idea that we need more police out there. But the truth is, is that we have more problems than we did in the ’50s, and we have less violence. And we have more—you know, more police murders.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see elections serving a purpose if you didn’t see elections as being about electing a leader who will then do all that you supposedly want them to do? Or—

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, well, and that’s part of the problem, though. How do you get people to vote, unless you tell them this is the ultimate thing? Like—

AMY GOODMAN: But—or you see a politician simply, the person who is elected, opening a door, so it’s not always a wall that people are up against, that that’s just the beginning of the work, when people are elected. It’s about opening doors for the mass of people to start organizing.

BOOTS RILEY: That would be great if elections really worked that way. But they don’t. I mean, we saw the first antiwar movement get turned into a pro-Kerry movement. I mean, not the first one, but the first anti-Iraq War movement get turned into a pro-Kerry movement. And it was like this dude wasn’t even saying we’re going to be against the war. But all of these left and liberal folks, knowing what we—you know, lied to—we lied to a lot of people, saying that Kerry was against the war. And that decimated the antiwar movement. There was no antiwar movement. People went and voted, and that was it. Then the next time it built up again, it turned into an Obama, pro-Obama movement. And believe me, a lot of my family was involved in the grassroots part of that. And it was talked about, how much networks were built. And they were. They were doing a lot of work. Over with as soon as the campaign is over.

You know why? Because it takes a lot of work. And how do you motivate people to get anyone elected? The way you motivate them is you tell them this is a game changer. You can’t say, “Hey, this is part of a 12-point program, and this is just one step,” because you’re not going to get people to get out of their bed and go get into—go to the voting booth, unless you change it. I mean, some of the folks that were punk voter and independent voter, for instance, are friends of mine. And I was in Florida during the Kerry campaign. And they had a checklist: Bush, Bush, Bush is for the war, for the—and Kerry is against the war. It was a lie. And that’s what’s going to—that’s what’s happening. People—you end up going for the lesser of two evils, and even in that, you have to tell people it’s a game changer.

Historically, elections have not left over a movement afterward, so—I mean, if we just look at how it works. And again, this is—this idea is something that’s relatively new, that has been since the New Left has been here. It’s not—I mean, you know, that was not our milieu that we worked in. And I don’t think it works. It hasn’t worked, I mean, you know, like if we just want to be logical and look at where we’ve been lacking and where we’ve been focusing. And, you know, you put all these resources into electing somebody, and you’re not going to have a movement afterward. You’re going to have to start over. And then, when the next election cycle comes over, whatever you start over with gets undermined. I mean, the thrust for Sanders really is left over from—has to do with the Occupy movement and what was there. And so, this is the answer. So we build all this stuff up, and we have the possibility of actually turning that into something that has power and has leverage. And anyone, you know, to the left of center understands how this system works, and we know that we’re not dealing with that.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about NWA. You said how it influenced you. Now the film’s just come out, Straight Outta Compton, and there’s been a lot of criticism that it doesn’t talk about misogyny. And Dr. Dre recently issued an apology to The New York Times, and he said, “I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives,” talking about the beating of women.

BOOTS RILEY: You know, I work in an industry where I’m trying to get people that are very far away from my political view, in many times, to put various things in their lyrics. When we look at hip-hop or any art, we can’t look at it in a vacuum. When people are rapping and sometimes saying really messed-up things, misogynist things, and really even racist things about black folks themselves, while they’re black, but they’re saying—you know, putting out this idea, there’s a reason for that. And that’s because the left hasn’t been there. Like, they’re not—they’re formed by the movement that’s around them. Right? Like, we’re not—all this time, we expect people to put out these lyrics, and we haven’t created the movement that affects the 12-year-old that will be the new Dr. Dre. We haven’t created that movement. So, it is correct to critique the music for what it puts out, but it’s also—it’s not correct to think that it could be anything else, without—without us creating a movement that affects people materially.

You know, NWA was rapping about selling dope as a means to survive. And in people’s mind—you know, I’ve had a lot of folks that are considered gangsta rappers come up to me and say, “We’re doing the same thing.” And at first I didn’t understand it. But what they meant is, “Look, I’m putting out a survival guide for my people.” Now, the question is: Why do they think that this is a survival guide? Why do they think that their enemy is—are, quote-unquote, “these women that are trying to take their money” or, quote-unquote, “the [bleep] down the street” that’s trying to do this? Why do they think that? And that has to do with the movement that they’ve been influenced by. And part of that has to do with what I was talking about earlier, that the left has left behind struggles around material—the radical left has left behind struggles around material wealth that folks are going through. We’re asking people to be involved in a movement that’s extracurricular to their everyday survival. And really—and they’re everyday survival is class struggle. And it’s supposed to be our job to collectivize that individual class struggle. And the left has not been doing that.

The left has been involved in—you know, you radicalize, you have a degree, you get a job at a nonprofit. And that nonprofit tells you to put out this line that it’s all about people changing their point of view, figuring out how to go—how to talk to each other nicer, figuring out how to wear the right suit to an interview. And we’ve created this atmosphere where people think revolution is something cultural, is something about—”I’m dressing all in black now,” or “I’m, you know, doing this, and I’m speaking this way now.” And that’s something different than them trying to pay the bills. So, we have not been effective even in organizing—you know, like, people think organizing people of color is something different. Everybody’s trying to survive and struggle. And that’s what this music is talking about.

When people love Jay Z, they love Jay Z because he is all of a sudden putting out an example of someone that doesn’t have to worry about paying the bills, somebody who’s not going to get evicted. And that sounds like freedom. And unfortunately, the left, the radical left, hasn’t built a movement where people see some other way to freedom. Right? So, if we don’t want people talking about that stuff, we have to create the atmosphere. And it’s not just through telling people. It’s not just through getting people to create conscious lyrics, because even when they do agree that I should do that, they haven’t been involved in a movement, so that stuff doesn’t stick.

AMY GOODMAN: But in this case, it’s not just even misogynist lyrics.

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: It is beating women.

BOOTS RILEY: Oh, yeah. So, what I’m saying is, it is—definitely should be called out. That’s something that should be called out. I just don’t like looking at it in a vacuum. I think that it should be called out everywhere it is. And especially, this is someone who is part of creating a large part of the culture that has—that we all live on.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you tell your daughter?

BOOTS RILEY: Well, I have a song to her called “Wear Clean Draws.” But my daughter is pretty astute, right? She corrects me on things. So, yeah, I mean, this is the thing, is that I talk about—not just in the lyrics, but, I mean, the movement is supposed to talk about women’s liberation and talk about us all—you know, that sexism has to go along with all of this other stuff, and talk about the material basis for it, right? But I think the question is, when we’re talking about this, not just only critiquing the folks and where they are, because that’s important, but we have to talk about how do we—what creates culture? How do we create the culture that we want? And we’re not going to create the culture that we want simply by going and editing the culture that capitalism produces. We’re going to create the culture that we—I came out of a movement. You know? That movement is small, so it’s produced one of me. Right? If that movement gets bigger, there will be a lot more of me. And not only—and there will be all sorts of levels that are based on—that are based on people’s understanding of the system. You know, right now we’re giving people kind of a confusing understanding of the system, like it’s all about marches, it’s all about this. And that’s very important, but we’ve got to get people to understand that your survival and financial well-being is wrapped up in radical, militant action.

AMY GOODMAN: Boots Riley, you speak about and for the underdogs, who are the majority of people in this country and around the world. Can you share “Underdogs”?


This is for my folkers who got bills overdue
This is for my folkers, um, check one two
This is for my folkers who never lived like a hog
Me and you, toe to toe, I got love for the underdog

This is for my folkers who got bills overdue
This is for my folkers, um, check one two
This is for my folkers who never lived like a hog
Me and you, toe to toe, I got love for the underdog

I raise this glass for the ones who die meaninglessly
And the newborns who get fed intravenously
Somebody’s momma caught a job and a welfare fraud case
When she breathe she swear it feels like plastic wrap around her face
Lights turned off, this is the third month the rent is late
Thoughts of being homeless, crying ’til you hyperventilate
Despair permeates the air and sets in her hair
The kids play with that one toy they learned how to share
Coming home don’t never seem to be a celebration
Bills they pile up on the coffee table like they’re decorations
Heaping spoons of peanut butter, big ass glass of water
Make the hunger subside, save the real food for your daughter
You feel like swingin’ haymakers at a moving truck
You feel like laughing so it seem like you don’t give a [bleep]
You feel like getting so high you smoked a whole damn crop
You feel like crying but you think that you might never stop
Homes with no heat stiffen your joints like arthritis
If this was fiction, it’d be easier to write this
Some folks try to front like they so above you
They’d tear this mother[bleep] up if they really loved you

This is for my folkers who got bills overdue
This is for my folkers, um, check one two
This is for my folkers who never lived like a hog
Me and you, toe to toe, I got love for the underdog

There’s certain tricks of the trade to try to hault your defeat
Like taking tupperware to an “all you can eat”
Returning used [bleep] for new saying you lost your receipt
And writing four-figure checks when your accounts deplete
Then all your problems pile up about a mile up
Thinkin’ about a partner you can dial up to help you out this foul stuff
Whole family sleepin’ on a futon while you’re clippin’ coupons
Eatin’ salad tryin to get full off the croutons
’Crosstown, the situation is identical
Somebody getting strangled by the system and its tentacles
Misconceptions raised questions to be solved
A lot of dope boys is broke, a lot of homeless got jobs
You can make eight bones an hour ’til you pass out and still be assed out
Most pyramid schemes don’t let you cash out
They say this generation made the harmony break
But crime rises consistent with the povery rate
You take the workers from jobs, you’re gonna have murders and mobs
A gang of preachers screamin sermons over murmurs and sobs
Saying pray for a change from the lord above you
They’d tear this mother[bleep] up if they really loved you

This is for my folkers who got bills overdue
This is for my folkers, um, check one two
This is for my folkers who never lived like a hog
Me and you, toe to toe, I got love for the underdog

You like this song ’cause it’s relatable, it’s you in the rhyme
We go to stores that only let us in two at a time
We live in places where it costs to get your check cashed
Arguments about money usually drown out the TEC blasts
Work six days a week, can’t sleep Saturdays though
Muscles tremblin’ like a pager when the battery’s low
And you still don’t know where the years went
Although every single shift feel like a year spent
And you can write your resume, but it wouldn’t even mention
All the life lessons learned during six years of detention
And how you learned the police was just some handicappers
On the ground next to broken glass and candy wrappers
So don’t accept my collects on the phone
Just hit me back at the house so I know I ain’t alone
And we can chop it up about this messed-up system
Homies that’s been killed, how we always gonna miss them
It’s almost impossible survivin’ on this fraction
Sip a 40 to the brain for the chemical reaction
You gotta hustle ’cause they’re tryin’ to push and shove you
I’ll tear this mother[bleep] up since I really love you

This is for my folkers who got bills overdue
This is for my folkers, um, check one two
This is for my folkers who never lived like a hog
Me and you, toe to toe, I got love for the underdog.

AMY GOODMAN: Boots Riley, American poet, rapper, songwriter, producer, screenwriter, political organizer, community activist, public speaker, best known as lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. His new book, Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

By The Editors

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