Boots Riley on ‘Sorry to Bother You,’ political organizing and making a difference

Jan. 7, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

Boots Riley might have previously been best known as a self-described “communist rapper,” but his new film, “Sorry to Bother You,” has been making a splash in the cinematic community after premiering last January at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson and Steven Yeun, “Sorry to Bother You,” marks Riley’s writing and directorial debut.

At a special screening and talkback at Cubberley Auditorium, Riley spoke on the narratives of exploitation and labor in “Sorry to Bother You.” The Stanford Daily also had the opportunity to speak with Riley about his art and the making of “Sorry to Bother You” in an exclusive interview.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): You come from a background of radical leftist political organizing. Do you see the mainstream success of “Sorry to Bother You” as at odds with the social justice work you do, or is it more the case that the mass appeal of “Sorry to Bother You” is giving you a larger platform to share your politics with a wider audience?

Boots Riley: Well, yeah — it’s definitely given it a larger platform. I don’t see mainstream success as at odds with social justice, because the whole idea is that we want more people to be thinking about these ideas, whether it’s me getting a larger platform, or even if I didn’t get a larger platform for other things. What we’re trying to do is — sometimes what’s been seen as social justice work or radical activism has been influenced a lot by punk culture, which is like, “That’s my band! Nobody better know about this!”, which is at odds with actual class struggle that comes from a viewpoint that has subtracted class struggle from it. If we what we need to do is actually organize the working class to overthrow a ruling class, and we can’t, it’s not something precious, and it’s not about a few people just waking everyone up. It’s about people, us showing people where their actual point of power is so that there can be a mass radical militant labor movement that is combined with a social justice movement that is able to withhold labor as a tactic and strategy for social change.

TSD: Along the same lines, do you see your art innately as activism? Or do you see art as a meaningful way to pursue activism, or how do you balance the two?

BR: I mean, I don’t know exactly what activism is, like with these different words. Activism is a word, I think, that has come about in the decades where the left has been focused on spectacle more than anything else, where movements have turned into just an informational thing, like, “We’re mad about this. Look at how many people we have who don’t like this.” And that’s not what social movements have been for the last hundred years. That’s only for the last few decades, and so, activism has come up meaning where people see that as something where I do this event, and then I’m coming to this event, and you’re an organizer to go to events or to get people to these events.

But that’s an activist, or whatever. As opposed to, if we understand that what we’re trying to do is get people to organize in their daily lives, not just show up after work, or not just show up on Saturdays, but where people are spending most of their day, which is at work, trying to pay the bills. Those individual struggles that people are in are really class struggles that the left has been ignoring for a long time, and we ask people, we’re like, “Why aren’t people doing this? They’re so apathetic! They’re not getting involved!” But they’re involved! We just aren’t where they are, where we’re supposed to be. So much of the left has hid in art and academia because what we’ve seen put out there is what the left, is what radicals are supposed to do, even if it’s breaking windows or whatever, because, like, “We’re making a statement. We’re showing how bold we are, right?”

And that’s not what it takes to build an actual movement or change the system. Many people are like, “Oh! If what I’m doing is just showing how bad things are, showing how people are fed up, then my art is the same as activism.”

But I’m not trying to be the same as them. That’s not my goal. My goal is to help stuff that gets people to organize in their neighborhood, or on their job, things like that, which isn’t about necessarily just getting to these events. We need spectacle as well, but the thing that we need is something that’s nothing like what I’m doing. What we need are people that are going to get jobs at places and organize them, among people who don’t agree with them. Because it’s easy to be like, “Hey, let’s put our flagpole down! Everybody who agrees with me come over here.” We need that, too, but that’s not the kind of organizing that’s going to get us where we need to go. We need to go into these job sites, and maybe there’s a couple people that kind of agree with us. Maybe not at all. And we need to figure out how to build with folks and get them to the place where they’re fighting.

TSD: We would both consider ourselves practicing artists, and a lot of people in our lives kind of see a dichotomy between “good art” and “political art.”

BR: Between “good art” and “political art”?

TSD: Yeah. And I don’t know if that dichotomy is present in your philosophy of making new art, but do you have any advice about creating art that’s both interesting and entertaining while also being meaningful?

BR: Well, I will say this: that everything is political. There’s a viewpoint that comes across in it, and that’s political. We just don’t see it as political when it doesn’t go against the status quo. If you have art that just … often, there’s art and you only see the aesthetic of it because it’s saying what you hear everyday anyway. So you’re never going to think about what it’s saying. That is very political. So I would say that the dichotomy is not between “good art” and “political art.” The dichotomy is a different line between art that goes against the status quo and art that doesn’t.

I would say that there is also a lot of art that I don’t think is good art that maybe some do, where the artist has no other passion other than doing something that people want to see, or hear, or something like that. And if that artist doesn’t have a passion that’s bigger than their art, that art is going to be shitty, right? They’re just going to be making art about making art, and that can only go a couple of times. They might do something interesting at some point. But I would say this — nobody likes to be talked down to. Some of the mistakes that people make when they’re trying to make revolutionary art, or art that’s going against the status quo, is that they believe the media’s idea that people don’t care. The truth is that most people want a different world.

And so, with my art, I think we avoid the preachiness, because I already know that people agree with me. It’s not about me teaching them any particular codewords or anything like that. Like I don’t care what words you use or whatever. I care what your feeling is behind is, what your meaning is behind it. Everything else we can, like, as the Zapatistas say, make the path while walking. We can figure that out. I’m not getting caught up in these little things. I’m getting caught up in what the feeling is behind changing these things. I think what is seen as, you know, bad “political art” is often stuff where they’re preaching to people and that sometimes comes from people not having worked in organizations or worked with people in understanding where folks are at. Because when you understand where folks are at, you understand that even when folks say they disagree with you, sometimes it’s around something, a word or an aesthetic or some tribal sort of thing, that really doesn’t have to do with the basic idea of what we’re talking about. And when you understand that, then you talk to people in a different way. Then, when you understand that people agree with you, then all you’re doing is noticing things, as opposed to shoving it down their throat. And that observation becomes something that people feel like they’re sharing with you as opposed to being yelled at, you know. I think that changes the way the art is made. That changes what one focuses on.


Contact AnQi Yu at anqiyu ‘at’ and Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’

Olivia Popp was a managing editor of Arts & Life for volumes 251 through 254 and the editor-at-large for The Stanford Daily's board of directors for volumes 254 and 255. She hails from Michigan and enjoys science fiction TV shows, independent film festivals, and the Bay Area theater scene.

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