An Annoying Paradox for Communist Rappers

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.”


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.

Boots explaining how his attempt to jumpstart a revolutionary communist movement through his hip hop music has “gotten a lot better”:

MARK: Do you think we’re making any progress? Things have gotten a lot worse in a lot of ways since you started in 1991. Wealth inequality, for instance…

BOOTS: Really? In 1991, we were having demonstrations with ten people. So, things have gotten a lot better. Now we’ve got thousands of people, all with the idea that we need a systematic change, with class analysis being a part of it. Things have gotten better.

MARK: I wasn’t thinking about the numbers of people in the street. I was thinking about wealthy inequality, the fact that our public schools are being systematically dismantled…

BOOTS: The numbers are the only thing that matters, though. What matters is not how the state is working, or how the system is working, but the point at which the movement is that could change the system.

MARK: I can see you point, and there’s potential there. A movement is starting to build. But, at the same time, you see the public school system being systematically taken apart, our wealth being siphoned off by for-profit charter schools, the growing, racist “patriot” movement in America…

BOOTS: Yeah, and all of those things are going to happen as long as we don’t have a movement. So none of that surprises me. As long as you don’t have a movement, any of the gains that you make are going to be dismantled. And that’s why a revolutionary movement that fights for reform, on the way to making revolution, and sustains the movement… That’s why you chart your progress relative to how the movement is growing, not on how strong the system is that is attacking you.


Boots concludes by warning about the potential prison time for those joining his movement:

MARK: One last question… Were do we have the most leverage? Where should we be focusing right now, if we really want to make long term, systematic, sustainable change?

BOOTS: Well, it’s like we were talking about earlier. I think right now what people want are material gains. They need to see victories. And they need to see it done in a certain way. We need a radical, militant labor movement that uses direct action and work stoppages to gain some of these things. We need for it to be connected to the community, and not just built around wages. But using labor and work stoppages to effect change in other areas, that would normally be considered community things – community organizing. An example is how the ILWU shut down the port of Oakland in protest of the Oscar Grant verdict. They might have done it in a safe way, but that’s an example. And there need to be sympathy strikes. That’s got to become a tool. And union leaders are going to have to be down with going to jail, just like anyone else on the line is down for it…


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