“Nah, it’s got walls, and it’s not raining…”

For a rapper, activist, and filmmaker who has made a career out of radical political statements, Boots Riley is surprisingly soft spoken. We’re sitting in a backstage space little more spacious than a broom closet, next to a broken fan and a server-box like structure that hummed throughout the interview.

Riley, who once worked as a telemarketer in a cubicle just as cramped, seemed totally comfortable despite the lack of space. He did, however, look tired: he was on campus for a screening of Sorry to Bother You followed by a Q&A—it was neither the first nor the last in a series of Q&As he would hold in December alone to generate buzz for the movie in time for awards season.

Like most of his other work, Sorry to Bother You is overtly political. Riley described it as an “alternate reality” version of Oakland where underpaid telemarketers struggle against a large, corporate entity which refuses to pay them fairly. By and large, it’s a criticism of capitalism that weaves in commentary on race, protest artwork, and class along the way.

On paper, the premise of Sorry to Bother You doesn’t sound particularly enthralling—just getting funding for the movie was a challenge. Riley finished the original screenplay in 2012, but had no means of producing the movie himself. Hoping to generate buzz for the movie, he and his rap group The Coup released an album called Sorry to Bother You.

Things didn’t take off until writer Dave Eggers published the unproduced manuscript in McSweeney’s in 2014. Even then, investors themselves weren’t particularly willing to fund the movie: Riley was only able to produce the movie after he was accepted into Sundance’s screenwriting and directing labs.

“There’s no way to do anything in any other system because capitalism is the world.”

Riley readily acknowledges his luck in making Sorry to Bother You—the capitalist, investor-centric Hollywood market did, after all, nearly kill his movie’s chances of ever getting made.

“It’s just what it is; it’s what it has to be,” Riley says. “That’s the system that we’re living in. There’s no way to do anything in any other system because capitalism is the world.”

Through the film’s narrative, Riley hopes to offer a blueprint for combating the excesses of capitalism. Sorry to Bother You’s protagonist, Cassius Green—a play on the phrase “Cash is green”—is a broke, young black man living out of his uncle’s garage in Oakland. Facing eviction, he takes up a job in telemarketing, and soon realizes that he’s very, very good at it. Cash’s coworkers, in the meantime, struggle to form a labor organization that will help them secure fair wages.

These experiences are based loosely around Riley’s life: he worked telemarketing jobs sporadically in his early 20s, mostly to make ends meet—rapping and social justice organizing weren’t exactly lucrative professions. At the time, however, Riley had already discovered his passion for social justice: he’d joined the International Committee against Racism when he was just fourteen years old and the Progressive Labor Party a year later.

His passion for politics, Riley said, opened newfound artistic possibilities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

“Art subtracted from a movement is just spectacle.”

“I wouldn’t have an arts career otherwise. I think the thing that makes me innovate and find creative way to do things is because I have a goal—because I have a viewpoint and a reason to do it,” Riley said.

Riley seemed to wake up when I asked him about the politics of his art: too many artists nowadays, he said, are content with “making art for the sake of making art,” leading them to make the “worst kind of art.” In Riley’s world, all art is political—and all good art, by extension, is intentionally political. Bad art, by contrast, often subliminally upholds the status quo of a capitalist society without ever truly realizing it.

Or, as Riley put it: “Art subtracted from a movement is just spectacle.”

But even artists with political inclinations aren’t spared from his criticism.

One example he often cites to highlight the pitfalls of art subtracted from social movments is borrowed from art critic Ben Davis’s 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. In the early 2000s, Riley tells me, many artists sought to create anti-Iraq War artwork, including one prominent artist in New York. That artist in particular created an installation which highlighted the war’s destruction: it was “bloody and gory,” in Riley’s own words, and “filled with bodies that looked blown up.”

Though spectacular and certainly jarring, the artist’s work did little to affect people’s perceptions of the war. Riley explained that the problem lay in the artist’s basic approach.

“People working on anti-war movements understood that that wasn’t the problem, that people didn’t know or didn’t think that war was bloody. People thought there was nothing they could do about it.” Riley said. “Had that artist been involved in a movement, their art would have been focused on what can you do about it.”

This question of what can be done drives much of the plot of Sorry to Bother You and, to a larger extent, shaped the arc of Riley’s artistic career. His hip-hop group The Coup has always made overtly political music but, true to his word, Riley has gone beyond the music itself. In 1991, Riley founded the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective, a local rap collective which—among other things—took over a closed Oakland city council meeting and opened it to the public. Three years later, he even decided to take a temporary hiatus from making music to found the Young Comrades, a radical social justice organization whose victories include a campaign against Oakland’s “no cruising ordinance.”

Since then, Riley has remained a central figure in Oakland’s protest movements. He believes that movies like Sorry to Bother You are important pieces of artwork, but that changing material conditions requires the existence of an actual movement—like, say, Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter.

“I think hopefully it gives possibilities to movements—it gives an optimism that we can change things,” Riley said.  “It’s just like songs that talk about fighting back. It works not just because you relate to the song but because you know other people are listening too. It unites people in that way.”

Who’s your favorite musical artist right now?

You mean someone that’s living and making music right now? This is just off the top of my head, so it’s not really comparing: a guy named Van Hunt.

What do you like about him?

I think he’s the best lyric writer in R&B. His lyrics, his melodies—there’s an attention to the details that don’t normally get talked about in what would aesthetically be thought of as a love song and interactions between people that really sum up what human existence is. But [his music] still kind of seems like it could be in this genre that’s known for doing most of everything with the aesthetic as opposed to with the words.

What about your art? How would you describe yourself as an artist in one sentence?

It’d be a long, run-on sentence. I just would do an essay but take out the periods. I’d say, you know, I’m always looking at how we can better engage in life—how we can better engage with life, which is the same thing as looking for how we can change the world.

What would be your advice to an aspiring artist who cares a lot about social change?

Join an actual movement that has a vision for changing the world and is actually working on grassroots campaigns. And work on those with them. Don’t just interact with them as an artist—stop being an artist for a second, at least while you’re working, because when you interact with people and try to get them involved in the campaign, then you start understanding what the questions are that you need to be asking with your art, or answering with your art.

So in working with these movements, do you get a sense that there is hope?

Yeah, exactly. So much of art is just saying that something is wrong, and therefore it comes out bleak. Whether it’s visual art or music, so much of music that’s considered political music is like ‘everything’s fucked up, let’s get angry,’ you know? And if you have spent any time trying to get people involved in stuff around their neighborhood or around anything, you realize that anger isn’t what gets them out. It’s the idea that what you’re asking them to do could work.

That’s the clear thing. Anger can easily lead you to thinking nothing can change and it can just feed on itself, and it can exist and you can feel righteous without doing anything.

By: Kyle Wang

Photography By: Hannah Scott