Combat Boots: The Anti-Capitalist Philosophy of Filmmaker and Musician Boots Riley

Raymond Lawrence “Boots” Riley during the filiming of Sorry to Bother You. Photo by Pete Lee.

By John M

Boots Riley, frontman of hip-hop groups The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, came to film with the purpose of conveying a very specific socio-political message. His 2018 filmmaking debut Sorry to Bother You, a fierce critique of capitalism and race relations in America, became one of the year’s most acclaimed films, though it was snubbed by the Oscars and other institutional gatekeepers.

Before he was the toast of Sundance, Boots Riley was already a household name among left-leaning hip-hop fans. His iconic group, The Coup, which was formed in Oakland in 1991,helped found the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective, a socially conscious organization composed of hip-hop groups who would put on “edutainment” concerts around the Oakland area.

Boots leaves no room for interpretation when describing his own particular brand of leftist politics. “I’m a communist,” he stated in an argument with a dismissive Bill Maher in 2002, on the latter’s show Politically Incorrect. His politics informed the lyrics and themes of The Coup, with the group’s albums being titled Kill My Landlord, Genocide & Juice, and Steal This Album. (The Coup also contributed the soundtrack to Sorry to Bother You.) From 2006-2010, Boots served with fellow leftist Tom Morello, guitarist of Rage Against The Machine, as the vocalist for supergroup Street Sweeper Social Club.

Sorry to Bother You is loosely based on Boots’ own experience as a telemarketer, dealing with the precariousness and humiliation of working-class life in America. The screenplay was written in 2012, but it took years of hustling and networking for Boots to finally get the film produced and distributed. Perhaps this was for the best, since the film’s message is far more resonant in the current moment, in which young Americans are broadly rejecting capitalism, than it would have been in 2012.

Times have changed since Boots began his socialist activism. The 2002 footage of Boots being shouted down by a smug Bill Maher and a panel of white millionaire celebrities now feels horribly dated. But the lyrics of Boots Riley and The Coup feel more prescient than ever. “The Guillotine”, a single from the album Sorry to Bother You, was originally released in 2012, but it feels more like an anthem for 2020: “We got your war. We’re at the gates. We’re at your door. We got the guillotine, you better run”.

Please enjoy this video for “Long Island Ice Tea,” also from Sorry to Bother You. In the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, the creative animation by Kelly Gallagher depicts violent clashes between the police and protestors as Riley raps about the intoxicating power of mass protest and solidarity against racism and facsism. The song is also, indisputably, a banger.

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Red Letter spotlights editor, former MWG OC