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An Annoying Paradox for Communist Rappers

Boots Riley of Street Sweeper Social Club again fails to reconcile his revolutionary faith with his profession.

by
Dave Swindle

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November 30, 2012 - 4:31 pm
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Back in June of 2009, my friend Jimmy and I attended the NINJA tour, a double show of Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction with a new band called Street Sweeper Social Club as the opener. I wrote at the time:

One of the songs we heard was from the leftist band Rage Against the Machine, no doubt because the evening’s opening act was a new group called Street Sweeper Social Club, co-founded by Rage guitarist Tom Morello. As we finished our drinks, stuck the cooler back in the car, and began walking toward the concert I said to Jimmy, “You know even though I understand now that the guys in Rage Against the Machine are a bunch of Stalinists I still enjoy their music.” The same sentiment could be said of Morello’s new effort.

Street Sweeper Social Club is a joint project of Morello and Raymond “Boots” Riley, the lead singer of the radical hip-hop group the Coup. And Riley is so far to the left that he makes Rage lead singer Zack de la Rocha look like Pat Buchanan. Throughout Street Sweeper’s short set Riley declared his political positions, at one point arguing that the government needs to have “a people’s bailout, not a corporate bailout.” They also played a cover of the popular M.I.A. song “Paper Planes,” a catchy track that’s become the leftist anthem of late.

Riley’s quite open and blunt about his political religion:

“I am a communist. I have been a communist/socialist since I was 14 years old. I think that people should have democratic control over the profits that they produce. It is not real democracy until you have that. And the plain and simple definition of communism is the people having democratic control over the profits that they create. When you first have a revolution, you are heading into socialism. People who were against communism have defined communism for us. People that are for communism and who have dedicated their lives and given their lives to giving people power, they are the ones that created the concept.”

Riley hasn’t shown up on my radar much since, at least until the other day when one of my Marxist friends shared this interview with him from Mark Maynard. Here are a few choice selections for PJ Lifestyle readers’ comedic enjoyment.

First, Boots explains why it’s OK for a communist to sell his music to Fox for an episode of The Simpsons but not to K-Mart for an advertising jingle:

MARK: I’m curious as to where you draw the line. You mentioned earlier that folks in the Progressive Labor Party had told you that no artistic endeavor could come out of the Capitalist system and have any meaning, or something along those lines. And you pursue this line as a career. But you draw a line at advertising…

BOOTS: I didn’t believe them (that nothing good could come from works produced within the system)… In reality, that’s where music comes in. It’s advertising. Music is licensed to TV shows. It’s advertising. TV shows are there to keep people watching, so they’ll watch commercials. So, the music that’s licensed to them helps that to happen. And we do that.

MARK: Yeah. You’ve done that. You’ve written music for the Simpsons, and done other stuff. But yet, when it comes to selling a song to Levi’s, you’ve said something like, “That’s a line that I won’t cross.” And I’m curious about that line, and where you draw it. Like you say, the TV show is there to sell ads, and you work with them. So, that line is kind of fuzzy… I’m just wondering what your thought process is. Do you consider, for instance, the good stuff you could do with the money that you’d receive from selling a song to a company, or the fact that it would get your music out to a broader audience? I guess what I’m asking is, how firm is that line?

BOOTS: Well… for instance, K-Mart offered us a bunch of money for the Magic Clap. They wanted to make it a part of their main commercial ad campaign for the fall. So, you’d turn on the TV, and you’d hear, “K-Mart, Magic Clap,” forever. And you’d think of K-Mart when you hear that song. And do I want to spend my life with that? Like, the job market is hard out there, but… that would erase a lot of shit, you know? If I were going to try to make money, I could probably think of some other things to do, that weren’t music-related. If I did that, though, I’d reach more of an audience, but people would be thinking of that song, or whatever it is, as connected to that group. So, you know, when they offer The Coup money, they’re not only offering The Coup that. They’re buying a group. They’re buying an idea, you know? The idea that, “Even these dudes, are behind this product.”

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Next Boots explains why it’s OK for a communist to participate in an evil exploitative system like capitalism:

MARK: I know that Bill Maher gave you a hard time about it on his show, and he also, as I recall, said something about you being a Communist, like “people who sell records aren’t Communists.” Are you getting better at answering those kinds of challenges now, after having heard them for a couple of decades?

BOOTS: The idea of wanting to make a revolution…. You have to be in the system to do it. You can’t say, “You can’t be a Communist and work retail.” If you work in an automotive factory, you’re participating in Capitalism, but how else do you organize anyone, if you’re not part of it? Folks that say stuff like that either don’t understand, or they’re looking for a quick retort. The reality is that what people are saying is not that they don’t want to participate, but that they don’t want other people to be affected. I don’t want other people to be affected by Capitalism. I feel that, in reality… and I may be deluding myself.… I’m a pretty crafty dude. I can figure out how to survive. I could figure out how to be the crab that climbs up the barrel, or whatever. But I don’t want for there to be a barrel. I don’t want everybody else to get cooked. And that’s the point.

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