The Coup's Boots Riley Keeps The Revolution Alive & Discusses His Ambitious "Shadowbox" Stage Production

Posted by Billyjam, November 21, 2014 10:18am | Post a Comment

About a quarter way into the The Coup's amazing world premiere of Shadowbox - the longtime politicized Oakland hip-hop group's ambitious multifaceted, mixed media, multi-stage production that played as a preview for only two shows at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) - front-man/emcee Boots Riley pointed to the giant floor-to-ceiling artwork by East Bay street artist Jon-Paul Bail. The East Bay muralist's giant cityscape print, that wrapped its way around all walls of the entire performance space at YBCA, was an accurate image of the changing city that awaited outside the museum's walls. Skyscrapers and other towering buildings with bold logos emblazoned on them of American born and bred entities like Twitter, Google, IBM, AT&T, NRA, and the PMRC acted as the perfect backdrop to the revolutionary hip-hop group's message of Shadowbox - to question authority and rebel against exploitative predatory corporations and the politicians that they've paid off to continue their rise to power at the expense of increasingly poorer working class of America.

In addition to Boots Riley and his full live band, the large scale production boasted numerous other artists joining the Coup on three stages (sometimes simultaneously) including Dead Prez, Classical Revolution, W. Kamau Bell, Mortar & Pestle, Snow Angel, Eat The Fish Presents, and Extra Action Marching Band. The choice of all of these artists, like the inclusion of Jon-Paul Bail's art work and the video projections and other stage designs by David Szlasa, was all the brainchild of Boots Riley. The Coup mainman has been a fan and friend of Bail's for many years and the inclusion of his art seemed like a no-brainer, he told the YBCA audience.

"The first time I met him was in high school when we used to cut school and go to Alameda Beach and the police would harass us - even after school they'd harass us. And all of a sudden I would see police roll up and on the side of their cars where Nazi insignias - what looked like official Nazi insignias on the car and they were placed very neatly so it was done when they were at a coffee shop or something. And I was like 'Who is doing this?' because that was how we felt about the police. And then I met him…… And I was in an organization called International Committee Against Racism and we worked on going to fight the Nazis up in Vallejo. He was the first artist putting out political messages in his art - him a bunch of other students at CCAC. And we ran into each other recently and put this together."

A part of YBCA's Bay Area Now 7 series that highlights innovative local talent, the two shows offered Boots an opportunity to test out his ambitious production for the first time. With set production design by David Szlasa that included visual projections, overhead drones, and the hood part of a car for the inspired rendition of the Coup's 1998 recording "Me & Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night," the concert/art show/experience was both most impressive and unique. It featured a non-stop array of surprises such as the aforementioned guests popping out of everywhere including the Extra Action Marching Band and M-1 from Dead Prez to do their classic "Hip-Hop" or when the "Guantanamo Bay GoGo Dancers" first appeared on stage. It was quite a night that included The Coup (full live band backing Boots and Silk-E - no Pam the Funkstress unfortunately) covering such classics from the band's rich two-decade long career as "50 Ways To Kill A CEO" and the grand finale of "Fat Cats and Bigga Fish" for which both the Extra Action Marching Band and Classical Revolution jammed along with Boots and The Coup.

Since the premiere production of the YBCA presentation of Shadowbox, which Boots Riley accurately describes as a "multi-stage concert/ dance party/ theater/ installation/ haunted-funhouse" and which I think deserves to be on Broadway, I had an opportunity to catch up with artist to ask him when and where the Shadowbox might play again in the near future? He told me that while there are no immediate follow up shows planned but that they're "bringing it to Paris and other parts of France mid-2016," adding that, "We want to get it into some other places before that.

I asked what kind and size of venue did he see as the ideal setting for a production of Shadowbox? "I think it just has to be a big open space that can have multiple stages and various points of interest throughout, which is why YBCA worked so well," replied Boots. "We could do it in a warehouse, or even in a big tent-like a circus. But, the idea is for us to tailor the show to the space. New spaces feed new ideas!"

Not having a sign with the model name and not being an expert in '70's American car models, I wasn't sure if the elevated car-front prop that Boots climbed up into for "Me & Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night" was that of an actual 1979 Granada car or not, so I asked Boots if it was. "No. It was a way better car and it was mid-'80s. I forget what it was. A Caprice, maybe," he told me. "I bought a car from a junkyard and had them take the fenders, front grill, and hood off. But during the process, somebody tried to move the car with a forklift and wrecked the whole grill. The day before the show, we put it back together with glue." 

No stranger to controversy Boots Riley recently made headlines when he inadvertently got booked onto a Cleveland FOX TV affiliate in connection with a music festival he was playing in the area a few months ago. After being asked on the morning news program to describe The Coup to a clearly clueless host, he described exactly what the Coup was about. The shocked TV station was not impressed, labeling his factual description of the group as a "political rant." I asked Boots if he had any comment on the incident. "Well, it's interesting that the main reaction is that the show didn't do their research, because obviously I wouldn't be let on if they had. And that's true. That's accepted reality. They won't let radical viewpoints out on the news, unless the point is to make those views look like they aren't held by many people," he replied. "We know this is not just true for Fox and its affiliates, but this is the same for CNN, NBC, whatever. I mean, this was a local station, not a network. The producer actually sent an email barring the promoter of the festival from further coverage because they got me on the air. These folks run a bowling alley. Their events will not be promoted by the station because they were part of the process for getting me on the air. Usually, that kind of thing goes down without it being written in an email. Luckily, the promoter sent it to me. I mean, say you're not already a committed revolutionary. You're someone just trying to function in the world. You have some viewpoints that might be radical, you understand that we need to get rid of capitalism, if you understand that your livelihood could be fucked with because of espousing those ideas, then you're going to hide those ideas. You might even look for more liberal/acceptable ways to espouse those same ideas. Especially if everyone else with those radical ideas are hidden from you, or they are painted as other. This happens all the time. There are so many radicals in the US. They just don't use the same lexicon that some of us self-identified radicals use. Several people came to me at the festival saying that their parents were hyped on what I said. They said they had no idea that their parents were down with revolution."

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The Coup (26), Boots Riley (14), Shadowbox (1), Ashleigh Castro (1)