Coup De Grâce

Spreading their "Ghetto Manifesto": Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress
Courtesy of Girlie Action Media and Marketing

The sort of people who work in financial markets are not merely symbols but also practitioners of liberty. They do not suffer constraints on their private ambitions, and they work hard, if unintentionally, to free others from constraints....[T]he terrorists that crashed half their arsenal into the World Trade Center...believed that the bond traders are as critical as the U.S. generals and the politicians to extending liberty's influence in the world. They may be right. And that should make you feel proud.

--Michael Lewis, "Why You?," New York Times Magazine, September 23, 2001


Just when you thought the canonization of the stock analyst had gone out of style like Rubik's Cubes and leg warmers, new-economy cheerleader Michael Lewis offers up his dazzling image of the heroic bond trader. We should praise him, Lewis urges, as he drips his emancipatory juices upon the lower classes from on high. Like Lewis, many pundits in the wake of September 11 seemed enthusiastic to equate the Bill of Rights with the W.T.O. bylaws. "Our enemies," the line of argument goes, merely resent the extension of "liberty's influence," as represented by the global economy. Suddenly, the implication was that bloody, anti-modernist fundamentalism and a reasonable desire to regulate "free trade" had become synonymous.

And, to complicate matters, there was Oakland hip-hop duo the Coup.

In case you haven't heard, prior to September 11, the cover art for the Coup's Party Music (75 Ark) was planned to sport a Pen & Pixel of group members Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress detonating the World Trade Center. (The album, released November 6, now shows an elegant Molotov cocktail served up in a martini glass.) An over-the-top image that must have seemed like a radical-chic critique of capitalist exploitation last summer now seemed neither chic nor rad. And so, a sober critic must now attest, when you're grooving to a track like Party Music's "5 Million Ways To Kill a CEO," maybe you should pause to consider the families of those dead execs.

I said maybe. First, let me state the obvious: If just the 5,000 highest-ranking corporate officials in the world had been murdered in the World Trade Center attack, yes, it would still have been a profoundly horrifying event. But let me state the less obvious: The Coup tune is about luring greedy suits to the demise they themselves create. "Tell him boogers be selling like crack," Riley suggests of one boardroom criminal. "He gon' put the little baggies in his nose and suffocate like that." Finally, let me state the obvious and yet apparently unstatable: Even in a time of war, corporate capitalism is not beyond reproach.

Throughout Party Music Riley spends his time shoring up the notion that poor people have a right to feel rage toward rich people, while acknowledging that the poorest are sometimes the hardest to convince of that right. "Every broke muthafucka finna form a gang, and when we come we takin' everythang," Riley declares on the opening track. "Everythang."

But despite the sweeping thrill of what he describes as a "Ghetto Manifesto," Riley's political analysis is most persuasive when it's rooted in the complications of the everyday. In "Nowalaters" he reminisces convincingly about a teenage fling ("Put down the Olde E and turn up the Howard Hewitt") and the pregnancy that supposedly resulted from it. When he turns out not to be the father, he waxes compassionate about teen moms rather than dissing the woman. Riley's finest empathetic moment is "Wear Clean Draws," a collection of practical yet radical advice to his young daughter. Even didactic historical analysis like "Tell your teacher I say princesses are evil/The way they got their money is they killed people" sounds adorable in this context.

The tracks DJ Pam cooks up offer a political clarity and generosity as eloquent as any excerpt from Riley's analysis. She assembles militant funk out of the refuse of Cali G-Funk, with low-riding bass sinking melodically beneath high-end keyboards that whistle and screech. Party Music is the most immediate hip-hop assault since the heyday of the Bomb Squad. This album demands to be heard.

And so does Riley. In an interview with San Francisco radio personality and activist Davey D last month, Riley said that he wishes 75 Ark had kept the WTC cover. Not because he advocated that sort of violence, but because the continued controversy would have attracted more attention and allowed him to present alternative points of view to a wider audience. Maybe he's got a point: You'd probably never heard of the Oakland hip-hop duo before this. And he's in a fine hip-hop tradition of well-meaning blowhards who prove that free speech depends upon public figures willing to say something stupid. A decade ago, back when hip hop seemed like the last bastion of free speech, Michael Franti was willing to tell his audience that hypocrisy--or being able to mouth off without consequences--is the greatest luxury. Who's going to take up the debate now?

Sadly, the events of September 11 have proved more likely to shut down debate than promote it. Since that interview with Riley (and, perhaps, partly as a result of it), Davey D has been fired from his public-affairs position at KMEL-FM, a station owned by Clear Channel Communications, the national radio monolith. Corporate interests suspect that those of you who raise unpleasant truths may be even more critical to extending liberty's influence than McDonald's or Exxon. They may be right. And that should make you feel proud.

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