“Tell Homeland Security We Are the Bomb”: Boots Riley’s Rhymes and Revolutionary Philosophy

Boots Riley, performing in Mansfield, MA.Boots Riley, performing in Mansfield, MA. (Photo: sdowen/Flickr)

Seated cross-legged on a table during a panel discussion in early July at the Socialism 2015 Conference in Chicago, sports writer Dave Zirin interviewed hip-hop artist Boots Riley, whose new book, “Tell Homeland Security We Are the Bomb,” reflects the rapper’s sense of humor and optimistic revolutionary perspective. The book contains lyrics and commentaries on songs spanning the author’s musical career of more than two decades.

At the conference, Riley discussed an instructive personal note included in the book about how before he wanted to be a revolutionary, he wanted to be Prince – but he later realized he really just wanted to feel like his life mattered.

Boots Riley - Tell Homeland Security We Are the Bomb(Image: Haymarket Books)Bringing together revolutionary political ideas with deeply personal memories and desires such as these, Riley’s new book conveys an unflinching – if also satirical – anti-capitalist worldview. He wants to revive historical materialism, and the book is filled with calls for collective control over the means of subsistence.

“So you know, it’s trying to get across the idea that we’re talking about material things when we talk about revolution,” he wrote in his book. “We’re actually talking about material resources that are created by the people but not justly distributed.”

His philosophy and style are sort of what you would get if Lenin would have been funnier and a lyricist, or if C.L.R. James would have written his seminal subaltern studies in sets of solid 16 bars.

Riley’s philosophy reemerges in lyrics for the song “Magic Clap,” from The Coup’s latest album, “Sorry to Bother You,” released in 2012.

‘”The Magic Clap is that sound that happens at the moment when thought leads to action,” he explains. “So it’s supposed to represent that quantitative to qualitative leap, that’s kind of what it’s talking about.”

That principle of dialectical materialism contends constant change below the level of appearance enters into the realm of perception when human ideas inform practical activity against the system.

The song also couples romance with revolution. Radical politics and personal intimacy are sometimes cast as incompatible, but Riley’s lyrics suggest the two can be mutually reinforcing.

It’s like a hotwire, baby, / when we put it together / when the sparks fly / we’ll ignite the future forever / this is the last kiss martin ever gave to coretta / it’s like paparazzi picture when I flash my beretta / I got scars on my back / the truth on my tongue / i had the money in my hand when that alarm got rung / we wanna breathe fire and freedom from our lungs / tell homeland security / we are the bomb.

The printed lyrics, even removed from “the beats they were created to ride,” as Adam Mansbach writes in the foreword to the book, presents readers a rhythmic rebellion against conditions that keep Eros suppressed. The gravitas-dripping affect oozes in songs like “Bullets and Love” from The Coup’s 2006 album, “Pick a Bigger Weapon,” where Riley raps: “I’m a walkin contradiction / like / bullets and love mixin’ / Slur my words / with perfect diction / I’m guilty of my convictions.”

It reappears in tracks like “IJustWannaLayAroundAllDayInBedWithYou,” with his reflection: “S’posed to be punctual / and not keep the boss waitin / But the sheet’s sweatin / and the ceiling’s pulsatin / Music from the birds and cars with beat / Stop pause repeat / the stars release / Y’know most of my time belongs to the boss / Baby hold on tight / this is ours at least.”

His book is replete with examples of what capital demands of and denies the majority of a distorted humanity. Simultaneously, it showcases how The Coup conveys a constant and compelling human struggle for dignity and realization of desire against systematic dehumanization.

Riley provides a poetic projection beyond the established order, pointing to seeds of a better society already sprouting. He uses deft metaphor and puns, but more than just wordplay, his self-effacing humor highlights the irony in a system subject to change.

The song “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO,” spelled out in the book, does just that: “Do your cheeks have elasticity? / Did they cut off yo lectricity? / Did you scream and yell explicitly? / Force the boss into complicity!” He adds: “Suck this game in slow / it’s the creeper / If you’s a janitor / get a street sweeper,” which is a line that inspired the name for the group he formed with guitarist Tom Morello, Street Sweeper Social Club. Lyrics to songs on the group’s two albums are also featured in the Haymarket Books publication.

As Riley notes in the book, a street sweeper is an automatic shotgun, “a very, very savage weapon that actually was first sold en masse to South African police in the 80s.” He and Morello chose the name because their music functions as a weapon against class oppression, although Riley usually prefers his ammunition in a funnier form.

In The Coup’s “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO,” the corporate executive is killed not by rebels with pitchforks but by greed, by the ruthless self-interest demanded by the institutional role. Most of The Coup’s songs are a far cry from some dogmatic call for a dictatorship of the proletariat – because that doesn’t make for good music.

The song “The Guillotine,” from The Coup’s latest album, facetiously cautions the ruling class, “We got the guillotine, you better run,” but it also eschews literal didacticism.

“It doesn’t matter how many of the ruling class you kill; if you have the same system, then there will be more of them coming,” he qualified in his commentary on the track. “It is about the power that the working class has to cut the head off the system, to get rid of the ruling class entirely by changing the system.”

The artist’s optimism is predicated on people’s capacity for systemic change, which implies democratizing control of property and wealth. His verses and anecdotes make clear that implies recovery of collective agency through class struggle:

They got armies turnin bullets into gold / They got the hookers turnin tricks in the cold / And everytime the police kicks in the do / An angel gas-brakes-dips in the O / And even if a D-boy flips him a O / It ain’t enough to buy shit anymo / Sleep in the doorway, piss on the floor / Look in the sky wait for missiles to show / It’s finna blow, cuz / They got the TV—we got the truth / They own the judges and we got the proof / We got hella people—they got helicopters / They got the bombs and we got the—we got the / We got the guillotine.

Throughout the book, Riley suggests real knowledge has to relate to people’s actions in the world, but not just that. Real knowledge occurs when people act against the world as it currently operates in order to transform it.

He writes that the educational system as it exists now usually gives us a bunch of facts with an incorrect analysis,” “using our education in ways that aren’t helpful to us or humanity,” as it offers “a skewed view of the world because education as it stands stays away from having a class analysis.”

The Coup’s song “Strange Arithmetic” takes that pedagogy to task.

Economics is the symphony of hunger and theft / Mortar shells often echo out the cashing of checks / In Geography class, its borders, mountains and rivers / But they will never show the line between the takers and givers / Algebra is that unique occasion / In which a school can say that there should be a balanced equation / And then Statistics is the tool of the complicit / To say everybody’s with it and that you’re the only critic.

But the artist does not just criticize. He prefers to make songs evoking hope rather than doom and gloom because he remains “very optimistic about the people’s ability to change the world.”

Riley’s words consistently flout the political fatalism that normalizes affluence amidst mass poverty as a natural or necessary form of human arrangements. Consciously constructing tongue-in-cheek jabs and “beats that DJs could play,” not only appeals to a wider audience attracted to the rhythm. His book suggests it also excites people who do not get to enjoy life a lot under capitalism – a key to serious anti-capitalist strategy.

In the song “Long Island Iced Tea, Neat,” about a post-rebellion celebration at a bar, Riley raps about an alcohol-laden mixed drink, minus any ice to water it down.

“I’ll have a Long Island Ice Tea, neat,” he says to start the song, continuing: “Or whatever kind of poison knocks me back in my seat / Cuz a little earlier we was out in that street / The police tried to smash and they felt defeat / You know they got no idea what they done unleashed / Keep my card open but it’s done deceased / Them thiefs wanna talk when they cash decrease / Here’s a toast to the folks who let actions speak.”

The song itself emerged out of his experiences with newly acquainted comrades from the Occupy movement in 2011.

“There were a couple of bars that everyone would go to after some of the bigger early Occupy Oakland events, and there was a feeling of being in some historical moment and that, it wasn’t a somber occasion, it wasn’t all serious even though we knew that the moment was serious, people were becoming friends, making friends with each other,” he wrote. “And there were a few bars around downtown Oakland that would get flooded after each one. I think that actually led to people coming back.”

That nightlife is also how he started getting involved in Occupy. Andrej Grubačić, anarchist theorist and chair of the Anthropology and Social Change Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies, would ask Riley – who is an adjunct professor in Grubačić’s department and his friend – to go to the bar, and then he would insist they stop at Occupy Oakland on the way. The encampment, however, was not along the way at all. They went regardless.

Riley recalls how the camaraderie built at the occupation and over beverages helped overcome ideological factions within the Occupy movement.

Echoing the messages in many of “The Coup” beats detailed in his book, he stressed the importance of organizing around class lines in the Black community. Capitalism produces both a ruling class and a permanent underclass, and Riley said these arrangements must be challenged because they are largely responsible for the systematic police violence against Black people.

The system needs unemployment because it puts downward pressure on wages, Riley told those in attendance at the conference in Chicago. Yet unemployed people need to eat. This means there must be an illegal economy in existence enabling the superfluous population to survive, but that illicit business is inevitably met with violence from the state. All business requires violence to protect it, Riley explained. Legal business has the state to serve that purpose. Illegal business must regulate itself with violence as well – illegal business is where most street violence comes from. The only way to stop street violence would be to get rid of the need for the illegal economy. As people hustle to survive in the informal economy, deadly and demeaning encounters with law enforcement occur.

Somber reflection on those realities can be critical for future struggles. But a look at Riley’s book and even a quick listen to his music reveals that while radical love comes with pain, it produces parody and pleasure in concert. Revolutionaries will no doubt want to add his book to their libraries already filled with dense tomes by the likes of Marx, Gramsci and Fanon. But lest fans get it twisted and peg him as some self-anointed leader, he enjoins us even on the cover to “Tell Homeland Security We Are the Bomb.”