I HAD NOT HEARD of the rapper Raymond "Boots" Riley until earlier this week, when the May 22 Washington Post Style section ran its feature front page article about the self-proclaimed "rapper communist," a man journalist David Segal describes as someone "better known as a bomb thrower;" and as lead vocalist and longest standing member of a hip-hop group called "The Coup." That I did not know of him is hardly surprising. Rap music is not exactly my beat. I tend to prefer bluegrass, alternative country, blues and traditional folk music. But according to the article, the group’s fourth album, "Party Music"as in Communist Party, not party, partyhas been dubbed by our venerable music critics as an album filled with "wit and surprising tenderness," as well as "humor and funky bravado." Indeed, three New York Times pop critics chose it as one of the year’s best CDs, as did Rolling Stone, Spin, The Los Angeles Timesthe list goes on and on.
Fortunately for us, the company that produced the album is in the shoals of collapse, and therefore seems to be generally unavailable. Now I have admitted I have not heard the album. Perhaps as hip-hop goes, Riley’s work stands out favorably. From the few soundbites of the album available to hear at Amazon.com, I am not impressed. "Lazymuthafucka" has Riley proclaiming that were are "all controlled by lazy muthafuckas," which seemsdespite its techno beat and chorus, hardly profound. "Ride the Fence" includes this verse:
This beat is joyful like jailbreaks
The whole world is anti-United Snakes
So check it out, anticipate the anti-venom
And move your antibodies to this revolution rhythm
We goin’ be messin’ with ‘em.
Another ditty, "Get Up," tells us:
Honestly, I’m against this Government.
I don’t have to cover it up; that’s what I meant.
….the Ghetto’s a cave
They only give you two choices; be a rebel or a slave.
I guess if you’re a Chomskyite, then perhaps you will like dancing to it. Riley covers just about everything. Paul Simon once sang about the many ways to leave your lover; Riley sings about "5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O." No wonder the media pundits are bamboozled by Riley; David Segal explains that Riley is trying to "sell communism not just as a way to seize the means of production," but more importantly, as a "shortcut to the all-night dance bash of your dreams." He should, of course, speak for himself. Anyone trying to dance listening to this for more than ten minutes is certain to come down with one giant migraine. Perhaps on second thought, that is good preparation for the communist future.
Segal also likes Riley’s belief that "Bolshevism can be a hoot," and he finds his "attempts at persuasion…wry and winningly subversive." Or maybe Mr. Segal doesn’t need much to persuade him. As for Boots Riley, he stands tough as any of his Communist heroes. Don’t get caught carrying an American flag anywhere near one of his performances. As he says in a prepared statement: "The Coup does not support the American flag. It stands for oppression, slavery and murder." Segal claims that the high-paying audience at B.B. King’s nightclub in New York City’s Times Square cheered. Maybe Nation magazine columnist Katha Pollitt was among his fans; seeking musical support for her now famous refusal to let her daughter fly the flag from their living room window after 9/11.
Of course, Segal does point out that Riley has a bit of a problem with the same contradiction that must have plagued "Rage Against The Machine," when these Harvard Chomskyites became rock and roll superstars on a major label, playing giant stadiums and making the big capitalist bucks. And so we learn that Riley is, as Segal puts it, "making a whole lot of peace with capitalism." Indeed, his recent tour was funded byyou guessed it, Pepsi Cola. I guess when the means of production are seized; the profits distributed to the poor and the companies nationalized, Pepsi is seeking an insurance policy. Maybe Boots will put in a good word for them, and they’ll only nationalize Coke.
Like the new generation of folksingers who carry on their parents’ traditionsPete Seeger is passing his mantle to his grandson Tao Rodriguez Seeger, who tours with him; Arlo Guthrie’s daughter Sarah is touring and taking on the family business, Riley is following on his dad’s footstepsit seems that his father, Walter Riley, was an organizer for the ultra-Maoist 1960s Communist breakaway group, Progressive Labor. "My wife and I hoped that our children would ingest our ideals," he proudly comments. Good thing PL isn’t around much; anyone singing rap would most likely have been expelled for such revisionist deviationism. It’s a far cry from the kind of "people’s music" the PL comrades favored.
At least Riley eschews patriotism, and admits up front to being anti-American, anti-capitalist and to be a self-proclaimed revolutionary. This is not the case for Peter Dreier and Dick Flacks, two old, New Left veterans and Red-diaper babies. Writing in the June 3 Nation, they prefer to resurrect the Popular Front of the 1940s Communist heyday, because unlike Riley, they want to prove that the Left is really patriotic, and not anti-American, as its critics charge. What angers them are all those people who think only conservatives fly the flag and are patriotic. Perhaps their problem is that they don’t read The Nation regularly, or certainly, they don’t listen to Boots Riley.
All their examples of Communist patriotism are drawn from the World War II yearsand they somehow forget to mention that all those lyrics and cantatas and songs they cite were written during the golden years of the American-Soviet alliance against Hitlerwhen the Reds could still serve Stalin and pretend to be American patriots at the same time. Or they go back to 1891, when Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, which went along with a campaign he was involved in to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America by "promoting the use of the flag in public schools." Where have Dreier and Flacks been these last few years? Can they find me a Leftist today who wants to celebrate that imperialist racist Columbus by flying the American flag? As for Bellamy, they note that he wanted "all the schoolchildren of America to recite the pledge at the same moment." Find me a Leftist today who calls for that; he’ll have the ACLU on his back in one day!
As to the music they praise, it of course is that of Woody Guthrie; Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland and Earl Robinsonyou get the idea, Party members or fellow travelers who tried to, in their words, "combine patriotism and progressivism."
Now it is true, as they note, that Robinson and John LaTouche wrote "Ballad for Americans," a sing-song ode to our democracy. During the war years it was so popular that it was sung both at the 1940 Republican Party convention and that of the American Communist Party, which then under the reign of Earl Browder, used the slogan "Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism." But much to these authors’ dismay, they were shocked to find that the song was revived in our nation’s 1976 bicentennial celebration. Another revived ballad of that era by Lewis Allen and Earl Robinson, was "The House I Live in," sung in a film short of the ‘40s written by the Communist writer Albert Maltz, in which Frank Sinatra is shown singing a song about racial equality to a bunch of school kids.
Sinatra, they write, had the nerve to sing it at the 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial, in front of President Ronald Reaganwhere undoubtedly, a good portion of our countrymen heard it for the first time. To these to it was the final irony: "Sinatra performing a patriotic anthem written by blacklisted writers to a President who…helped create Hollywood’s purge of radicals." They just don’t get it. The irony is that the Communists who wrote these words thought privately that they were advocating Communism. Earl Robinson even said in an interview that was what he had in mind when penning his music. But since it was the Popular Front only those in the know got the hidden messagewhile most Americans saw the songs as musical contributions meant to bolster the spirit of wartime unity. And the generalized lyrics expressed traditional American democratic goalsacceptable to most Americans whose concept of patriotism was not that of service to Joe Stalin and his successors in the Soviet Union. Sinatra did not have to change the words when he sang it in 1986, and as President of the United States, Ronald Reagan had as much right to endorse its sentiment of racial equality as anyone else.
What Dreier and Flacks are arguing is that the Left is really composed of the patriots and the Right is not. The "progressive authors" they citethey really should say Communist authors are those who rejected "blind nationalism, militaristic drum-beating and sheep-like conformism." Actually they are people who supported Stalin and the USSR blindly, who rationalized the totalitarian dictatorship, and who beat the drums for peace only at the time when Stalin wanted a peace campaign to offset any Western response to his global ambition. Today, the hard Left stands in the tradition of opposing those who understand the need for a tough response to the threat of terrorism. That is precisely why Michael Walzer wrote his much-quoted essay "Can There Be a Decent Left?" for the social-democratic Dissent. He thinks that there can be; he knows that at present, the mainstream of what remains of the Left first has to prove itself. The cultural legacy of today’s Left is, indeed, that personified by Boots Riley. It is not that of the cozy and warm dream-world of the Popular Front Leftists, and it is stridently and proudly anti-American. As for me, when I order a soda, I’m afraid I’m going to have to remember to ask for Coke. They need the profits before nationalization takes place.