Sorry to Bother You is taking viewers across the country on a surreal, riveting and socially conscious joyride in the theaters. But, people may still be wondering about the mastermind behind the non-traditional Hollywood hit. Activist and hip-hop veteran Raymond Lawrence ‘Boots’ Riley may be new to directing movies, but he has a long history of creating media that is ‘out of the box’ and tests your thought process toward systemic societal issues. As a longtime anti-capitalist who did a stint in telemarketing, Sorry to Bother You is an artistic reflection of many facets of Boots Riley’s life’s work and passions.
Born into a family of activists in Chicago and raised in Oakland, California, Boots was born into a legacy of activism and organizing. His father started the Durham, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP at the age of 12 and continued to be involved in the movement throughout his life. Years later, Boots’ father moved to Chicago and settled in Oakland, where he went back to school to become a lawyer when Boots was a young child.
Seeing his father’s tireless efforts with organizations like The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and his grandmother’s daily operations as head of the Oakland Ensemble Theatre proved to influence Boots’ life work. “I became an organizer by helping out farm workers to organize a union,” Boots told NPR, “and so I saw the opportunity to fuse art and movement building.” Boots joined a theatre group and was helping produce plays before he saw what Spike Lee was doing in film and thought that doing plays in front of small audiences would not have as much of an impact. That inspired Boots to attend San Francisco State University (SFSU)’s film school in 1992.
While studying at SFSU, Boots made a few shorts but found that his band, The Coup, had a better chance of gaining traction as rappers from Oakland were taking off a lot faster than filmmakers in the early ’90s. In response to this climate, Boots left school to continue creating music with bandmates Pam the Funkstress and E-Roc. Together they made socially disruptive music inspired by their passionate fight against capitalism and unfair labor practices.
Rappers such as E-40, Too Short, and Tupac were all making waves on the hip-hop scene, and The Coup was a part of the elite group of Bay Area-born artists breaking into the ’90s with much critical acclaim. Boots recently talked about his history with Tupac on a Reddit Ask Me Anything chat stating, “Tupac and I had an interesting relationship, as at one point we dated the same girl at the same time, and she would pass along messages and critiques of each other’s music.” He continued, “But at a certain point, right after The Coup got signed to Wild Pitch, we ended up in New York somewhere, he was automatically very supportive and really expressing love and the want for The Coup to get out there more.” Boots shared that when he and Tupac were in E-40’s “Practice Lookin’ Hard” video, it was like a reunion. He further noted how much of a consummate artist Tupac was, stating, “…with every break in shooting, was trying to get into a studio to go record. If we were waiting around he would be like, ‘Man, we should be getting in the studio right now, we shouldn’t be wasting this time.'”
Music writer Steve Huey said The Coup’s first album, Kill My Landlord, took “political rap to a whole new level of intelligence, attacking not only racism but also the economic and class factors that keep African-Americans oppressed.” East Coast rappers like KRS-One and Public Enemy were also looking to evoke thought from their listeners, though gangster rap started to become ‘louder’ and more popular than The Coup’s music with a message. Nonetheless, they persisted with another album before breaking ties with their label, taking a few years off and coming back in 1998 with just Boots and Pam. Their loyal fan base stayed with them and so did their contemporaries as there were several collaborations on their newer albums.
The Coup’s most recent album, 2012’s Sorry to Bother You helped to express the ideas and themes of the film’s concept, make funds, and get the word out after Boots wrote the script that same year. While on tour for the album, Boots ran into Dave Eggers whom he gave the manuscript to and who subsequently printed it in his magazine, McSweeney’s, in 2014. That publishing allowed Boots to get invited to the Sundance Institute Development Labs, and he continued to develop the project to what it is today.
Though well known in music, Boots believed he would have to work extra hard for people to think he could transition into filmmaking. So he hustled, networking his way through parties to get his script to the right people and leveraging relationships he built in Oakland to get Sorry to Bother You made. A pivotal moment in his journey came when he took part in the selective San Francisco Film Society’s FilmHouse – a year-long filmmaking residency.
Sundance 2018. I thought this moment was my first meeting w @daveeddiggs. But he told me that he actually had attended my “Art & Organizing” workshops that I taught at La Pena Cultural Center back in 2000.
The next time I saw him, we were both premiering our films at Sundance. pic.twitter.com/aeCdrISSDq
— Boots Riley (@BootsRiley) March 28, 2018
In recent years, black filmmaking talent coming from Oakland is rising just like the time when several hip-hop artists appeared on the scene 30 years prior. Fruitvale Station and Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler, Jinn’s Nijla Mu’min, Blindspotting’s Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal and more are joining Boots as black media makers making an impact with roots in the Bay Area.
Oakland is the perfect subject and background for the film and Boots’ career, as it plays as much of a role in Sorry to Bother You like any of the characters. As the poster-child for the effects of gentrification and ongoing racial tension, and with some of the largest tech corporations housing ‘Worry Free’-like campuses only miles away in Silicon Valley, real-world Oakland is just as dystopian as the film’s version of the city. This makes Sorry to Bother You relevant and critical for such a time as this when many are looking for ways they can make a change. Thankfully, Boots is not sorry to bother you with such ways and solutions. He’s said as much in a recent interview with The New York Times, stating that he hopes to “help build a mass movement that can use withholding of labor as a strategy for social change.”