Boots Riley is a veteran of Oakland’s political scene.  Frontman of hip hop group “The Coup,” Riley has lived in the area ever since his family moved there when he was young. As he grew up, he became interested in activism at an early age. In the mid 1990s, he co-founded a community organizing group called the Young Comrades, and later, he was an active participant in Occupy Oakland. This devotion to workers’ rights has been with him ever since, and influences much of his work. His latest project is the critically acclaimed film, Sorry to Bother You: A sci-fi drama about a young man working as a telemarketer in Oakland who encounters the pitfalls of corporate America first-hand. 

In my conversation with Riley, we talked about his film, the changing face of Oakland, and how real change can be enacted through grassroots organizing. Our interview has been edited and condensed. 

Alejandro Ramos: What impact were hoping Sorry to Bother You would have on its audience?

Boots Riley: I wanted to inspire people. I wanted to show where the leverage point of power is and that it exists with us and everything that we do all day, which is for many of us work. And even for those that aren’t working, that’s part of the whole thing too because the system must have a large group of unemployed people in order to work because that’s the only way that wages stay in check. If you have full employment under capitalism then anybody can demand whatever wage they want. 

So I wanted to put forward that how we do make social change is only going to really be effective on a mass scale when we utilize that leverage point of power, which is at the point of exploitation.

Ramos: The movie is set in Oakland, where you grew up. Can you tell me a little bit about the qualities of Oakland that inspire your work? 

Riley: [The movie is] just showing it for what it is, that you know there’s a lot of creative people, a lot of people struggling together, working together, and a lot of other beauty and ugliness and all of that wrapped into one. 

But it would be hard for me to speak in real terms about thing that stands out for me about the city most is. I’ve been here my whole life and it just is, you know. It’s kind of like asking what’s the best thing about your mother. You could come up with something but it would be leaving so much out. But I think, compared to other cities, one thing that does stand out is that people talk to each other. We haven’t lost that here. You know, you go to LA and people think it’s weird if you’re talking to them, saying hello.

An illustrated portrait of Boots Riley
(Brandon Harris)

Ramos: Is there anything that Oakland has lost, or anything specific that has changed since you grew up here?

Riley: Oh, a lot. A lot has changed. I mean, I go down the street and in some places it’s like a ghost town. Like there’s all this activity but a lot of the people that could have really enjoyed some of the new stuff we have were forced out. They’re not around. And some of those folks are around but you don’t see them in the same places, because they’ve just been forced out of their homes and they’re homeless. They live in different places than they were, and that’s because of unbridled development. No rent control. No working to have labor movements that keep wages higher. None of that stuff. Just whatever the developers want, we let them do it. 

Ramos: So then who is it up to to build the momentum to enact change? Is it up to elected officials? Is it up to the people?

Riley: It’s up to the people to form organizations. Organizations that can stop profit. 

You can start organizations or you can join them. To starting an organization, get two other people who you talk to that agree with you and develop a mission statement of what you’re going to do and look at ways to get more people involved with the campaigns that you decide to take up. But it’s all about taking up winnable campaigns, because those are the things that get more people involved.

Ramos: What about for people who mostly focus on elections and voting as their political action?

Riley: I think they’re missing some points. Because if that’s what you mostly focus on then you’re not understanding that the only way we have to make the elected officials do what we want them to do is by having a movement that is able to stop profit. Because we know that their policies are dictated by the people with money. Right? So, they can help if there’s a movement happening. There’s nothing for them to help if there’s no movement. 

Put it like this: affirmative action came in while Richard Nixon was in office. A right-wing asshole. But he didn’t do affirmative action because he just had one contradiction that was progressive. That happened because there was a giant movement happening that was shutting things down and [the government was] afraid of it. Afraid of it growing, you know.

[Another] big compromise would be the Civil Rights movement, and that definitely didn’t happen because everybody decided to put all their efforts into getting JFK elected. It happened because there was a movement happening. And somehow, since the 60s, people have been lied to that our best possibility comes from elections. 

Voting only takes a couple minutes. Do that, but don’t put hope in that. Put your faith and your hope and your effort into organizing movement that can stop profit.

And here’s the thing that has to happen to get officials elected. In order to get people to the polls, they have to lie to them. I’ve seen progressive folks do it. I remember there was a big antiwar movement going on. People were like okay we have to get Bush out of office, and the antiwar movement starting turning into a pro-Kerry movement…[they said] George W. Bush was pro-war and Kerry antiwar.

Kerry made it clear he was not antiwar, but it was the progressives that were like we gotta get him into office who lied to people about that. They did the same thing when getting Obama into office. So you ended up lying to people and giving them a distorted view of how power works, and who elected officials are, in order to win.

Ramos: So how do we get past the point of compromises and to the point of actual change?

Riley: Hopefully the compromises represent some kind of change that is materially registering. It’s about how you get those victories. Every victory is going to be some sort of compromise in the first place. Even if you have a revolution, there is still more to be done. It never stops, right? But the point is that the process by which you get those victories is the thing that lets you know where you can keep going, whether it’ll keep going or not.

The way we fight is as important as a victory. So it’s not all about compromises. It’s about what kind of organization are we building.

In Dialogue is a column in which Street Spirit speaks with community leaders.

Alejandro Ramos was formerly the Program Coordinator for Youth Spirit Artworks, and the Managing Editor of Street Spirit.