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Tell Us The Truth: Billy Bragg and Hip-Hop Artist Boots Riley On Music, War and the Media

StoryNovember 14, 2003
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Democracy Now! interviews British singer-songwriter and political activist Billy Bragg and Boots Riley, rapper with the Oakland hip-hop group the Coup. They joined other musicians to kick off the Tell Us The Truth Tour at the opening session of the National Conference on Media Reform last Friday. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript

  • Billy Bragg, British singer-songwriter and political activist.
  • Boots Riley, hip-hop artist with the band The Coup.


AMY GOODMAN: Billy Bragg is going around the country, including next week at the FTAA on Wednesday night.

I had an interview over the weekend in Madison, Wisconsin, Billy Bragg talking about corporate media and music.

BILLY BRAGG: So much of what we say about the United States comes from CNN and the Fox empire, which is really unfortunate because I don’t think they do a service to the American people.

There is a bit of a firewall between the American people and the people in the rest of the world, in as much as you don’t get a great deal of information about what we’re doing in Europe and the rest of the world. And equally, we don’t get the opportunity to hear what you are doing. We don’t see your program and we don’t hear the views of your audience, Amy. That’s just not articulated.

I think that’s where the whole thing falls down. We are in a situation where we need to find alternative ways to build a community so we don’t lose sight of the fact that, you know, the majority of the American people didn’t vote for this president, they voted for somebody else. They’re in a similar boat to the rest of us. They’re stuck with him. We need to find a way to sort of deal with that.

It’s a real problem with regard to the whole situation of media ownership. We have Rupert Murdoch who used to be an Australian and now he’s an American. He owns huge amounts of the British media. Our own government, Tony Blair’s government — are about to relax media ownership laws which would allow foreign corporations to buy radio and TV stations, newspapers in the U.K., while of course foreign owners cannot buy media conglomerates in America. So much for free trade.

We have — the exact issues that the people are addressing at this conference — are going to be coming home to roost for us in Europe very, very soon. Particularly those of us in the English language media.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how you get word out about your music here. What is — what are these corporate record labels doing? What kind of control do they have?

BILLY BRAGG: Well, before we totally slag off the corporate record labels, I have to say Elektra records in the last 20 years — I have worked with some very good people there, very conscious people, great people, people pointing out alternative music and conscious music as well.

Sadly over the years as things have gone from being Warner to Time-Warner to AOL-Time-Warner–to whatever the next huge conglomerate is, those people have been sidelined and those ideas on which the record companies have been founded on have been swamped.

The way I found to get past that now is not to rely on the record companies and the mainstream media anymore — but to make connections with activist groups that have led me to do gigs in places that I wouldn’t do to support local activitism in any way that I couldn’t from Europe because I didn’t have people on the ground informing me about what was happening and brought me to the conference because of the connections that I have made. And when you do make music that is in some ways critical or political, you do end up meeting the same kind of people.

You know, it’s — I haven’t yet gotten around to meeting Boots, but I have certainly seen his stuff. I’m certainly aware of him. We do — you know, we see one another trying to work very difficultly in areas where political debate is marginalized.

And you check them out. You see people’s conscious lyrics. They check the people out. You know Steve Earle, Thomas Morella, Lester Chambers — We have that. It’s not just the fact that we are all Clash fans. We do actually have that ability to try to put forward an alternative to the — to the mainstream.

We’re offering our perspective, the different perspective — the way you do with your program and with the journalists who are here, and they try to get their perspective through. We’re fortunate in what we do that we don’t have editorial, no one comes in as an editor and tries to change what we say.

It’s when we run up against radio programmers, TV producers and, you know, record company executives that we have our problems. But we can go out on stage every night and say what we believe and stand up for what we want to talk about.

AMY GOODMAN: Boots Riley, can you do your 5 million ways to kill a C.E.O. here?

BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. I did it last night. So, you know, I — I don’t edit myself, really, for, you know, the audience. I mean, I — you know, I put it out. Then I know everybody might not agree with everything I’m saying and to a certain extent, you know, especially at events like this, this is a united front with people with varying degrees of agreement on political issues but I —- you know, I put it all out there, and -—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you —??

BOOTS RILEY: I think they need to hear it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you do it right here?

BOOTS RILEY: Oh, Can I do it right now?

BOOTS RILEY: Well, that’s — that song is — You mean right now on the microphone? That song — the beat is a weird meter a-cappella. I could do something else.

AMY GOODMAN: While you are thinking of doing something else, can you talk about — talk about 5 million ways to kill a C.E.O..?

BOOTS RILEY: Well, if I have some like — you know, well, I came up with the last verse first, which was just, you know, talking about how greedy the big capitalists are. And, you know, like, you know, like there’s a — there’s this thing, a quote that was attributed to Joe Hill where he was like, you know, well — one, you know, really to destroy capitalism, we can just all go have a picnic for a day and come back and say this is how we want it run.

And so, in it, you… you know, I have lines like: You could throw a dollar in a vat of hot oil when he jump in after it, watch him boil.

Throw a dollar in the river and when he jump in, if you find, you can swim, put lead boots on him and do it again.

Tell them that boogers be selling like crack. He’s going to put the little baggies up his nose and suffocates like that.

Throw a $20 in the barrel of a gun When he try to suck it out well, you know this one.

We could let them change a flat tire, Or we could all at once retire.

These are just a few of the 5 million ways to kill a C.E.O..”

You know, so, it’s really just talkin about what I wanted to do with the — with the song in general was to be like, you know —These are the really evil people of the world.

We are talking about — these are the — we are talking about gangsters as being bad. We — and we talk about, you know, all of these villains, but these are people that — and when we see the news, you know, and we think about what’s wrong with the world, even a lot of us who would think about we’re progressive, we think about — you know, the young people — and what they really mean are black people are so violent and they’re killing each other.

You know, they’re doing this stuff and they’re, you know — and — and they really — and, you know, they’re trying to make money, but they’re killing each other and they’re just these mean people. You know, we have had events in East Oakland where people didn’t come because they were like, oh is it going to be safe? In the daytime and Saturday, and things like that.

It’s crazy. But so — this, I’m talking about these are people that make policy that — that make policies and make business decisions that kill people. And we look at them as, you know the entrepreneurial spirit.

We just see them and talk about we have all of these stories about what great business — what great stock options there are in this, but these businesses are connected to death. It’s not even like they don’t know it. You know?

AMY GOODMAN: If they say you’re for killing corporate executives, what would you say?

BOOTS RILEY: Well, I’m not for me doing it myself. I’m for the people rising up and doing it. But, no, I say this, like I said, you know, the way that — the way that —- I don’t think -—

I think that we have to kill capitalism, and I think that there won’t be any corporate executives if we have a system where the people control the — the people have democratic control over the profits that they create. So, that’s what I mean by kill a C.E.O.

But what I want to say is this,–— is that, you know —–there can be so any declarations of wishes of death upon all sorts of people in this world, but —- the thing that got many people in the media mad was me saying that CEOs are worthy of death because of the death and destruction that they bring on -—-the thing that just Really Got to people —–They’re like WOW! — these other people that I really look up to, you’re talkin about Them…

But if I was just sayin some gangsta song like You stole my coke, and I’m gonna shoot you up — then it would be like Oh! That’s just kinda like the way it is…–— you know — —but this is just what kinda gets people really mad -— it’s kinda like — I mean, you know, there’s some irony there — and that gets people even more critical, like — there are many songs that people have in hip-hop and in music where they talk about killing each other.

But when you say — when you say that here is somebody that does so much that they’re worthy of death, they can agree with you, like, wow, and what I’m saying is — my political philosophy — if it is that — is that I talk about violent revolution, but I think that’s not going to come until there are unions with general strikes going on, and the ruling class is sending in the army and at that point people have to decide are we going to give up or are we going to fight?

But what — you know, what gets me is that — is that you could talk about all sorts of violence but talk about violence against the rich and there’s something that doesn’t seem quite right, and you’re like — and people kind of take a step back and, you know, look at that.

And again, like I said, I’m — the people that I make my music for, theoretically, are listening to all kinds of stuff, violence against themselves, and I would rather — I’d rather say let’s take this and show who really causes the violence. But like I said, the last verse tells how to kill — how to kill a C.E.O..

AMY GOODMAN: What were you just going to perform?

BILLY BRAGG: Well, he put a request for “Underdog.” But I’ll do a piece from something called “The Shipment.”

If you want green light Kermit keep it heated like a thermos. A spy to be famous putting fire in their anus Made the rulin’ class hate us more than child support payments To Rosemary’s baby — chick-a — shick-shady, Pissin in your gumbo, and they tell ya — it’s all gravy.

You can’t trust the big grip and the smile. And I sling rocks for Palestinian style.

Now there’s a rumble in the jungle, never mumble tho I’m humble. Couple rappers took a tumble but my folks want the bumble Who’s pimpin your bundle? I’ma fly like Seth Grundle, if you’re snitching to Columbo, we gonna drop you like a fumble.

What you make is .1% of what the boss makin. The boss take is keeping us from living great.

If you think this ain’t straight — you think you wanna sit there in the gar shade —-ya better have a coup to help you shut down his estate. Don’t get frustrated -— discombobulated

Don’t stand and debate it, get a mob and take it— til it’s food stamp vouchers. Mildew smelling couches, overturned garbage cans with no Oscar — the grouches — makin money slingin plastic pouches..

As Mr. Coup would say, my floor is covered with roaches. Absotively, posolutely, can’t do without it — the shipment is delivered, come and get it, if you bought it.”

AMY GOODMAN: Boots Riley, of 'The Coup', with Billy Bragg.

Billy Bragg, what about Clear Channel and its effects on people on your side of the Atlantic?

BILLY BRAGG: Well, yeah, Clear are just about to get their teeth into our own market.

I was saying to my British agent who gets me gigs that it might be — perhaps we could avoid doing gigs for Clear Channel owned venues. Unfortunately Clear Channel bought my whole agency and suddenly, I had to change my agent to get away from him.

So, they’re like a rising tide in my country. There is a situation building there where people are starting to become aware of what that kind of thing means. But we still do have the BBC.

You have a commitment to public service broadcasting that we are very, very proud of. And the bottom line for that commitment is that they believe that equal opinions have to apply. If someone comes on the program and puts forward one particular point of view, they are duty bound in their charter, by which they get their funding, to put someone on the opposing point of view, to put forward that.

That is something that did exist in the United States of America until Ronald Reagan got the FCC to remove restrictions to the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

I think that’s a fundamental component of democracy. You know, we do need to have not just free speech, but the right to equal opinion, to back that up, but at the moment, free speech only seems to be benefiting the right wing.

With the BBC having such a large segment of the 30-odd percent of the broadcast media in the U.K., we’re not in desperate dire straits. Our media are not as fragmented as in the United States of America because of the size. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t end up in the situation not too far down the line where all of the media is only owned by three companies, the BBC and a couple of media conglomerates owned by a formerly Australian American in Dallas.

AMY GOODMAN: that is Billy Bragg and Boots Riley on the “Tell Us The Truth” tour.

That does it for the show, if you would like to get a copy, call 1-800-881-2359.

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