Have you ever been near a gun going off? You have no choice, said Boots Riley. You have to run.
Riley grew up first in Detroit, then in Oakland. He was a radical activist, along with his family, before he was the rapper he's known as now. He fronts the fierce political group the Coup, which is playing a free concert tonight at 5:30 at the Mural Amphitheatre at Seattle Center. Last night at the University Book Store, 44-year-old Riley described the moment he discovered that music could actually move people.
Those people, in Oakland one day in 1989, heard the gun of a police officer going off. By instinct, they ran. They started running away from the mother and child who were hit and hurt.
At some point, somebody started chanting the lyrics of the song that was sweeping the country right then: Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." Fight the power, they started. More voices joined in. Fight the power, fight the power, fight the power.
At some point, that crowd stopped running. Then, that same crowd turned back around and started running again: toward the mother and child, toward the police officers with guns. Somebody got the woman and child into a car to the hospital. Some other people turned over the two police cars.
The police then were the ones with no choice. They had to run away, on foot.
"That was the turning point," Riley said. "That was very clear to me, that this was the turning point when I saw that music could make that kind of difference. So I thought, 'I'm not good at rapping. So I'm going to have to figure this out.'" Two years later, still holding down his day job working for UPS, he went into a studio and recorded a track. That's the year, 1991, when the Coup were born, and released their first album, The EP. Two years later came Kill My Landlord.
Last night, Riley was at University Book Store because he has a new book out from that gem of a lefty publisher, Haymarket. The book, titled Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb, is mostly his lyrics, which are poems ("Our pay's unstable and under the table/We like free speech but we love free cable/We're taught from the cradle the Bill Gates fable/Which leads to high speeds in Buick LeSables"), and an extensive interview and a few other writings.
Joining him at the front of the room were Geo of Blue Scholars and Gabriel Teodros, who described their own histories of activism, art, and punishment at the hands of a system that's literally beat them down. They were interviewed by Jesse Hagopian, the Seattle teacher/activist who was stone-cold pepper-sprayed by a Seattle police officer while on his cell phone at the MLK march this year. (The entire incident was captured on video, and Ansel Herz wrote about it here on Slog.)
At one point, Riley invited Kimya Dawson up to the stage, having seen her in the audience. She's just released a seven-minute Black Lives Matter song, "At the Seams."
The whole conversation lasted two hours. Riley told histories he's passionate about, about American communist radicals in the 1920s and '30s (before they shushed themselves so as not to give the US any trouble in its Russian-allied fight against Hitler), militant labor unions around the US and the world that crossed trade boundaries and state borders, an educational system that teaches students just enough to get them a job but not enough to understand why a whole group of other people will never get jobs (because capitalism, with its need for unemployment and all that breeds), and a nonprofit industrial complex that's arisen to convince people that the system's not broken, you just need better access to it.
At one point he was asked about the recent BLM protesters who interrupted Bernie Sanders in Seattle, and he gave a 20-minute answer in which he never answered the question directly—which left me with the impression that he doesn't think that's the right question to ask. Rather, he answered a different question, and it was the question: How come more people aren't moved to join in society-changing movements? His answer: because they don't think it will make any difference. His answer to that: The struggle has to be about class in addition to all else, because the only real power of the people is not in who we elect but in whose profits we can interrupt in order to force negotiation.
In his description of the New Left, he explained the move away from labor organizing and the rise in the use of students—and the rise of the importance of spectacle.
These days, you take to the streets. But then what?
"So we call these things demonstrations, right?" Riley said. "Why are they demonstrations? Well, they used to demonstrate the power that we had to shut down industry. They used to be like, this is a bunch of people on the street. It's only a demonstration, it's not the actual thing that we're gonna do. It's just the threat. But now, with spectacle becoming center stage, it was the thing. That was it. Get people into the streets. And it made it seem like that's what you had to do. ...All you have to do is get in the streets, and we'll shame the people in power."
At that point, the crowd laughed. Darkly.