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Dear BOOTS RILEY—
Greetings from Oakland! I hope this reaches you—not just because I wanted to express my admiration for your musical and cultural work but also because I need to ask your permission for something as a fellow musician. But if this doesn’t reach you through private publicity channels, I thought that readers of The BigTakeover might be interested in some of my thoughts, and at the very least maybe there could be some public discussion of the issues you raise in your lyrics. I guess I have to talk a little about me first so you get a sense of where I’m coming from, and why I feel it’s necessary to write to you.
For more than a decade, I’ve been struggling to find ways to publicly combine music and politics in America’s specialized, and segregated, society. I worked and volunteered in various ways as a political activist, but ultimately found the overemphasis on mere talk, without music’s appeal to the body or the emotions, to be both ineffective and unfulfilling. On the other hand, working (and volunteering) as a musician promised some liberation from this—but not without a price. The largely white ‘indie rock’ (or folky) scenes which were most receptive to my musical and songwriting abilities, by and in large, could only appreciate the songs I played if they were about one-on-one relationships (often relating to what’s called love) or other mostly ‘non-political’ subjects.
Increasingly (and not just because of GEORGE W. BUSH’s Iraq war and his use of the word ‘terrorism’ as an excuse for increasing a domestic clampdown), I’ve become extremely disenchanted with the limits of this scene, whether they are imposed from without (by corporate censorship) or from within (by social cowardice, a feeling of helplessness, or the possibility that many of the people in this scene may come from a more economically privileged background than myself and are therefore simply acting in what they think their best interests are in tabooing contemporary political songs). At the same time, I still feel far more musically simpatico with this subgenre of music than just about any other contemporary form that I can play (I haven’t yet found hip hop collaborators; I’m getting a little too old for the testosterone rush of the youth punk scene at its best; yet am still too into punk to just ‘age gracefully’ and go ‘alt-country’ which too often claims to have outgrown the ‘adolescent’ anger of f’inger-pointing’ political songs—even for someone like me, whose repertoire is only about 20% songs like that). So, I’m very reluctant to just leave this scene behind, even if largely acts like it forgets that 1) there’s a war going on and 2) that ‘indie rock’ had its roots in a socially revolutionary spirit.
If I sound a little cynical or despairing here, I want you to know that I know that the example you have so far set in getting out your message music (that knows it can’t even hope to educatate unless it also entertains) helps save me from such cynicism or despair as no white indie-rock contemporary, with whom I feel more musically simpatico, can. Your example can fuel my faith that music and poetry can still have more potential in effecting real social change than the specialized world of marches and long-winded speeches or Op-Ed pieces to which I had once devoted far more of my social and creative energy. Because I know you’ve struggled with many similar obstacles yourself (in addition to racial obstacles I have not), and have managed to keep the faith, I wanted to thank you for the role you’ve (unknowingly) played in helping me find a way out of my impasse between the music I love to play and the messages I need to convey. I also need to ask your permission that I may continue to do this.
Since the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (and what The Bay Area Reporter refers to as ‘Hurricane Amerikkka’), I’ve been performing my version of your song “Ride The Fence” [from THE COUP’s controversial 2001 Party Music CD) to very enthusiastic mostly white ‘indie rock’ and/or primarily apolitical folky audiences on both sides of the bay, and this has given me some hope of finding some common ground across the wall the cultural segregation. I suppose it’s possible that this enthusiastic audience response had less to do with your messages and that I would have received an equally enthusiastic response had I performed a version of a less blatantly political song by local hyphy star E-40 or a national bling bling act.
It’s also possible that the audiences just appreciated the mere novelty of a white guy taking your poetry and putting it to his own white punk-folk piano playing (that has more in common with the bouncy barroom piano playing of TOM WAITS or BOB DYLAN or CHRISTINE MCVIE than it does with the virtuousity of, say, STEVIE WONDER or BRIAN JACKSON). But, until I’m proven wrong, I’m going to give the audience credit, for I felt that people, even if they’re not generally fans of contemporary hip hop, were grooving to both the sound of your words (even if my white English delivery is still struggling with pronouncing your phrases such as “who professional at black man pounce / and hand you a sentence that you can’t pronounce”) as well as your messages which can speak to both black and white.
Because of this, I want to continue to play my version of “Ride The Fence” at solo shows, and perhaps even record it for an upcoming album. And I would like to get your permission and/or blessing to do this (sorry it took me so long to get to THE POINT, Boots; I just felt it was important to set it up). On a legal level, I know I’ll need permission to do a cover in order to pay you any royalties that I’d make, but I also wanted to ask you directly, rather than your, or Epitaph’s, lawyers how you would prefer to credit performances of my version of this Coup song. Would PAM THE FUNKSTRESS) get credit? Would you, or The Coup, prefer to take all the royalties for my performances? You’re definitely entitled to them. On the other hand, I could also understand why you wouldn’t want the full songwriting credit for my version of your since because it may give people the impression that you actually wrote the melody I put it to, and it doesn’t have a particularly hip-hop feel to it, and I certainly don’t want to misrepresent what you’re doing with the song.
So let me float a few other possibilities to you, since I’m not fully aware of the laws. If you want to divide the songwriting credit up 50%-50%, and credit it as “words by Boots Riley, music by Chris Stroffolino,” I’d be willing to do that. But to be honest, I don’t feel that I deserve that. Even though it’s my melody (and beats) and your message, it’s also the sound of your words—-so at the very most I’d be willing to take 33% of the songwriting credit and/or profits. Perhaps a better option would be that, however you choose to credit it (I’m down with whatever you say), that any profits received from my version of the song would be donated to a cause that we both agree on. This way it wouldn’t rob any money from you, as well as serve a larger social purpose in more ways than one.
I certainly don’t expect you, or your fan-base, to even like my version of your song. Nor do I expect or need any reciprocation (ah—‘recipricol’—one of the ‘big words’ in MALCOLM X’s “The Ballot Or The Bullet”) like some white acts who cover hip hop songs and get upset when hip hop acts don’t cover (or even spend much time listening to) their songs. I just want to continue to play the song without fear of a restraining order on the grounds of violating intellectual property laws. I want to try to forge some more class solidarity across the walls of cultural segregation, and I admire the fact that you have spoken positively of your own solidaity with the message music of white musicians such as BILLY BRAGG and STEVE EARLE in a way very few younger musicians, white or black, that are signed by major labels, are able or willing to do these days. Your words help build a bridge, and you pose a challenge to me and others, with your ‘unity in diversity’ approach to these social and aesthetic issues that can speak to many others, even if they’re not big fans of the contemporary hip hop sound. So, what do you think? I look forward to hearing from you, and maybe meeting someday. Thanks for your words, and thanks for listening.
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