Comparatively speaking, as musical genres go, hip-hop is one that could still be considered to be in its infancy. While this can sometimes make for music that is rawer and less polished as artists and the art form itself continue to come into their own (which they are doing with a vengeance, mind you), it also makes hip-hop more exhilarating and exciting than its more staid and established musical counterparts.
And while most forms of popular music these days have origins that are grassroots in nature, hip-hop’s proud and continued proximity to the streets from which it was spawned often means its practitioners are not afraid to use both their voices and their reach to address topics in the hopes of bringing about political and social change.
Indeed, we recently saw such “raptivism,” as it’s occasionally called, in action in our own corner of the world with the release of Macklemore’s “Same Love,” a song the Seattle rapper recorded in support of the recently passed Referendum 74. The video for the song recently hit seven million views on YouTube and landed the artist on the stage of Ellen, where he delivered a stirring performance of the song, which, in turn, helped propel his album The Heist to the top of the charts on iTunes.
Of course, Boots Riley knows all about the power of politically motivated hip-hop. After all, as a founding member of the Coup, he’s been writing and recording songs about corporate greed, social ills and the evils of capitalism for a couple of decades now.
Over the years, while Riley’s style has evolved, his music has become more sophisticated and his overall musicality more diverse, his message has remained on point. And, in a world increasingly separated into haves and have nots, the Coup’s anti-capitalist rhymes have never had more currency. But Riley is quick to point out that the Coup’s output, past and present, has everything to do with the times we live in, but very little to do with who sits in whatever office we’ve elected them to. Because his message isn’t for the political elite. Instead, he means to empower the people themselves through his lyrics, understanding that the political change he seeks will come only via a mass movement from the bottom up.
While this notion of creating a groundswell of socially conscious action by motivating the masses to transform the world they live in is as old as political dissent itself, Riley’s beliefs come with a certain amount of controversy. He self-identifies as a communist and has referred to record labels, both indie and major, as being “capitalist pigs,” which would suggest doing business with them is anathema to his personal beliefs. Yet the Coup’s most recent album, Sorry to Bother You, was released by Epitaph Records, a label that may be independent, but is only barely so, and earlier albums have been released on imprints by the likes of EMI and Warner Bros. (the latter being the world’s largest music publisher), all of which certainly follow the capitalist model Riley so publicly scorns.
So, does this all make Riley and, by affiliation, the Coup, some kind of musical fraud? Or are they using the benefits provided by the machine to help destroy it?
Either description is, most likely, a gross oversimplification of the complicated world the Coup inhabits, and the fine line they tread in staying true to their beliefs while doing all they can to have their voices—and their message—heard.
However complex the situation with regard to what the Coup espouses and how they handle their business may be, one thing has never been in doubt, and that is the fierceness with which they perform their politically charged material. Backed by a live band, Riley is a rapper both nimble and passionate, and Coup shows engage audiences from the top of their intellect right down to the bottom of their dancing feet.
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