Meet Hollywood’s New Disruptor In Chief: Boots Riley, Musician, Activist And Filmmaker

Written by Ann Brown

Boots Riley isn’t just looking to make blockbuster Hollywood films, he’s looking to shake up Tinsel Town. Following his successful debut feature, “Sorry To Bother You,” the rapper-turned-filmmaker has bigger plans in mind.

Riley, 47,  always had an activist bent, following in the footsteps of his parents who were both activist and organizers.

Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 32: Shireen Mitchell

Jamarlin talks to serial entrepreneur and technologist Shireen Mitchell about whether Black tech investors invest enough in Black entrepreneurs. They discuss Facebook and Google de-platforming Black activists and how the algorithms disproportionately censor people who speak out against those in power.

Riley was born in Chicago and raised in Oakland. His mother is “half-black, half-Jewish,” his father, Black American.

“I have a memory of my father coming home with his ribs bandaged up and me, a kid, asking what happened,” he told Huck Magazine. “He’d be like, ‘Yeah, well, we went to fight the Klan and one of them blindsided me with a two-by-four in the back.’”

By the time he was 15, Riley had joined the Progressive Labor Party. Hip hop and film became his passions, and in 1989 Boots enrolled at San Francisco State University to study film.

Boots Riley
‘I’ve waited a long time, I’m 47, so I’ve got to get a lot of stuff done’: Boots Riley. Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

“I did shorts, but they were style exercises, very abstract, figuring it out,” he recalled. “And I was making music to go in the films.” Outside class, he joined anti-racist protests. “White supremacists said they were going to take back the Bay Area,” he told the New York Times. “They had the ‘Aryan Woodstock’ in Napa, and they’d have rallies in Union Square, with cops surrounding these Nazis.”

Film took a backseat while he took various jobs, workingpart-time for U.P.S. — a teamster job where he met aspiring rappers Spice 1 (Robert Green Jr., who became a prominent gangsta rapper in the ’90s) and E-roc (Eric Davis).

“We’d rap in the bellies of planes we were loading up at Oakland airport,” Riley recalled. He and Davis founded the Coup with the East Bay DJ Pam the Funkstress, and when they landed a record deal, Riley quit school,” the NY Times reported.

In 1991, Riley formed the political hip-hop group The Coup.

“With songs like ‘5  Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.’ and ‘Fat Cats, Bigga Fish’, his confrontational, anti-capitalist brand of hip hop is brazenly vocal, setting it apart from other strands of political rap. So when it came to making the jump into cinema, Boots found himself looking in from the outside,” Huck Magazine reported.

After Riley wrote “Sorry To Bother You,” it took him years to get funding. “When he finally did, he shot the film in just 28 days over the summer of 2017, completing a cut just in time for Sundance,” Huck Magazine reported.

Once “Sorry To Bother You” hit Sundance, it exploded. It’s the story of a young, African-American telemarketer who starts to use his “white voice” to makes sales and quickly rises up the ranks before all hell breaks loose. The film sparked major Hollywood interest.

Riley told the Huck Magazine, “The amount of scripts I’ve gotten since ‘Sorry To Bother You’ that are like, ‘The studio says it’s the movie for you!’ …And it’s Insert hit title here 2’. I’ve already had to pass up my ‘$100m for five years’ thing a few times since ‘Sorry To Bother You.’ I’d rather do the stuff I wanna do, you know? And I will.”