Party to the People

The Coup designed the original cover for Party Musicseveral months before September 11. It shows the two Coup members—Pam the Funkstress and Boots Riley—with the twin towers behind them. Pam is dancing and waving a couple conductor's batons. Boots is holding a guitar tuner, pressing a button on it as if it's a detonator, while two fireballs explode above, from the top floors of the WTC. ("The one reason we had that cover was because it was very unrealistic to me that something like that would happen," Boots told the San Francisco Bay Guardian.) The symbolism is that the WTC represents capitalism, and party music is going to bring it down.

When the terrorists attacked, the meaning of this image changed, obviously; the cover hadn't been printed yet, but it was on the publicity company's Web site, from which it was deleted, but not before a whole bunch of people had downloaded it and the story had been picked up by Reuters. I reported here in the Voicethat because of the attack, the Coup were changing the cover. This was my wishful thinking, my misinterpreting a record company press release—I subsequently learned that it was the record companythat was changing the cover, over the group's objections. I also quoted the company to the effect that "the Coup advocates change, but change through peaceful means, never violence." This was the record company's wishful thinking. Yes, Boots Riley wants to build a mass movement for social change, but in fact he thinks that ultimately it may only succeed through violence. What he told the Bay Guardianabout the WTC attack was: "Everyone who listens to the Coup's music knows that [when] we say it's going to be a violent revolution, what that has to do with is millions of people coming together and making the movement. This is not part of a movement—bombing places. I don't think that those kinds of things are anything that people who are interested in the people having power get involved in. It doesn't build people's power at all. If it does anything, it sets up for a military [escalation]." And he told The Onionseveral years ago: "Organizing needs to be done in the community to make smaller reforms. But these reforms have to be working toward an ultimate goal, which may or may not be achieved during our lifetime, which is to destroy the system that makes these inequities and makes this problem, and this system is capitalism. . . . But that revolution is a ways off, so I talk about things in the here and now." So why the hell did he want to keep the cover? If he doesn't know enough to get rid of it, how can anyone take him seriously as either promising or threatening social change? Whom did he think he would attract with it now—other than some kids who like the idea of blowing things up? And what message did he think it would deliver?

"I wanted to keep the cover so I could have a platform," he said on Davey D's Hard Knock Radio show in Oakland. Come on, the cover would have outshouted anything else he could possibly say. Not that he was saying much of value in the radio interview: "What happened the other day was a tragedy, but the media wants to make us think that this happened in a vacuum. They don't tell us about the fact that the U.S. ordered 100,000 people killed in East Timor a few years ago." Stuff like that. (Sure, the WTC attack didn't happen in a vacuum. But it didn't happen in relation to East Timor, either—and the U.S. was in no position to order those killings, anyway.) The guy's simply not a political thinker, and the more political his statements get, the more he comes across as just another barroom bullshitter.

Many of the lyrics on Party Music amount to no more than slogans, maxims, opinions: "You got 5 million ways to kill a CEO." I wonder who counts as a CEO here? Donald Trump? Puffy? Jay-Z? L.A. Reid? "I could work hard all my life and in the end still suffer/Because the world is controlled by you lazy motherfuckers." Well, the first half of this couplet is true for a lot of people. But does Alan Greenspan, for instance (or Puffy or L.A., etc.), work less hard than the rest of us?

Such lyrics bug me because Boots Riley is quite capable, when he's not thinking big thoughts, of artistic and moral and emotional depth. For one thing, there's the music, a slow Funkadelic party funk—not as exuberant or edgy as that of the OutKast-Backbone-Goodie Mob gang down in Atlanta, nor as grippingly atmospheric as Dre's. But it's a good fit for Boots's rap style, which has a relaxed charisma even when the words come fast.

The lyrics I quoted may seem to speak otherwise, but I feel that, though Boots's thinking is often lazy, it's not mean. I don't get the sense of someone just looking to discharge his anger. In fact, I don't hearmuch anger at all. If I didn't know English, I'd think of the album as good-humored, bubbly. Interestingly, the songs that have the most political posturing are the ones that sound like the most fun, with spirited delivery and P-Funk twisty-toy tunes. And the words themselves are fun to play with. I might not believe that CEOs "control the Pope, the Dalai Lama, holy rollers, Ayatollah," but I can have a good time rolling those syllables around my tongue. Same for "pro-prophylactic yet procreation."

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