Raymond “Boots” Riley was born on April 1, 1971 and is a founding member and lead vocalist for “The Coup,” a radical, edgy, Oakland-based underground hip-hop group.
Although he has reached a fair amount of recognition with “The Coup” and their music, Riley’s intentions are to spread awareness about governmental corruption and to entice the masses to fight for change—calling for an overthrow of capitalism and imperialism. To this end, Riley became involved with the Occupy Oakland movement in 2011. Around town, Riley is thought of as one of the movement’s leaders but the real story is a little different. He had been visiting New York at the time of Occupy Wall Street, September 2011, but says to have become uninterested because the group did not seem organized enough. Back in the Bay Area in October of that year, Riley’s friends often brought him to Occupy Oakland meetings and rallies. During one rally, he stepped up to the mic to speak. Someone then came up behind him, asking him to tell the audience that they were going to go take over Frank H. Ogawa plaza—which the movement renamed Oscar Grant Plaza. Riley made the announcement thinking he was just reminding the crowd of a planned event. In actuality, Riley was the first person to disclose this plan to the crowd, tagging him as the leader of that particular march.
A sense of group unity was instilled in Riley from infancy, during which time his family lived in Detroit and were members of the Progressive Labor Party. He recalls wandering around knee-height among a bunch of adults making “party sounds,” and was later told that those memories were of Labor Party meetings. The family later moved to Oakland for a brief time. At the age of 12, in North Carolina, Riley became a local organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) whilst also being an active member of the Congress of Racial Equality. Once his family moved back to Oakland, he himself joined the Progressive Labor Party. His father was initially upset about his joining because the party had let a young man join without much research into the group. However, as Riley’s activism grew, so did his knowledge about how resistance groups best work. Having already worked with so many political groups by the age of 19, Riley found himself burning out.
Concurrently with his interests in social justice, Riley developed a love and appreciation for music. Riley’s older sister, who played Stevie Wonder and Ohio Players records, had given him his first musical exposure as a young child. Then in middle school, Riley and his friend began to thump on their lunchroom tables and make their own music, where his friend John realized he wanted to become a rapper. They both originally thought music making consisted of going into the studio and free-styling like they did at the table. While John began to seek music mentors—eventually performing regularly at Keisha’s Inn in Berkeley—Riley continued his activism and was not interested in formally pursuing music. Also being around the Keisha’s Inn crowd, though, Riley became more familiar with the music scene while meeting artists and organizers.
Comfort with the music scene helped Riley get together with musically inclined activists to start “The Mau Mau Rhythm Collective” in 1991. The name was inspired by a Kenyan resistance group. Unlike the Kenyan group, however, this group originally focused on creating art and bringing cultures together. As time went on, though, Bay Area voices shaped the group toward a more political focus—specifically toward issues affecting the working class in urban America. This distinctive fusion of art and resistance caught Riley’s attention and he began imagining spreading word of resistance through music.
From these early inspirations, “The Coup” was born in 1991: a hip-hop group that was to add a political edge to 90s hip-hop. The group started with Riley and his friends E-Roc and Pam the Funkstress; they released their first album titled “Kill My Landlord” in 1993. “The Coup” eventually grew to include eight total members: Hassan Hurd on drums, Silk-E on vocals, JJ Jungle on bass, Grego Simmons on guitar, B’nai Reberfront on guitar, and Lionel “LJ” Holoman on keyboard.
Riley’s vision for the group stayed fairly consistent considering that membership ebbed and flowed throughout the years as members left to focus on other pursuits such as college. The most fluid element of “The Coup” has been its shifts between social justice movements over time because Riley is a revolutionary before he is a musician. Such deep focus on the political kept “The Coup” out of the national scene for several years. They were a revolutionary group that exposed people who used capitalism as a form of oppression. Since big music labels and venue owners were often tied to the same oppressive hierarchy which “The Coup” wanted to overthrow, they were largely kept out of the mainstream media and stayed in predominantly alternative media outlets such as MTV and BET. When it came to live performances the group could hardly perform outside of the Bay Area because clubs would not let them in. Most venues had a negative view of hip-hop, claiming it would cause riots if they allowed the group to perform. In fact, the police force played a significant role in the restraining “The Coup.” Police often shut down independent venues that wanted the group to come and perform. However, through promotions by the alternative media outlets and through producing consistent, high quality content, “The Coup” made an international impact on hip-hop and resistance movements.
For Riley, the two worlds of music and resistance coincide; he will play music at a rally, or, conversely, a rally might inspire the lyrics to a song. In order to be productive, though, Riley oftentimes divides a year up so he can commit his whole self to one project or movement at a time. For example, Riley devoted himself fully to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He is quoted as saying: “The Occupy Wall Street Movement reinvigorated my faith in the fact that there will be a movement that will overturn this system.” Additionally, being in Oakland has helped keep Riley’s spirit hopeful because of the inviting venues that encourage authentic expression and the neighborhoods that keep a sense of community alive.
In the world of Hip Hop, Riley brings wit and wisdom with his music and his collaborators tend to be in the same vein. He has worked with Talib Kweli, Black Thought, Anti-Flag, Das Racist, Killer Mike, and WAVIP, just to name a few. In a recent interview about Sorry to Bother You, his 2018 film, Riley emphasizes the importance of inspiring people, helping them to see solutions to their problems, and acknowledging the terrible things that may plague their reality. Riley infuses humor wit into his lines, which make him both a well-rounded MC and radical activist. He is just waiting for the rest of us to show up and join him.
- Music performances at Lake Merritt (599 El Embarcadero Road, Oakland). Riley has lived all over Oakland: San Antonio, whose other names are East Lake, Foothill, Fruitvale, Funktown, Jingletown and Murder Dubbs. This part of town is close to Lake Merrit. Lake Merritt in the 2000s was a site of artistic convergence on the weekends. Artists of all kinds would meet to co-create, share, and relax.
- Hegenberger Road. Another common place to see performances by up and coming artists—dating back through the ‘80s—was in abandoned office buildings along Hegenberger Road. In fact, “The Coup” shared one such space with Outkast, Easy-E, and an upcoming girl group Easy-E was promoting in the ‘90s.
- Today, Riley frequents Fifteenth Street Galleries (15th Street between Webster and Harrison in Downtown Oakland), which is a spot that has been opened up by Prime, a young group that is putting out clothes and hosting parties every Second Saturday. Around this area are other hotspots for the young, creative, and restless like Omirroo, Tilde, and the Naming Gallery.
- Lower Bottom. Another neighborhood that has made a big impression on Riley is West Oakland, also known as Lower Bottom, which is known for its intense interactions with police in response to racial profiling. This is a neighborhood that fights back. In an interview with Vice, Riley professed: “It [Lower Bottom] was the biggest feeling of community that I’d ever had.”
- Today, New Parish (1743 San Pablo Ave, Oakland) is Riley’s favorite Oakland venue for music while his favorite places to eat are a three-way tie: Pizzaiolo, Bissap Baobob, and Abura-Ya.
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