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The Carletonian

“Boots” Riley brings hip-hop activism for Black History Month

<iday, February 1, famous hip hop artist and activist Raymond “Boots” Riley spoke for a crowd of students in the Concert Hall as part of a series of events taking place at Carleton in honor of Black History month. Traveling from the West Coast, Riley is famous for combining his two passions, music and activism, in a new medium he has dubbed “Raptivism”; hip hop for social justice.

Riley began organizing and involving youth in activism at the age of fifteen in his hometown of Oakland, California, where he worked toward fighting racism. While other teenagers were riding bikes or going to movies, Riley spent summers organizing Mexican immigrants in rural California towns. He joined the Progressive Labor Party and the International Committee Against Racism, where he held the presidential position. Riley also helped build the Anti-Racist Farm Workers’ Union in California. “It gave me a sense of importance,understanding that what I did made a difference,” Riley said.*

By the age of 19, Riley began writing and performing hip-hop in a drama class at Oakland High School and started frequenting local rap shows. While Riley appreciated the crowd’s enthusiasm for party-oriented music, his own lyrics were politically driven and differed from mainstream popular music. “Later on when I decided to do it seriously, I knew it was going to be hard getting shows,” Riley recalled.*

Riley and fellow activists and artists formed the organization Mau Mau Rhythm Collective in 1991, with the goal of using culture (primarily hip-hop) to publicize various political campaigns.

In the same year Riley also co-founded a hip-hop group called The Coup, which featured Boots (Riley), DJO, and rappers Osageyfo and Yapos. A fiercely outspoken group, the artists produced songs that are considered rally cries for social activism, like “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO.” Electric sounds and bass driven beats characterize the Coup’s music, and the lyrics center on American politics, police brutality, and racism.

Seventeen years later, The Coup has a distinguished track record. In 2001, “Rolling Stone” and “Village Voice” both named the band’s release “Party Music” best hip-hop album of the year. More recently, the 2006 release “Pick a Bigger Weapon” has gained recognition as “the rare record that makes revolution sound like hot fun on a Saturday night.”

Riley has also appeared on a number of national news media outlets, such as Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” and Fox News’ “Hannity and Colmes.” The outspoken activist has been featured and interviewed in various international media, where he has spoken on music, grassroots organizing, U.S. imperialism, and racism. He was recently honored for his participation in the “Tell Us the Truth Tour,” where some of rock and hip-hop’s best musicians have come together to protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement.

Riley’s appearance at Carleton Friday evening was sponsored by Carleton’s Black Student Alliance, the African Students Association, and the Wellstone House of Activism as one of many events that will be taking place at Carleton throughout February in celebration of Black History Month.

With Riley actively fighting against racism and critiquing institutions and cultural practices through his music, he is one of the many activists appearing on campus this month that strives to stress the significance of Black History Month in the contemporary era. Pablo Kenney ‘09 agrees that assessment of modern conditions is a valuable aspect of the month. “It’s important to celebrate Black History Month, particularly at Carleton, because its important to examine the benefits of diversity and also to recognize the shortcomings that Carleton has,” Kenney said. “It is important to have both celebration and recognition.”

*Quotations taken from “The Life of Riley” by Erik K. Arnold, East Bay Express News, 4-/26/2006

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