Boots Riley: What Questions Should We Be Asking?

Boots Riley talks to students at SMC.The Ethnic Studies Department at Saint Mary’s hosted hip-hop artist, activist, producer, and recent film director Boots Riley on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 6. While the campus was busy having a men’s home basketball game, plenty of people headed out to hear the director of Sorry to Bother You, which rated 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Students, faculty, staff, and press filled the Soda Center prepared to listen to—and participate in—a powerful dialogue about radically humanizing and transforming our society.

Facilitators asked the audience to ponder this question throughout the event: What questions must we be asking to move us closer toward radical social change? Riley reflected on this question and recalled his upbringing with his father, who had been involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Students for Democratic Society, along with being a public defender. Riley said he himself approaches activism through various art forms, such as music and film. His recent film envisions Oakland as a society of corporate oppression, where using a “white voice” can help you reach success. While Cassius Green, the main character, succeeds at his telemarketing job by using this technique, his friends unionize, fighting for higher wages. The film dissects issues of race, class, exploitation, and a capital-centered society.

Michael Viola, Justice, Community, and Leadership faculty member and Ethnic Studies board member, welcomed Riley to Saint Mary’s with powerful words: “[Boots Riley helps us] imagine another world that is not only possible, but necessary…. [His work is a] prime example of what we want our students at Saint Mary’s doing.”

Students asked how people can participate in rallies and activism in the face of the dangers today. Riley responded, “People need to understand that their bodies are already on the line…. The world that we’re fighting for can be achieved by doing these things.”