Boots Riley

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Boots Riley
Boots Riley in a leather jacket.jpeg
Riley in 2010
Raymond Lawrence Riley

(1971-04-01) April 1, 1971 (age 51)
Years active1991–present
Musical career
OriginOakland, California, U.S.
WebsiteBoots Riley on Tumblr

Raymond Lawrence "Boots" Riley (born April 1, 1971), is an American film director, producer, screenwriter, rapper, and communist activist.[1][2] He is the lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. He made his feature-film directorial debut with Sorry to Bother You (released July 2018), which he also wrote.[3]

Early life[edit]

Riley was born in 1971 in Chicago into a family of social justice organizers.[4] He is the son of Walter Riley, an African-American attorney, and Anitra Patterson, whose father was African-American, while her mother (Boots' maternal grandmother) was a Jewish refugee from Königsberg who fled Europe with her parents as a teenager in 1938.[4] He is the second youngest of five siblings.

By the time Boots was one, his family moved to Detroit and when he was six they moved to Oakland,[4][5] where he later attended Oakland High School.[6] When the school faced cutbacks in the 1980s, 2000 of Oakland High's 2200 students protested by participating in a walkout organized by Riley and friends.[7] Interested in politics at a young age, Riley joined the International Committee Against Racism at age 14[8] and the radical Progressive Labor Party at age 15.[5]



Riley holding a microphone onstage
Riley performing in 2007

The Coup[edit]

In 1991, Riley founded the political hip-hop group The Coup with fellow United Parcel Service worker E-roc.[9] Along with rappers Spice 1 and Mopreme Shakur (then known as Mocedes), they released a song on a 1991 compilation album called Dope Like a Pound or a Key, released by Wax That Azz Records.[10] The group's DJ, Pam the Funkstress, joined in 1992.[11] Riley was both chief lyric writer and music producer of The Coup's albums.

In 1992, The Coup signed to Wild Pitch Records/EMI.[10] The group released their debut album Kill My Landlord in 1993. Two singles from that album were shown on national Black radio and received play on BET, Yo! MTV Raps: "Dig It" and "Not Yet Free".[10]

In 1993, E-40 released the video for "Practice Lookin' Hard", a song based around Riley's lyric, "I got a mirror in my pocket and I practice lookin' hard", from the song "Not Yet Free".[12] The video featured Riley singing the chorus while he, E-40, and Tupac Shakur reflected light into the camera from a handheld mirror while dancing around.[13]

In 1994, The Coup released their second album, Genocide & Juice. It featured guest appearances by E-40 and Spice-1. Fueled by video play and some radio play for the single "Fat Cats And Bigga Fish", the album shot up the charts, but stalled when EMI suddenly absorbed Wild Pitch.[14] At this point, E-roc left The Coup on amicable terms.[15]

1998's Steal This Album, released on indie label Dogday Records, was called "a masterpiece of slow-rolling West Coast funk" by Rolling Stone magazine.[16] The single from that album, "Me And Jesus The Pimp In a ‘79 Granada Last Night", was an eight-minute song about the grown-up son of a prostitute driving his mother's killer to a secluded place in which to murder him.[17] A novel, Too Beautiful For Words by Monique W. Morris, based on the story characters and descriptions in the song, was published by HarperCollins in 2000.[18] The album also featured a guest appearance by Del The Funky Homosapien on the track "The Repo Man Sings for You".

The group's fourth album, Party Music, was released on 75 Ark Records in 2001. It was re-released in 2005 by Epitaph Records. The original cover art depicted group members standing in front of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as they explode.[19][20] Riley is depicted pushing a button on a bass guitar tuner and DJ Pam the Funkstress is shown holding conductor's wands. The photo was taken in May 2001. The album was scheduled to be released just after the September 11, 2001 attacks. In response to the uncanny similarity of the artwork with the attacks, the album release was delayed until an alternative cover could be prepared. The album hit No. 8 in the 2001 Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll- the most important year-end critic's list, was named "Pop Album Of The Year" by The Washington Post, and "Hip-Hop Album Of The Year" by Rolling Stone. The album included a guest appearance by dead prez on the song "Get Up." Boots Riley released a controversial press release one week after the 9/11 events, which was later published in the book, Another World Is Possible. The press release stated that "last week's events were symptomatic of a larger backlash against U.S. corporate imperialism." The controversy surrounding the cover art, press release, and the lyrics from Party Music (specifically the song "5 Million Ways To Kill A CEO") led to Riley appearing on local network news affiliates all over the U.S. He also appeared on Fox News's Hannity and Colmes and ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. During this time, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin called Boots's lyrics "a stomach-turning example of anti-Americanism disguised as highbrow intellectual expression".[21] The Independent concluded it was "protest album of the year, by a million-man march."[22]

In 2006, The Coup released Pick a Bigger Weapon on Epitaph Records, featuring guest appearances by Tom Morello, Talib Kweli, Black Thought from The Roots, and Jello Biafra.[23]

Work with Tom Morello[edit]

In 2003, Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello invited Riley to be part of the "Tell Us the Truth Tour", which was meant to shed light on the monopolization of the media and the coming FTAA agreements.[24] The tour, hosted by Janeane Garofalo and Naomi Klein, featured acoustic performances by Riley, Morello, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Mike Mills, and Jill Sobule.[25][26]

In 2006, Morello approached Riley to form a band together under the name Street Sweeper. The duo, who later changed their name to Street Sweeper Social Club, releasing their self-titled debut album in 2009. They toured in support of it along with Nine Inch Nails and the recently reunited Jane's Addiction.[27] On May 24, a press release went out announcing Street Sweeper Social Club as one of the headliners of the 2010 Rock the Bells tour. Street Sweeper Social Club released The Ghetto Blaster EP in late July 2010.

Independent work[edit]

In 1991, the same year Riley co-founded The Coup, he and other activists and hip-hop artists created the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective.[28] The Collective put on "Hip-Hop Edutainment Concerts," which allied with and promoted the campaigns of community-based organizations like Women's Economic Agenda Project (WEAP), Copwatch, International Campaign To Free Geronimo Pratt, the Black Panther Alumni Association, and various anti-police brutality projects.[29] The Collective would use the growing popularity of their concerts to bring a large number of youth to take over a closed Oakland city council meeting and hold a public meeting.[30]

In 2005, Riley produced the score for an episode of The Simpsons entitled "Pranksta Rap".[31]

In 2007 and 2008, Riley toured heavily with New Orleans-based band Galactic.[32] The band performed The Coup songs behind Riley's vocals and they also performed their collaboration, "Hustle Up". In 2008, while performing with Galactic in Norfolk, VA, police interrupted the concert and Riley was charged with using "abusive language"—a charge that hadn't been laid in 26 years, and never before against a performer.[33]

In 2010 and 2011, Riley recorded with Ursus Minor on the album I Will Not Take "But" for an Answer, and toured with the group in France.[34]

Film and television[edit]

Boots Riley began working on a screenplay for "an absurdist dark comedy with aspects of magical realism and science fiction," inspired by his own time working as a telemarketer, which he finished in 2012.[35] In 2017, he was able to begin production on his screenplay for Sorry to Bother You, directing it himself, with stars Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, and Steven Yeun.[36] The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2018, and was theatrically released in the United States on July 6, 2018, by Annapurna Pictures. The film received praise for its cast and concept, as well as Riley's screenplay and direction.

In June 2020, he announced plans for a new TV series entitled I'm a Virgo, starring Jharrel Jerome.[37] He had more recently signed a deal with Media Res.[38]


Riley holding a banner and microphone
Riley speaking at a rally for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2017

Riley identifies as a communist.[2]

When E-Roc left The Coup in 1994, Riley decided to stop making music in favor of forming an organization called The Young Comrades,[39][40][41] with a few other radical, black community organizers including journalist and activist JR Valrey. The organization mounted a few important campaigns in Oakland which yielded some minor victories, such as the campaign against Oakland's "no cruising" ordinance.[42]

In 2000, Riley, through his workshop on Art and Organizing at La Peña Cultural Center, led a group of young artists to create "Guerilla Hip-Hop Concerts" on a flatbed truck which traveled throughout Oakland to protest California's Proposition 21.[30] The workshop also distributed tens of thousands free cassettes of "The Rumble", which he called "newspapers on tape.[43]

In 2002, Riley taught a daily high school class, "Culture and Resistance: Persuasive Lyric Writing", at the School of Social Justice and Community Development in East Oakland.[44]

During the fall of 2011, Riley became heavily involved with the Occupy Oakland movement.[45][46] In 2018, he spoke at the Socialism 2018 conference.[47]

At the 34th Independent Spirit Awards in 2019, Riley criticized U.S. involvement in the 2019 Venezuelan presidential crisis during his acceptance speech for the Best First Feature award for Sorry To Bother You. His speech, which was cut short, was delivered to the press.[48]

In February 2020, Boots announced his support for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2020 United States presidential election.[49]


Group artist[edit]

The Coup[edit]

Street Sweeper Social Club[edit]

Solo guest appearances[edit]


Boots Riley filmography
Title Medium Year Director Writer
Sorry to Bother You Film 2018 Yes Yes
I'm a Virgo Television series TBA Yes Yes


  1. ^ "Boots Riley on How His Hit Movie "Sorry to Bother You" Slams Capitalism & Offers Solutions". DemocracyNow!. July 17, 2018. Retrieved July 26, 2018.
  2. ^ a b Hughes, Casper (January 3, 2019). "Boots Riley Talks About a Socialist Alternative for Society".
  3. ^ Lewis, Haley. 2018, July 13. "'The world was making my movie too on the nose': Boots Riley on his directorial debut." CBC News.
  4. ^ a b c Kelley, Robin D. G. (11 September 2018). "Sorry, Not Sorry". Boston Review. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  5. ^ a b Weiner, Jonah (May 22, 2018). "How Boots Riley Infiltrated Hollywood". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved May 23, 2018.
  6. ^ Arnold, Eric K. (26 April 2006). "The Life of Riley". Easy Bay Express. Retrieved 19 August 2020.
  7. ^ Rubin, Riley (17 May 2018). Creative Activism: Conversations on Music, Film, Literature, and Other Radical Arts (1st ed.). USA: Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 187–188. ISBN 9781501337239. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  8. ^ "Boots Riley: Activism Before Art". PULSE Magazine. 2019-02-20. Retrieved 2019-09-19.
  9. ^ Thorn, Jesse (24 March 2020). "Boots Riley: The Coup, Sorry to Bother You, and more". Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  10. ^ a b c "Boots Riley Biography." All American Entertainment. All American Speakers Bureau.
  11. ^ Espinoza, Joshua. 2017 December 29. "Boots Riley Shares Heartfelt Post Remembering Pam the Funkstress." Complex.
  12. ^ "E-40's 'Practice Lookin' Hard' – Discover the Sample Source". WhoSampled. Retrieved January 11, 2017.
  13. ^ E40VEVO (November 24, 2009), E-40 – Practice Lookin' Hard, archived from the original on 2021-12-14, retrieved January 11, 2017
  14. ^ Rabin, Nathan (17 February 1999). "The Coup". Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  15. ^ Ducker, Jesse (9 November 2018). "The Coup's 'Steal This Album' Turns 20". Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  16. ^ "Coup de grace". The Rep. The Arizona Republic. December 9, 1999. p. 51. Retrieved January 11, 2017 – via
  17. ^ Kogan, Frank (6 November 2001). "Party to the People". Retrieved 19 January 2021.
  18. ^ Pahwa, Nitish (19 July 2018). "A Beginner's Guide to the Music of Sorry to Bother You Director Boots Riley". Retrieved 19 January 2021.
  19. ^ "Album cover of WTC blast pulled". CNN. Archived from the original on November 13, 2001. Retrieved July 9, 2018.
  20. ^ "The Coup Cover Art". Snopes. 20 September 2001. Retrieved July 9, 2018.
  21. ^ Malkin, Michelle (December 30, 2001). "Stop giving America a bad rap". Townhall. Archived from the original on January 11, 2017. Retrieved January 11, 2017.
  22. ^ "Album: The Coup". Independent. November 9, 2001. Retrieved July 24, 2018.
  23. ^ Newlin, Jimmy (23 April 2006). "Review: The Coup, Pick a Bigger Weapon". Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  24. ^ Katz, Larry (19 November 2003). "Can We Handle the Truth? Audioslave's Tom Morello Talks About Politically Oriented Tour". Boston Herald. Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  25. ^ Braiker, Brian (25 November 2003). "Raging against The Machine". Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  26. ^ Dansby, Andrew (7 November 2003). "Steve Earle Speaks Truth". Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  27. ^ Kreps, Daniel (28 April 2009). "Tom Morello's Street Sweeper Social Club Posts First Single". Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  28. ^ Cook, Dave (1996). "Should rap artist run for political office?". Archived from the original on January 11, 2017. Retrieved January 11, 2017.
  29. ^ "West Coast Hip Hop Artist and Activist to Appear at Carleton College." News. Carleton College. 2008 January 25.
  30. ^ a b Pollard, Mark. "An Interview w/ Boots of the Coup". Archived from the original on January 11, 2017. Retrieved January 11, 2017. We had a flatbed truck and basically make it into a stage and we’d get rappers and we’d drive around neighborhoods and do a show – guerilla theatre. We’d called them guerilla hip hop concerts.
  31. ^ Riley, B. [BootsRiley] (August 23, 2014). 4those watching The Simpsons marathon: Episode 9 of Season 16, "Pranksta Rap" is scored by me. I did not write those raps tho. Twitter
  32. ^ "Galactic Announces Fall Tour with Boots Riley, Chail 2NA and Lifesavas". 15 August 2007. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  33. ^ Kreps, Daniel (30 June 2008). "The Coup's Boots Riley Talks Abusive Language Charges After Virginia Festival Scandal". Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  34. ^ "Ursus Minor invite boots riley & desdamona". Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  35. ^ Gross, Terry (July 2, 2018). "Boots Riley Mines His Experiences as a Telemarketer in 'Sorry to Bother You'". Fresh Air. National Public Radio. Retrieved July 3, 2018.
  36. ^ Busch, Anita (June 15, 2017). "Tessa Thompson, Lakeith Stanfield, Steven Yeun To Star In 'Sorry To Bother You'". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved June 27, 2017.
  37. ^ Sodomsky, Sam (22 June 2020). "Boots Riley Announces New TV Series I'm a Virgo Starring Jharrel Jerome". Pitchfork.
  38. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (2021-10-26). "Boots Riley Inks Overall Deal With Media Res". Deadline. Retrieved 2021-10-27.
  39. ^ Kimble, Julian (July 7, 2018). "Boots Riley's career of confronting capitalism finally hits the big screen with 'Sorry to Bother You'". The Washington Post.
  40. ^ "Artist and activist Boots Riley talks film, capitalism, social justice at Johns Hopkins". April 4, 2019.
  41. ^ "Bay Area teenagers are taking the reins in the midst of recent rebellions". August 3, 2020.
  42. ^ "Top Cop Says Cruising Law Needs Fixes / Oakland committee meets over youths' demands". July 24, 1996.
  43. ^ St.Ofle, Richard (11 February 2020). "Make Change Now • Boots Riley Isn't Sorry to Bother You". Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  44. ^ "Boots Riley | Speakers Bureau and Booking Agent Info".
  45. ^ "Usa, tensione tra sindacati e Ows", Peace Reporter, December 14, 2011.
  46. ^ Mahler, Jonathan (1 August 2012). "Oakland, the Last Refuge of Radical America". Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  47. ^ "Seeing ahead from the high points of Socialism".
  48. ^ Greene, Steve. "Boots Riley Finishes Incendiary Venezuela-Centered Spirit Award Speech Backstage". Indie Wire. Retrieved 26 April 2021.
  49. ^ "I have never voted for a candidate in my life. But I will be voting for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and the general election. If I'm doing that, there are probably tens of millions in that same position. Let me explain why I'm doing this now".

External links[edit]