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The Musical Activism of Boots Riley

SNAPSHOT: When Occupy erupted, political artists had the choice either to walk the walk or quiet down

By Chris Faraone

Originally published in The Boston Phoenix (November 2012)

When Occupy erupted last year, politically aggressive artists had the choice either to walk the walk or quiet down. In hip-hop, for example, Kanye West remained silent even as police brutalized demonstrators in his sweet home Chicago. As characteristic as West’s cowardice, however, was the engagement of Boots Riley. The contrarian frontman of the Coup for two decades, Riley has rocked countless protests in his volatile native Oakland — both on stage and off. It wasn’t until Occupy, though, that he ever switched his microphone out for a bullhorn.

“It’s all part of the same plan,” says Riley, referring to his tandem roles as MC and activist. Most of the Coup’s new album, Sorry To Bother You (Anti-), was recorded before he dove fist-first into organizing with Occupy. “Usually when something’s taking me away from music, the logic I use to keep recording is that music gets to more people. But with Occupy Oakland, I couldn’t say that.”

It’s inevitable that Riley will return to street-side activism. For the moment, though, he’s pushing his new project: a delectably eclectic chaos that he describes as “danceable punk-funk.” After that, he’s starring in a dark indie comedy that he wrote about his old job as a telemarketer — also titled Sorry To Bother You — that features David Cross as his inner voice. Sounds pretty revolutionary in its own right.

Read more of Chris Faraone’s music archives here …