The hip hop artist and director of Sorry to Bother You gets candid about Oscars, Kanye West, and why they don’t teach socialism in schools
“Stick to the script” may be the reoccurring line in Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry To Bother You, but, ironically, it couldn’t be further from his truth. As the radical frontman of 90s hip hop group, The Coup, Riley has never been afraid to disturb the status quo – be it with his firm left-wing political stance or his distrust in global tech giants. After 25 years of lyrical activism, Riley is turning his attention to revolutionising Hollywood with his sharp criticism of capitalism and white supremacy.
Already hailed as a cult classic after its release in the US earlier this year, Riley’s feature is a sobering dark comedy inspired by his own time as a telemarketer. Starring Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield as its lead and Tessa Thompson as his stellar supporting act, Sorry To Bother You cleverly explores the ruthless nature of commercialism in a bizarre, dystopian version of Oakland, California (the first-time filmmaker’s real-life hometown). With a heavily symbolic narrative, the plot explores existential angst, and highlights the idea of ‘white voice’: a ‘performance’ of everything a white person should sound like, opposing all things stereotypically ‘black.’
Here, Riley talks Dazed through the relationship between the racist capitalist notion of “white voice”, his lack of surprise at Kanye West’s support for Donald Trump, and why he doesn’t understand (but appreciates) the new wave of hip hop.
We don’t usually get to see black characters on screen dealing with existential angst as Cassius does in Sorry to Bother You. Is this something you see a lot among black men and women?
Boots Riley: Yes definitely, and I think it’s something that makes people human. Often black characters get put into these storylines where we’re going through a material struggle like trying to pay the bills, having to save uncle’s house (like Cassius), or something along those lines where all of our motivations are these material things. We’re constantly shown black folks trying to hustle like that there’s no humanness to them. I wanted to show that human side that we all go through too.
The film of course also highlights the obstacles to black success in America. What does the ‘white voice’ represent to you?
Boots Riley: In the film I have Langston (played by Danny Glover) explain the performance of whiteness. He says that the white voice doesn’t really exist. It’s just what they think they should sound like. It’s what they wish they sounded like. It’s based on this idea that if you sound like that, then everything is OK, you’ve got everything taken care of, and there’s a performance in that. Often we investigate blackness by looking at why black men and women are doing this, and we investigate what that means. Is it family structure? Lack of education? Are people trying to be extra masculine? But really what’s being dealt with are tropes of blackness and racist tropes of people of colour in general.
In their minds, black folks have a culture that is insufficient to survive in this society. They’re lazy, they’re savage, and they’re just not prone to education. All of this is basically to say that poverty is the fault of the impoverished. It’s the belief that it is all of these bad choices that is causing them to be poor, but in reality capitalism must have poverty in order to exist.
“For capitalism to work, there must be an army of unemployed people ready to take the jobs that are there” – Boots Riley
You can’t have full employment under capitalism, because if there were full employment then everyone could demand whatever they wanted and get away with it because there would be nobody else out there hungry for your job. For capitalism to work, there must be an army of unemployed people ready to take the jobs that are there. Places like The Wall Street Journal openly and publicly start getting worried when unemployment goes down because that means wages go up and when wages go up to a certain point stocks fall.
But in the US for instance, the biggest part of the working class is the white working class. How do you tell them that their lack of funds and that their poverty is their own fault? You don’t. You show them the example of the ‘other.’ You teach those lessons through pointing the finger at the ‘other’ and so their performance of whiteness ends up being about differentiating themselves and saying, “I’m not like them.”
You have said publicly that you believe leading social media companies manipulate algorithms to control our views on particular topics. Could you explain this some more?
Boots Riley: Think about it, even with the marketing of this film. There’s a service that films use in the marketing process, whether that’s YouTube or Twitter or any of these big companies. And when you agree to use them, they allow themselves to turn on your phone and listen to you. Even when you’re just sitting at home. They listen to conversations and they collect information. And what we know they do, because they sell it to other companies, is say to brands, “Look, these 50,000 in this area were talking about black hats and movies so if you want to sell them a black hat for going to the movies, here are the 50,000 people you can sell it to.”
Now they’re selling that information to whoever they want. So let’s say for instance if there are people talking about their ideas or opinions on a particular issue, like rent control for example. They’re saying, “I think most people want rent control”, but you want those people to think that nobody else agrees with them. So what you do now is manipulate what those people consume by sending them all the tweets and articles that make them think everybody’s against rent control. That way, they’ll start believing that this is just what the world thinks. I’m just saying that’s what could happen, I’m not accusing anybody of doing it.
As an activist, how do you keep the hope alive when you’re constantly let down by or not fairly represented in the political climate?
Boots Riley: Well, my hope is not in the score on the board, my hope is on who is in the batter’s box. In other words, it is in the future of what’s happening. For instance, in the United States, there were two surveys that came up with the same results: one was done by Harvard and one was done by a right-wing think tank. They surveyed 4200 millennials in the US and one of the questions asked was: “Do you wish this was a socialist word?” 51% of them said yes. The media would have you believe that everyone is to the right, but the truth is that there’s 330 million people in the United States, and 60% voted in the last election. The reason the rest of them didn’t vote is because they are to the left of the democratic divide, and feel like nothing can work because they’ve seen what happens. So my hope is in people organising activism. I think every single human being has a responsibility to make the world better, it doesn’t matter what their job is.
2018 has been a big year for black movies. Does you think this will be reflected in award season wins and how much does it matter to you?
Boots Riley: I’m new to all of this, so I don’t know, but of course everyone wants to be recognised for their work so I would love to get a nomination. It would be beyond my expectations.
Awards help you get more known, so it matters to the ones that are nominated because it’s a great promotion point. I don’t think Moonlight would have gotten out here if it wasn’t for that Oscar win. But not being nominated doesn’t mean that your work hasn’t had a profound influence on the world. I know how those things work, and people are voting based on what they know and what they’ve seen. My band has been out for 25 years and we’ve never gotten close to a Grammy nomination. But there are people that tell me that our music has changed their lives, or inspired them to get involved in movements.
When we did Occupy (a socio-political movement against social and economic inequality), so many people came up to me saying, “I wouldn’t have been involved in Occupy had your music not gotten me prepared for this”. So that had a definite direct effect on the world. As a matter of fact, the reason why a lot of these movies are being made and the Black Lives Matter movement came into existence is because of the stuff that was done with Occupy. It’s all connected, so I have never felt bad or disheartened that we didn’t get a Grammy nomination.
“A lot of hip hop has just the same values that were taught in high school. In high school, we’re taught that if you’re rich, it’s because you are better than the people that aren’t rich” – Boots Riley
Speaking of music, as a hip hop artist, what are your thoughts on the new wave of the genre?
Boots Riley: For me, there’s a lot of it that I don’t get. Then there’s some of it that isn’t really new to me, it’s the same stuff that was out back in the day, only we thought it was garbage. People used to rap like that, but we just thought they were weak.
With that being said, I know that there are different languages and aesthetics that I’m not supposed to get. I’m attached to certain things because they came out at a certain time. Somebody could make something that’s genius that I just don’t get, and speaking to things that I’m not connected to. I am very aware that there are things that may be paying attention to some principles that I’m not paying attention to, or putting any value in, and I’m fine with accepting that.
I was recently on a panel with George Clinton from Parliament-Funkadelic, and he said, “When I hear some new music that annoys me by young people, then I think it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
Finally, I know he has since cut ties with Donald Trump, but as someone who uses his music to make social and political commentary, was it disappointing to see a fellow hip hop artist like Kanye West co-signing him ahead of the recent midterm elections?
Boots Riley: Kanye’s lyrics have always had the same politics. I mean what the hell was “Gold Digger”? People get on Too Short, but that could have been a Too Short song.
A lot of hip hop has just the same values that were taught in high school. In high school, we’re taught that capitalism is great, and if a teacher doesn’t even feel that way and they teach you that capitalism isn’t great, then they can get fired legally. So we’re taught that how it works is through a merit-based system. If you’re rich, it’s because you are better than the people that aren’t rich, and that’s the only reason why. We’re told, “You better try to get smart and go through these certain steps to become rich.”
That’s exactly what “gangster rap” is saying. So all these lyrics are very supportive of capitalism and this social Darwinism, because it’s what we’re told in high school. Kanye’s lyrics have always put this forward, so his support for Trump was never contradictory to what he was putting out there.
Sorry To Bother You hits UK cinemas on December 7