After 9/11, Boots Riley was touring around the country with his hip-hop band The Coup, but some of his bandmates dropped out because Riley was going to speak out onstage against the bombing of Afghanistan. They feared appearing unpatriotic would get them “beat up or shot,” Riley recalled on the latest episode of Recode Decode.
“We were going to places like Montana, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah [and] Florida,” he said. “It got overwhelming applause in all of these places that were supposed to be for the war. It really showed me that the role of media is to make you think that you’re the most radical person in the room.”
Seventeen years later, Riley is still with The Coup, but he’s also become one of 2018’s most buzzed-about movie directors with his satirical dark comedy “Sorry To Bother You,” which hits digital platforms on Oct. 9. The film skewers capitalism, labor and media from a communist perspective; on the new podcast, Riley told Recode’s Kara Swisher and Shirin Ghaffary that he doesn’t trust today’s leading tech companies to be any better than the old media outlets that inflated popular support for war in the Mideast.
“It still is easily controlled, the way algorithms work,” he said, later referring to the notion that his bubble could make him think “Sorry to Bother You” is more popular than it is. “Some people think everybody’s still talking about the Kardashians.”
“Here’s the part where I maybe start sounding like I’ve got a tinfoil hat,” he added. “If we know that many of these companies have no qualms about working with the FBI, the CIA, or whatever governmental agency comes in ... and we also know they have no qualms about however they can monetize with some other companies, why do we not think that they would fix the algorithm so that we think that something is a subject to talk about? Or so that we see only the folks that we follow that have this opinion about that, or not.”
This is a similar argument to the one made by conservatives such as President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who called on state attorneys general last month to investigate “bias” against the right on social media platforms like Facebook. But Riley thinks the danger is not liberal partisanship, but rather libertarian greed.
“With them being libertarian and having that ability, it would actually be really dumb of them to not do that,” he said. “That would be going against their business model.”
You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Overcast.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara and Shirin’s conversation with Boots.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair, we’re thrilled to have Boots Riley, the writer and director of “Sorry to Bother You.” It’s a social satire about capitalism, race, technology, and more, business. He’s also the lead vocalist of the hip-hop band The Coup. Boots, welcome to Recode Decode.
Boots Riley: Thank you. And it really is a red chair, I had to check.
KS: It is. I told you.
No one has to know though, you could just call it a red chair.
KS: Yes we could, but it is in fact one. And joining us for this interview is Recode reporter Shirin Ghaffary. Hey, Shirin.
Shirin Ghaffary: Hey.
KS: How you doing?
KS: So Shirin is the one that got me to have you here. I’m very excited.
All right, well ...
KS: So let’s start off talking about ...
Good job. I don’t know if that’s objective for me to say.
KS: ... your success, which is a long time in coming. You’ve been around a long time.
Yeah, I’m old.
KS: Me too. Let’s talk a little bit about you yourself and what you’ve been doing and how you got here. I don’t mean to say you’re old, it’s just that you’re ... like, how did you get to this?
Well, my parents were attracted to each other.
KS: Mm-hmm, got that part.
And something happened there.
KS: Something happened, created you.
But yeah, I started out, my grandmother on my mother’s side ran Oakland Ensemble Theater, I got involved in theater, kind of maybe through that. But then at the same I became ... In my teenage years, I joined a radical organization that was helping to support farm workers who were creating a farm workers’ union in the Central Valley, McFarland and Delano, that area.
And there was also in that the legend of Teatro Campesino, which had been around in the ’60s and helped to organize. So I had this idea of theater and actually kind of wrote my first raps while writing the high school play, realized that theater — I don’t know if I realized it, but I decided that theater was too small for what I wanted to ... for the effect that I wanted to have. And I went to film school at San Francisco State.
At the same time I was doing music. And I happened to be, like many companies are mechanical, so the music industry is no different. If someone has a hit with a green jacket, they’re gonna look for people with green jackets. You know?
KS: Right, 100 percent, right, yeah, “Let’s do it again and again.”
Yeah. And so, because a couple people had hits from Oakland — MC Hammer, Digital Underground ...
KS: A lot of people, right.
... at the time, there were a few, MC Hammer, Digital Underground, Too Short. So record labels were like, every record label had to have a group from Oakland, and we just happened to be there and our records were selling locally.
And I had taken the information that I knew about campaigns, from doing grassroots campaigns with radical organizations, and applied that to my music. So our posters were everywhere in the Bay Area, even if you weren’t ever gonna buy any music, you were like, “What the hell is this poster doing up?”
KS: Yeah, I’ve done that many times, yeah.
Yeah. So we got signed to Wild Pitch EMI Records, and I focused on that for 20-something years. But at the same time, our music was always known for being... they always called it “cinematic,” which I don’t know what that means.
KS: What do you think that means?
Yeah, exactly. It meant that I described what things looked like. And for some of my songs, they were like eight-minute-long story songs that the label was very frustrated with, because how do you put that on the radio?
But so, for instance, we have a song called “Fat Cats and Bigga Fish,” which is a song about a pickpocket who is conning and stuff and ends up switching clothes with his cousin who’s a waiter at a high-society party, and they think they look alike, so they switch clothes, and he goes in there and he’s pickpocketing, and while he’s pickpocketing, he overhears the mayor of Oakland talking to the person that owns Coca Cola bottling about a plan for gentrification.
At the time, of course, when this came out in 1994, I was said to be like a conspiracy kook to think that someone would be trying to gentrify the Bay Area, much less Oakland.
And anyway, that song on the album goes into another song called “Free Stylin’ at the Fortune 500 Club,” so it goes from that song to that, which “Free Stylin’ at the Fortune 500 Club” is one of the Rockefellers, one of the Gettys, and Trump figuring out how to rap at a party. And then that gets broken up by a group of people who come in and mess up the party, and that’s called “Takin’ These.”
So anyway, that’s just stories and everything ...
KS: Stories that were being told, it’s also the same themes, they’re also the similar themes.
Yeah, well, I mean, much of ...
KS: I don’t mind.
Yeah, much of our life is about looking at things from a certain perspective, you know, yeah.
SG: And when did you think, okay, I wanna make a movie now?
When I was 17 or whatever. Yeah, I think ... But when did I say, “Okay, I’m ...
KS: Yeah, gonna do it.
I’m really gonna do it?” I think ... so I had another group called Street Sweeper Social Club, that’s me and Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, and that setup was Tom producing the music and me making the lyrics.
And kind of, for everything I talk about people working together and forming collectives and being .... Artists — and I’m talking about myself — are very ego-driven, and so that collaboration left me wanting something else, because we were better, me and him were better friends when we weren’t trying to work together to create some music.
And so, I wanted to do something where it was just all from my brain, and you know, and I got to say the way things were.
KS: The way you wanted to do it, yeah.
Yeah. And I also wanted to be excited about it, ’cause I think after doing that I felt not as excited about music. So this was ... You know, and I started writing, I downloaded Final Draft and started typing just a few sentences one time in a hotel room, and then it formats it for you in front of your eyes, and so within a few minutes I was like, “Oh, shit, I’m writing a script.”
KS: Software solves everything.
Yeah, at that point, I knew that I had enough fans from music that even if I didn’t get the film produced, I could get people to read the script, so I had an audience no matter what, like I could ... not necessarily business folks, folks in the film business to read the script, but I could put it out and have all the ...
KS: And people respond, or ...
... fans read the script. And for me, and I noticed as I was writing the script, and I’d get someone to read it, it felt to me like they were watching my movie, ’cause I also, like the scene descriptions and everything that I put in there, I tried to make it so that it was a good read, so that it felt fun, not just a manual to create a film, it was a piece in and of itself.
KS: The concept from it was something you’d already been talking about, these themes, I mean, all the reviews I read sort of focus on the same themes about capitalism, about ...
Yeah, much like your podcast is always about tech, you know?
KS: Yeah, true, fair point, fair point, fair point. That’s a fair point. But what were you ... Talk about the movie itself. Where did the idea for this company come from? You would create this company that would then, where your main character works as a telemarketer. I’m just curious why you used that.
So you’re talking about WorryFree?
KS: Yeah, WorryFree. I love the name. I’m surprised a tech company hasn’t made a company named that.
Yeah, with all of these things, I think with comedy, with drama, with horror, and with just plain political analysis, all you’re doing when you’re doing these things is heightening contradiction, right? You are highlighting the contradiction and pushing it forward so much so that, like if I were to ask you, “What’s the problem with the tech industry today?” And you were to sum it up in a paragraph-long thing, you’d be leaving out so many details that what you’re really doing ...
KS: Yeah, I’d just say, “Facebook,” but go ahead.
What you’re really doing is exaggerating for the purpose of clarity. And that’s what irony is built on, that’s what all of these things are built on.
So with this company, and with what my point is, I’m exaggerating the point that I’m making with this company, you know, people don’t get a wage, you know? And everything is for the profit of the folks that own the company. And it’s just an exaggerated, slightly only exaggerated ...
KS: Mm-hmm, slightly only.
... version of what’s happening. And so that’s where that comes from is like, what do I ... I always in my music, because although it has the same themes, like in my music I have for instance a song about wanting to lay in bed with your significant other all day. And my point in that is I have to ask myself, why is that? What is it about? Is it just about sex, or is it about controlling your time? Is it about who controls your time and what kind of say you have? And what do we have left on this earth, what do humans have except time, and whether they get to decide how to use it or not? I mean, as a matter of fact, prison is all about time. All of these things are about time.
So, I wouldn’t say that my stuff has the same theme. I think the theme is life, but I have an outlook on life that tries to connect the dots to all of these things. Whereas a regular love song would be just like, “Oh baby, I wish we could spend the day in bed together,” I’m trying to connect it to ...
KS: To figure out why.
... to all these things. And it all comes down to how we survive, like everything in life, everything in history is about how we survive. Our culture and everything is grown out of that, like .... And I’ve said this before, if you wanna know why certain villages had fishing songs, it’s probably because they were a fishing village.
And you can ... You know, there are certain people that’ll be cultural critics that will talk about the intonations of the fishing songs, and why they did these sort of things, but they’re purposely trained to not look at the fact of why that’s a fishing village in the first place.
KS: Right, absolutely. But what’s interesting, when I was watching the movie, I was thinking oddly enough of a movie that I recently watched again, “Network,” which suggested a lot of ways media was gonna go in the future. At the time it was put out, everyone said, “Oh, it’ll never get like this.” And if you go back and look at “Network,” everything created in that movie exists in modern media in lots of ways, except for maybe the execution on screen, which I think I’m just waiting for, essentially.
And one of the things when I was watching this movie was, yeah, I could see someone creating a company like that, and people willing to be part of it, which was ... although it’s a satire, obviously.
And then people will just make snarky jokes about it, and that’s ... If they’re not organized, that’s all we’ll get.
KS: Right, exactly, exactly, which I thought was interesting. And I thought this is so ... It reminded me, you know, even though you’re not a techie, it reminded me of the kind of things techies think of, and they make sense to them at the time.
Well, and that’s why it’s called WorryFree is ... I don’t think it’s just techies, I mean ...
KS: Explain WorryFree for people who haven’t seen the movie, it’s ....
So WorryFree is a company that advertises itself to ... It has two modes of advertising, one that the general public sees and one that these telemarketers do. And the one that the general public sees is a company that basically takes care of your needs, that you move into their “live/work spaces,” and ...
KS: Which are prisons, essentially.
... yeah, and which are aesthetically luxurious-looking, you know, it uses some of the ... It hits some of the notes of what is supposed to be luxurious. They have chandeliers and I think maybe velvet, that was the intention. And yeah, you live in their live/work spaces, you work all day, and you don’t have to worry about being unemployed or housing or food.
And so they represent themselves as just handling those problems, which in this world, there are people that see it as slavery and are trying to expose that. WorryFree then, of course, markets itself to companies as the cheapest labor that’s out there.
And the thing is is that these companies pretty much already exist, except in other countries, you know? And we say other countries, but we mean they exist in this country but they’re geographically set in other countries, ’cause wherever they’re doing it, U.S. companies are some of the corporations that are buying that labor.
KS: Right, absolutely.
SG: Well, yeah, when I saw it, and I think a lot of other people commented on this too, the pitch of the company taking care of all your physical needs so that you can stay there more and just you are the labor for the company, that’s what a lot of people see in some of these big tech companies that offer you everything, right? Places like Google, you can eat there, you can have your kids getting babysat there.
And obviously that’s a first-world, that’s a very high-end problem to have, but I’m just wondering if you see any parallels between the kinds of environments that you’re seeing, kinds of industries in the Bay Area that have changed kind of the place where you live, in the movie?
It’s, again, it’s a model that’s, besides regular chattel slavery in the U.S. that’s been here, but you know, you had the coal mining towns that did that. So you kind of get, you stop understanding what the value of your labor actually is because they have other prices, and you know, there’s the company store and all of that sort of thing.
Not that that would necessarily have to be a bad thing, but you have no control over anything else in your surroundings when you’re ...
KS: And increasingly less control.
Yeah. And so, like if you’re a family, nobody’s keeping track of, hopefully, like, “You did X amount of dishes for this long, and you did that,” you know, like you can have a setup where people can work together like that. But if you have a household where one person is getting the profit and making everyone else do the work, then that’s a whole different thing.
KS: Right. Talk a little bit about getting the movie made, because you got money from Megan Ellison’s company, is that correct?
Yeah, well, she came on, she bought it at Sundance. We had ...
KS: Right, exactly, you made it very quickly. You made it in a year, correct? You started filming ...
Well, we filmed it in 28 days.
KS: But it was in ... But from the time you started to when you got it into Sundance, it was pretty quick.
Well, I finished writing it in 2012.
KS: Oh, okay.
SG: We talk about entrepreneurship a lot on this podcast, and I think one interesting thing is you really hustled your way into getting this greenlit.
Yeah, it was stone soup, like I’m sure so many things are. “This person’s on board, they think it’s good,” well, you know, I think ...
KS: So you finished it in 2012, how did you get it to Sundance?
So first David Cross and Patton Oswalt, who play white voices in the movie, they were the first ones to sign on and say, “We’re down with this,” so when I started writing it, I thought because of my music I could get a lot of people to read it that were in positions to get it made. But it worked the opposite, because you know, I’m a musician with a script. It ended up being ...
KS: Like, “Who are you?”
Yeah, it ended up being like the letter in “Invisible Man,” because although people be like, “Oh, great, cool,” you know, the quality was suspect.
KS: Right, right, “isn’t this a cute thing that you’re doing.”
Or you know, like, “Yeah, of course you wanna make a movie. You also want to have a clothing line and you wanna have a chain of stores,” or whatever. So them signing on made a few people be like, “Oh, maybe at least it’s funny,” right?
So a few more people started reading it, giving me feedback, but Dave Eggers, I ran into Dave Eggers on Valencia Street, just on the street walking with a friend of mine named J. Otto Seibold, who actually did all the titles on the movie and is a known children’s author. And I said, “Hey, I have this script.” By this point I thought, okay, I’m just gonna put this out on the internet and people will read it ...
KS: That’s that, yeah.
... and it’ll be known that I did it. And I said, “Would you read it, give me some notes, ’cause I want it to be as tight as it can be before I put it out.” He read it and he said what he said publicly later, which was, “This is one of the best unproduced screenplays I’ve ever read.” He published it ...
KS: Dave Eggers’s a very famous writer and teacher and ...
Yeah, he’s a screenwriter and more known as a novelist. And he published it as its own paperback book, and bound with the McSweeney’s Quarterly, and that went out to 10,000 or 20,000 people in 2014. And that made people take it seriously.
And so, I joined the SF Filmmaker in Residence program, and they kinda gave me office space, so I was like, okay, now I’m around people that are getting their movie made. And so that was inspiring. And I met a few producers, Jonathan Duffy, Kelly Williams, who had done some stuff that had gotten into Sundance before, and George Rush, who’s out here.
And now I’m a filmmaker in residence, and now I’ve got these producers on board, so this is a serious thing. There’s still some question with the investors about ...
KS: As all movies, yeah.
... one, will you actually be able to ... If I’m gonna put in this little amount, are you gonna get enough to make the movie? He’s never made a film before, what can we ... So, all those things.
Then, applied for the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, they accepted it, which is a prestigious thing, and I went to the Lab, so that gave it a little bit more ... And actually Sundance, they have a thing called the Catalyst, Sundance Catalyst Program, where they have a weekend where basically everybody goes there, gets drunk, to the resort, and over a three-day period 12 projects that they’ve picked, you know, basically pitched to a room full of 60 investors. And we met all of our investors except for one there.
And because I’m used to performance, I was able to tell the story in a funny way. So I just got up there and told the story.
KS: There in Utah?
KS: In that barn over there.
And met a lot of folks there. Then, it was still, people were like, “I’m really interested in it,” but you know, there was some trepidation about me not having done a film before, which is understandable.
Then I got into the Sundance Filmmakers Lab, where you actually shoot some scenes and all that. And the main investor group, which was Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker’s company, they saw it and I think that that was part of their decision-making process.
KS: And then you make it.
Yeah, so then we ...
KS: How much did it cost ... What was the amount you raised?
It ended up, it was supposed to be 2.6, it ended up being 3.6 by the end of it.
SG: But you made much more than that.
Oh, yeah. Right now it’s at 17 something million, and they think it’ll leave U.S. theaters at 20, and then we’ll do international, and you know, all that other stuff.
KS: But this is typical of the way a lot of movies get made ... Did you think of any other way to make it, like now with Netflix and other ... There’s lots of different outlets for creators now.
Well, yeah, I probably would’ve taken money from almost everywhere, anywhere, but I think that Netflix would probably have been the last choice, because I wanted it to be in theaters.
KS: In theaters, yeah, that’s what happened with “Crazy Rich Asians” too, they were gonna ... Netflix had offered more money to make it, and then they decided they wanted a movie.
Yeah, yeah. I’ve just started watching all those things like Netflix and Amazon and Hulu, just because I’m writing a TV show and I kinda wanna see what ...
KS: Options you have.
What are out there. But I feel, it feels weird to have your thing just be one box among all of these things.
KS: We’re here with Boots Riley, writer and director of “Sorry to Bother You.” We’re talking about his film and how films are made. We just talked a little bit about how he got the movie made. It obviously got into Sundance, was a huge hit there, and then got money from Megan Ellison’s company, which has done a lot of big films.
It was their first acquisition.
KS: To distribute it.
KS: What did that do for you in that part? Why was that important? Because it got to the larger theatrical release?
Yeah. I mean, well, I think the ... I wanted it to have a theatrical release, because it is a film that is about the experience, and experiencing it with other people around. There were a couple people bidding on the movie but Annapurna, which is Megan Ellison’s company ... I don’t want to say it’s just her, because there’s a lot of great people there. Megan called me and she was like, she felt like this movie was a piece of cinematic history, which of course, any director is going to be like, “Okay.”
KS: That’s her line.
“I’m listening,” right?
KS: Yeah, okay. “You’re so pretty, you’re so pretty” call.
KS: Oh, yeah.
It’s not just that people haven’t seen a film with as radical politics of this, and after 20-something years of being an artist, I’ve realized that it can’t just be about what I’m talking about.
KS: Right, no, I got it. It took a turn.
KS: That movie took a turn. I liked it.
I’ve always artistically wanted ... I need people to understand that ... I need to push boundaries, and that’s in my music as well, so it’s a risky thing. So, knowing that it was a risk, some folks that were talking to us about distributing it were talking that part up, like, “Yeah, I don’t know, yeah,” blah, blah, blah. Then just the regular old like, “Well, the market for this is limited.”
You know what they mean by that is that it’s a mainly black cast.
Meaning they have no idea what popular culture is all about in the first place.
Yeah, they just seemed like they knew ...
KS: Can you talk about that more? Because I would agree. Talk about that, when you hear that.
Well, I mean, it’s been like this for a while, definitely with music. Music, for instance is, I think music is about ... Or art in general has to be about passion. So much of music throughout the last 100 years at least ... Once folks that have been going through struggle got access to being able to make recordings, those recordings touched the folks that listen to them, no matter where they’re from, what their background is. Because that history of struggle, those things that folks are coming through, being represented in music has created, creates that passion that you want from something, which is like ...
I think there is something to art that comes out of black culture, which is a culture that is created, that much of it is connected to struggle because of just, because of capitalism, because of how capitalism works, that art is created to struggle, which is also created to a passion. I think that there is something more than like a tourism that’s happening. There’s people wanting to connect to that feeling of trying to be free of dealing with the world and gaining power over your life. Because we all, no matter where you’re from, we’re trying to engage with the world and try to have some say-so over what’s around us. Although folks are at various levels of being able to do that, that’s still a need, and so people connect to that. That is related to ...
KS: You used the word ... Can I interrupt?
KS: You used the word “tourism.” Explain that. It’s a very important ...
Well, there’s something that white people are accused of when they are consuming black culture, which is kind of ...
Yeah, which is kind of like, “Oh, I’m just seeing what this about, and this is cool, and okay, now I’m going to go get a cappuccino.” While that may be going on, I think it’s also missing a piece of it.
KS: The emotional appeal that is has to everybody.
Yeah. It’s missing the fact that people are looking for a culture that represents the struggle that the world is in. We were earlier talking about our friend, Jill Sobule. I met her on a tour with Steve Earle. Steve Earle, country radio won’t mess with him mainly because of this one song he did, which was the ballad of Johnny Walker Lindh, which was about a white kid from Marin who joined the Taliban and when the U.S. came to invade Afghanistan, he fought against the U.S. and the U.S. captured him, and had him on a gurney and made a big thing about it. In Steve Earle’s song, which is from the standpoint of Johnny Walker Lindh, he sang, “Look, I’m watching MTV,” and he names off a few other things that are associated with whiteness and the way that it’s portrayed in the media, and sees that he doesn’t see anything ...
KS: That represents him.
That represents him. Because I think that even white people are sold ... It deals with this in the movie to a certain extent.
KS: You do, absolutely. That was people being, using WorryFree. That was ...
Well, not even that. I’m talking about when they talk about the “white voice.”
KS: Yes, that’s right. Oh, yeah.
What the idea of whiteness is is this idea that even most white people don’t have, but it’s a reaction to the idea of blackness, which is like ... So there’s all these racist tropes about black folks, which are that ... They have a utility. We live in an economic system that has to have unemployment, it cannot exist with full employment. If you have full employment under capitalism, then anyone can demand whatever wage they want.
Wages go up, stocks go down, all that kind of stuff. An army of unemployed people is very necessary, because you have to be able to threaten jobs. Some publications like the Wall Street Journal and others will openly worry when they feel that the unemployment rate is going too low.
Now, knowing this, we also know that unemployed folks have to eat just like everyone else, and so they end up engaging in the illegal economy. What much of our culture tells us, including TV and media and even songs, are that poverty is due to the bad choices of the impoverished. “You just didn’t pick the right schools. You weren’t paying attention. You’re a little too aggressive.” This whole discussion of people having the wrong idea of what masculinity is is often tied into this idea that people are making these bad choices.
KS: “It’s your fault.”
And the murder rates and all that kind of stuff. In reality, it’s just that we have people that have illegal businesses that they have to regulate themselves because all business uses violence to regulate itself, whether it’s a tech business, whether it’s a supermarket or whether it’s a dope-dealing operation, violence is used. The violence that legal businesses use is called the police. The police are going to do something to you if you do something to a legal business. When, during Prohibition, if you robbed the liquor dude, gangsters come after you.
Now, you rob the liquor dude, police come after you. Ten years ago, you robbed the weed dude, depending which weed dude, maybe some gangsters will come after you.
SG: Now there’s an app where you can order your weed.
Yeah. Now you rob the weed dude, the police will come after you.
It’s all the same stuff. The point is that the idea, though, that we’re all sold by using the other of people of color, otherizing people of color is that, “Look, these folks are poor because they’re making the bad decisions, you can agree with that.”
And so if you’re a white guy that’s making 22,000 a year, you’re like, “Well, I’m middle class and I don’t relate to that,” and you relate more to the ruling class than anyone else. There’s this idea of whiteness that people try to put on that’s represented in the movie, that discussion is represented through the discussion of the white voice.
KS: The white voice, and the Armie Hammer character.
Well, you mean he’s white, but that discussion I don’t think is happening with him. Yeah.
KS: Right, right, right, right. When you were trying to get these messages in, in the way you did with this idea, I know you were trying to resist that it’s a tech company, but one of the things that was interesting when I was talking to a lot of white, male, tech people I deal with loved this movie. I kept saying, “It hates you. You understand that this is about you. This is about all the things you’ve been doing and creating. Displacement in society, creating discord, creating racism, all kinds of things.” They’re like, “No, no, it’s not.”
It was fascinating to listen, in a lot of ways, to them talking about it, because I think it is ... Like you grew up here in Oakland. San Francisco, the changes, the gentrification that you were talking about in your song decades ago are happening because of these same people.
Well, yeah. I don’t think it’s a personality thing, though. I mean, I never ... My whole point with all of my stuff is it has to do with how we organize the way we survive, which is called the economy.
Which is called the economic system that we’re in, and so I don’t think that, just so you know, just like I don’t think poverty is because of bad choices... I mean, yeah, you could choose to be the crab that shoves all the other crabs down while you get out of the barrel, but I don’t think other than those kind of choices, I don’t think it’s because of that. I think that this system creates the stuff. This is ... Actually what’s happening with the tech companies is not new.
KS: No, not at all.
When you talk about the mining companies that we were talking about before, that was considered a new model.
KS: It’s technology.
This is, not only technology but, “Hey, we’re helping out the family.” Right? “You can come live in our town. You don’t have to go out. This is new, we’re doing something new with industry.” It’s always that capital tries to say, “Look, we’re not doing all these terrible things that we did in the last 50, 100 years.”
KS: “We’re not displacing. This time it’s different.”
Yeah, so what tech companies are doing has some differences, but it’s just they’re parallel differences. When we see like those big railroad barons with the big top hat and the handlebar mustache, we think of them as looking evil, but that was the style. They were in fashion, they were the opposite of what people thought that aristocrats looked like.
KS: Right, right.
It’s, we’re not doing anything new. We keep trying to do something new without changing ...
KS: The actual system.
... the fundamental thing, which is that capitalism is based on the exploitation of labor. No matter what algorithms you make, if you’re not changing that, all the algorithms are going ... All the technology just makes exploitation more efficient.
KS: That’s right, 100 percent. Except that they pretend they don’t realize it. It’s astonishing when I press them on it, about their response. Now, there was just a hearing where they finally admitted that maybe they did some damage.
KS: It took ... I don’t even think they meant it. I don’t think they even think that.
Well, I think we’re all taught to not look that way. I mean, in California at least, it’s illegal for high school teachers to say anything that puts socialism or communism into a non-negative light. I’m not saying everybody follows that, but that’s the law, and you can get fired for that. Definitely, teachers did stick to that rule when I was a kid, and I think what we’re seeing, why people believe they’re doing something great is because we’re told that you don’t have to look at that contradiction.
All of these things that are happening that we see as negatives in our society are just about tweaking some problems, and that the basis of our system is good. I think once those ... I’d really be interested in what kind of technology people create if we have a system in which the people democratically control the wealth that they create with their labor. After a while, there being technology that is created to make people’s lives better without ... I don’t know what that would be but ...
KS: Go ahead.
SG: Well, one thing I wanted to ask you about, I don’t know if you’ve been following, but there has been a movement in tech we’ve seen where people are trying to unionize the contract bus drivers. Certain engineers are upset about how their AI is being used, trying to make sure they have more control over how their tools are used out in the world. What do you make of all that? I mean, do think that part of the popularity of your film, why tech people Kara talks to still like it, is because even within these giant tech companies or startups there’s increasing political movement going on?
KS: Or they have a vague knowledge of what’s actually happening.
Yeah. I think that first of all, we all think that we’re the exception to the rule. We all feel that ... So many people would, for instance, politically agree with me that even folks that are in positions of power, but they feel like there’s nothing they can do about the way the world is, so they’re just, like they don’t think a movement is going to win. They’re like, “This is the world.” Much like there’s a thing that ... Mr. _______ ... Which is just some people say, “Mr. Blank,” but he’s just Mr. with seven underscores. Omari Hardwick’s character says to Cassius, which is, “Don’t worry about what should be, just work with what is,” and that’s how most of us feel.
There’s this story, Tom Morello, who I had Street Sweeper Social Club with, but he’s from Rage Against the Machine, they were doing this music video that was directed by Michael Moore, and the idea was that they were going to show up on Wall Street ... For people who might not know, Rage Against the Machine has very incendiary lyrics about like tearing things up and radical ideas in it and revolutionary things. They were going to show up on Wall Street and just play really loud. The police were going to come take them away, people were going to boo them and throw things at them, and that was going to be the video. They went there, they played. First time, not much reaction.
Second time, they see some police radioing and stuff like that. Third time, a couple of the doors, like the security doors close. Fourth time, they started hearing this chanting coming. It was going, “Ha, ha, ha. Ha, ha, ha.” They’re like, “Is this like the SWAT team? We’re on Wall Street and we’re saying these things.” It gets louder and louder, and then from around the corner are hundreds of people in suits that have come from their jobs and are chanting, “Suits for Rage, suits for Rage.”
KS: Oh, they just wanted to get arrested.
Well, they came and because they agreed with what Rage Against the Machine were saying. So many people do see that we should have a different economic system, but they don’t think they can do anything about it...
KS: Right. That’s a very good point.
… Or they don’t think that there will be anything done about it. I could see that there are, if there are people on Wall Street that feel that way, there are definitely a lot of people in tech that wish we had a different world and just don’t see how they could do it. Possibly, that is the impetus for people ...
KS: To actually change.
... unionizing and doing these things and trying to figure out how they can have a say in it. For them to do that will take some work, because the real way that unions are able to be effective is to be able to strike and keep scabs out.
KS: How do you feel like the reception of the movie ... You’re like the most popular thing now. How does that ... Do you like that?
Yeah. I mean, I’ll take it.
KS: Were you surprised? Given that we’re in the middle of the Trump era.
I wasn’t surprised at the reactions, but the volume of them, I was. Like the prestigious writers that came out and said things. There are also some folks that hate it, that just absolutely don’t understand. I don’t think it’s only from a ... Of course, I expected folks that were really right-wing ... I don’t even think it’s just that. I think there’s just something about it. Like there’s some safety that I’m shaking up.
Because when you create stuff, whether it’s a song or a film, it’s really, it feels good to have these rules that you can check off that you did. Like, “Oh, yeah. By around page 10 it did this thing, and then it does this other thing by page 30. I know that people are going to feel this certain way when I do it.” If you’re used to watching something in that way and it doesn’t do those things, for some people, it feels bad.
KS: It’s jarring, right? I’m talking about the concepts in the middle of this era we’re in right now.
Yeah. I wasn’t surprised because I think that for so long we have been lied to about what the rest of the population in the U.S. thinks. I’ve had some of my own experiences that have led me to be believing this. I joined a radical organization called Progressive Labor Party when I was a teenager, and at some point me and some friends led a walkout at Oakland High. 2,000 students out of 2,200 students walked out.
For us, there hadn’t been anything like ... Even though like right now you think about the ... Especially if you’re younger, you think about the ’80s as being close to the ’60s, but for us it was nowhere near that. Especially when you’re young, and three years ago is ancient history. So, this was in the late ’80s, and we had never seen anything like that. And so we were kind of drunk off ... We won our issue, as soon as we walked out. So, they were really scared. As soon as we marched down to the school board, they gave in.
KS: What did you want?
Okay, so this is what made it easy to get folks to walk out. It was against year-round schools.
KS: Oh, all right. That’s a winning one.
But the thing was, at the time, Skyline High School was still pretty much “the white school.” They were the only ones that weren’t gonna have to do it. The reason is because year-round schools was being done to save money. The way it’s staggered, folks get to use the same books as each other, ending at the same time. In order to do that, you have to be tracked. So, in 9th grade, they decide whether you’re going to college or not.
So there was a more political reason to do it. But I’m sure many students just heard, “year-round schools” — “Oh, hell no. I’m down. When do we walk out?”
So we did that. The next day, the principal, who was an ex-cop named Mr. O’Leary — who was like a real buff dude, really scared people — got on the PA and said, “Raymond Riley is a communist, and he wants to take us back to the days of the Black Panther Party.” Blah, blah, blah, this and that.
Basically, most of the kids’ reactions was, “I don’t know what a communist is, but the government doesn’t like it, so it’s cool.”
KS: Right, okay. So it didn’t work for O’Leary.
And then organizing outside of that, the reaction in communities of color varied from being interested to, “I gotta pay the bills. Sounds good, but I gotta pay the bills.”
Not like, “What the hell?”
Then ... Because I’ve spent so many years talking about the incident now. We had this album cover that, before 9/11, had the World Trade Center blowing up. Right after 9/11, within a few months after that, we started opening up on this MTV-sponsored tour with this group that worked with Linkin Park. So it was an all-MTV thing, not our fans at all. My band didn’t wanna go, because they knew I would be speaking out against the bombing of Afghanistan. So, not even speaking out against Iraq. This was when it was still unpopular to speak out against ... Because the news was telling us, with flags flying on all the broadcasts and all that kind of stuff ... The news was telling us that most of the U.S. population was for bombing of Afghanistan.
KS: Scud missiles.
I even saw it here in the Bay Area, which was even more thought of as being progressive and radical than it is today. I saw a couple times where this same thing almost happened. There’d be a group of people at a party or something, like 10 people, and one person is saying something crazy. Like one time someone was saying, “We need to nuke Afghanistan, just get it over with.” And everybody’s standing around, not saying anything, but just nodding. I’m like, “Oh my God, everybody ...” And then I start saying something against that.
And then everybody says, “I actually agree.” They all thought that everyone else agreed with that.
So, we went on this MTV tour. I had band members that I had to replace because they were scared that I ...
KS: That you would say something.
They knew I was gonna say something. And they were scared that we would get beat up or shot or whatever. And we were going to places like Montana, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, Florida, as well as other places throughout the Midwest and East Coast. Every place that I said something, I would stop the music. Full houses, I’d stop the music and speak out against the bombing of Afghanistan. And it got overwhelming applause in all of these places that were supposed to be for the war. It really showed me that the role of media is to make you think that you’re the most radical person in the room.
KS: What about now though? Because now you have all these ways to communicate. You’ve got Twitter, this and ...
But it still is easily controlled, the way algorithms work. It can make you think that something is ...
KS: So, what are we not hearing?
Some people think everybody’s still talking about the Kardashians.
Because of however, the mysterious ways it works. And if we know that ... Here’s the part where I maybe start sounding like I’ve got a tinfoil hat. Is that, if we know that many of these companies have no qualms about working with the FBI, the CIA, or whatever governmental agency comes in ... and we also know they have no qualms about however they can monetize their ability with some other companies, why do we not think that they would fix the algorithm so that we think that something is a subject to talk about? Or so that we see only the folks that we follow that have this opinion about that, or not.
With them being libertarian and having that ability, it would actually be really dumb of them to not do that. That would be going against their business model. They would actually have to say, “It’s not about money with us.” I mean, I know some of them try to say that.
KS: And they always end up with the money.
And so, you can go on Twitter and think ... I could go on Twitter and think everybody loves “Sorry to Bother You.” And although it’s doing well, there’s millions, tens, hundreds of millions of people that have no idea that it exists.
KS: Right. That’s a fair point. But what about ... Like what just happened. You were gonna appear at the New Yorker Festival, and then they announced Steve Bannon. You pulled out, as did many other people, correct? They did not tell you he was appearing when you agreed, right?
KS: Then they shifted their decision, really quickly, in part because of pressure from employees at the Times, people that were at the festival. But also, the backlash to it [online]. That’s not effective, or that’s not what reality is?
I don’t understand what you’re saying.
KS: What I mean is that there are some uses of these platforms to express what people think. Actually think. You’re talking about that it’s a ...
Yeah. Just being someone that has spent the last, too long, of a time marketing through social media ... I understand that it’s also just not as effective as regular billboards and TV ads and things like that. I think that many of these platforms are lying about how many people see their ads. Well, we know that. We know that they’re lying.
I think a crash is going to happen. When all of a sudden, folks that have been pouring in money to Facebook and any of these other apps that make them think that their ads are getting seen ... When somebody figures that out and a group of businesses pull out and then everybody does in a domino effect, it’s gonna be a crash. Because, we’re relying on many of these folks that run these companies to tell the truth.
And that the only thing between them and making more money is them lying, they’re gonna lie. Why not?
KS: What about the youth, the people who are using it? It’s very clear that young people use all these things. The mobile phones ...
But they don’t look at the ads. Just technically speaking, I think some do get looked at. Like if you’re trying to watch your favorite music video and it won’t let you skip and it’s making you watch this. Sometimes they’re watching, but often even then, you’re tuning it out even more than ...
Like, TV is set up, it’s the only thing going on. A commercial comes on in the room, and you’re sitting there watching it. And this is just me talking with an advertiser/promoter hat on. People are tuning out ... As soon as they can, they’re tuning out the ads on there, because it’s so built in. And so, I think that’s why some companies are trying to get people to be like, “Oh this movie was so fucked up, I’m so glad I had my Sprite in my hand at the time.” Or whatever. That’s the kind of thing that they’re moving toward.
I don’t even think the data’s there. I don’t think they even understand how people are ignoring it. I have a 6-year-old, and those unboxing videos and all that kind of shit.
KS: Watches them?
Oh yeah, it’s terrible.
KS: Yeah, I have a 13 and a 16 year old.
And so there are things like that.
KS: They’re ensconced in it, in a way that I never — that I was in television, I guess.
And that is where the content is advertising.
KS: But I do think we’re consumers of it, versus contributors to it, more. And if we don’t start to be contributors to it, we’re captive of it. Just the way, the thing in your movie, everyone was captive of that company, versus being controlling of their own destiny. If that makes sense.
KS: I saw a speech that Van Jones gave here a million years ago at the church, Glide Memorial. It was a bunch of African-American teens from Oakland. And he looked down at them and he said, “How many of you use the internet?” And you know, use apps and things like that. And they were like, “Who is this stupid old guy, of course we use them.” They all put up their hand. “How many of you download things from the internet?” And they sort of were making fun of him for saying that. And they all were like, “Of course we do, everybody does.” And then he said, “How many of you upload things to the internet?” Which means contribute, or be part of the wealth creation or any part of it. How many of you upload things. And very few of them did. I’ll never forget this, as long as I live. He said, “You’re all digital sharecroppers. And other people are becoming billionaires because of you.” It was such a jarring thing to hear from someone.
I wasn’t there, so I didn’t hear that. But I would say this ... So much of what we do when we are uploading photos and uploading videos is actually also being ...
KS: That too. Yeah, the whole thing is created for ... You’re exploited, and they make money. Same thing.
Yeah. Everything about our lives is commodified. Our social interactions, all of those things are a commodity. Everything is efficient now. We are just more efficient beings because even when we’re telling someone where we are by text, that is now able to be sold as ... So we’re always producing.
SG: So what’s the next project, you were talking about a TV show?
Yeah, I have a deal with this company called Media Res, which is ran by a guy named Michael Ellenberg. He’s one of the people that brought “Game of Thrones” to HBO. And so yeah, I’m writing the pilot right now. And then I also have a deal, and I can’t say who that’s with yet, for my next feature. So, working on that stuff.
Can’t say. It’s about stuff.
KS: What’s the TV show about?
I can’t say that yet, either.
KS: Oh my goodness. Do you like TV or movies better? TV’s where so much is happening, or people shift between TV and movies.
Yeah, I think I can make something that I love, but I’m not as satisfied with how people consume TV. Because it’s more, I don’t know.
KS: It’s internet-based now, very much so.
Yeah. And that’s what I mean. Either way, even TV on regular TV or internet. I think people think of it as more disposable, like it feels more disposable to people. People might love “Game of Thrones” or whatever.
KS: They eat it like snacks.
Yeah, are they gonna be like ... And their friend hasn’t seen it. “Oh you’re watching episode three in season two? I’m gonna sit and watch that with you.”
But film ...
KS: They could see it twice, or three times.
Yeah. You’ll go, “Oh you haven’t seen that, I wanna watch that with you.” And they’re both valuable because one is art that’s like a Polaroid, here and now. And the other is something that’s a piece that will be there. I don’t think one style is more valuable. I’ve always been a person that wants to make something that you can return to.
KS: And music?
Well, we did The Coup, which is my group, I guess I haven’t said that. We did the soundtrack to the movie. Tuneyard did the score. The Coup’s music is all the stuff that the characters can hear. Tuneyard’s music is all the stuff that we can hear, but the characters can’t. Yeah, so we did that. The soundtrack album is out on Interscope right now. I’m sure we’re gonna perform it and stuff like that. I can say that one thing I’m happy about in this shift in my life is not having to sit in a van for 10 hours a day getting from gig to gig. We’ll probably tour less.
KS: All right, last question. When you’re looking at the political climate and everything else ... The success of this movie, and the success of a lot of things right now, are sort of counter to the prevailing political environment ...
Can you say that question again, sorry.
KS: Well, do you see things shifting? In this current political environment, the stuff that’s succeeding is opposite to that, it seems like.
KS: Which means people ... We’re talking about people sitting around, or those “suits for Rage,” or the people sitting around at a party saying, “Wait, I actually do agree with you.” Do you think that that’s not being spoken of now?
I think that people are feeling bolder in what they will say, what they will talk about with people. I think that folks are looking at problems more critically and thinking that something needs to be done.
There are two things, though. That one, there has to be a movement that people are able to be involved with at their place of work, because that’s where we spend most of our day. Or in organizing around using where people’s power is, using that point of power that folks have, which is their labor. That means there needs to be a movement that will utilize the withholding of labor. Not only to change wage labor values, but to also effect political change. There’s a danger of putting all of these problems on the Trump administration. I’ve seen it happen before.
KS: Because “you think this is unusual” but it’s not, is your point?
It is unusual in the sense that things are going to get more extreme. But the stairway to hell that Trump is building is only an extension of the stairway that’s been being built this whole time. And what I saw happening with the anti-war movement was it became all about, “Get Trump out.” I mean, “Get Bush out.” And then Obama came in and was able to do a lot of the same things with way less people speaking out about it.
So I think that it’s the job of folks who know better to not just swat down that energy that people want to use to work against Trump, but to show where the actual problem is. It’s an opportunity to gather that energy into something that’s more effective than just getting Trump out. Because right now, you get Trump out, and what’s going to happen? First of all, the Democratic party is having no qualms with moving to the right of where it was. All it has to be is a few inches to the left of Trump. And even the arguments against Trump, going around this really nationalist line. Like, “We only want U.S. billionaires controlling our political process, not Russian billionaires.” What’s going on with that?
KS: You’re right, they only have to be just to the left of Trump. It’s like the hugging of Republicans lately. “Oh, there are good Repub —” I was like, “They weren’t good before when they were against gay rights or whatever they were against.”
And folks that are cheering on the CIA and the FBI as if they don’t have kill lists and aren’t assassinating folks that are ... Like, assassinating union leaders. In the past 30 years they’ve done that, just because it was something that was building popular support, and gonna not be good for U.S. business interests. These are organizations that ... Folks that consider themselves, even progressive. Some folks are wearing shirts about supporting the FBI and all this kind of stuff.
KS: James Comey. I’m like, no.
And the thing is is some people feel like it’s a tactical move. “Look, we’ve gotta do whatever we’ve gotta do to get out Trump.” But then you’re left with a world where nobody is going to be talking about these problems afterward. So we have to have a movement that, one, aims to change the whole economic system but immediately organizes around these problems, using the withholding of labor and engaging in class struggle.
KS: Great. On that note. You’re 100 percent right, I hadn’t even thought about that. Boots, it was great talking to you, thanks for coming on the show.
KS: And “Sorry to Bother You” will be on digital platforms on October 9th, and on DVD and Blu-ray — Blu-ray, is that still around? — on October 23rd. Thank you to Shirin Ghaffary for joining me for the interview and lobbying to have Boots on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.