July 31, 2018 | by C.M. Crockford photo by Todd Cooper
I met Boots Riley, along with a friend, on the streets of Oakland in 2012, during an Occupy Oakland protest. My memory of that day is a little cloudy — I remember tear gas dissipating in the air, but that was always off and on there. What I very specifically think about with Boots was that he was cool – smooth, chilled out, and articulate as hell. We only met him for a few minutes, but the guy who'd already been interviewed in Rolling Stone and been laughed at for his Communism by Large-Type Asshole Bill Maher, was gracious and truly into talking to us 20-year-old college kids. And only a little while after, he put out the truly excellent Sorry to Bother You album by his group The Coup, and just now he's directed the bonkers-looking movie of the same name.
At the point, The Coup have been making agitprop, Marxist hip-hop for 25 years, all of it high quality, even at their most didactic. Riley wrote “5 Million Ways to Kill A CEO” (a title I think about a lot as I look my paycheck), but he also could pen the bleak, cinematic masterpiece “Me & Jesus the Pimp In a '79 Grenada Last Night.” The Coup made several records with the casual cool of funk and jazz, and the utter fury of people who knew their history, whether it be black activism in Oakland or American imperialism (“From 400 years of exploitation / Anesthesia provided by your local TV station,” goes one line in “Dig It”).
The opener on Sorry to Bother You, “The Magic Clap,” is in keeping with that sense of needing to party even when you're mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. The whole album is a soundtrack to a big punky anti-capitalist party in Oakland, everybody getting down and then getting ready to burn the oppressive structures around you. Boots hollers, “COME ON KIDS! GATHER ROUND! LISTEN UP! THE MAGIC CLAP!” as aggressive, harsh guitar licks come into play along with a handclap rhythm, the magic clap in question. (It's hard as hell not to dance when this song's on.) The whole song moves together into a rousing and stomping groove, with accordion providing a nice little counter-melody underneath it all. Pam the Funkstress (R.I.P.) calls “Clap! Magic Clap!”in a primary hook, the verses always moving back to that simple refrain.
Boots is in fine, near-breathless form, referencing everything from MLK (“This is the last kiss Martin ever gave to Coretta / It's like a paparazzi picture when I flash my Coretta”) to Tupac's poetry (“Waitin' on that concrete rose to grow”), all of these homages and quick cuts of poverty and systemic racism gathering together to create an anthem of militancy. “We make the motor move, they chauffeur driven / Right now we can't shine right like a broken prism / I figured out the 14th is a broke amendment,” Riley spits with the verve of someone with no time to waste on debate (the rhyme of “driven” and “prism” is just perfect).
It's been a few years since Occupy Oakland and since “The Magic Clap.” Even as Occupy faded and a virtual Nazi got elected president, anti-capitalist politics have seeped into the dominant culture. Corporate, a sitcom on a mainstream cable channel, has the immortal line “Capitalism is a prison.” Socialist podcasts like Chapo Trap House are actually popular, and a survey of millennials has shown a shocking number (like, ahem, me) are more positive towards socialism and left-wing politics than towards capitalism. Ocasio-Cortez's primary win unseating a long-time Democrat incumbent has scared the living shit out of the party. And on and on, with Boots Riley's new film having great timing. In 2018, The Coup's music both echoes the past and the present as more people are radicalized by their circumstances and by the threat of the right wing that clearly wants everybody white men dead or subservient.
So what does “The Magic Clap” mean exactly? Boots' last line (before some riotous chicken-scratch guitar ramps up) is “When we snap back it's the magic clap” — the magic clap is revolution, a very literal clap back against hundreds of years of systemic violence and hatred towards African-Americans and the working class. Protest, revolution, protest songs themselves, are magic, the attempt to change the world and its form through sheer force of will. All music, however unintentionally, hopes to perform a spell on you, get an alchemy going that Isaac Newton couldn't dream of. And even as the guitar on “The Magic Clap” reverberates into nothingness along with a final snare hit, the change The Coup want never really will.
Listen to "The Magic Clap" // Purchase The Coup's music over an Anti-