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But for the most part, Boots was raised in a single-parent home, not unlike a great many members of the hip-hop generation. What was atypical about the Riley household was that the single parent was a man. Boots' progressive notions about family, community, and social activism have been largely influenced by his father, Walter Riley, an attorney whose clients included former Black Panther chief of staff David Hilliard.
Walter recalls that being a single parent was at times "very difficult," but that he juggled his law practice and organizing efforts around his family. He said he became a public defender so "I could be home to make breakfast at a reasonable hour."
The young Ray Riley grew up in an environment in which labor issues and liberation struggles were linked. One of his earliest memories, dating back to when he lived in Detroit, is of seeing his dad return from a demonstration with his ribs bandaged. When the five-year-old asked what happened, the senior Riley casually explained, "We beat the Klan up and sent them out of town." In the process, his dad got bashed with a two-by-four by one of the Klansmen.
Walter, having grown up in a rural area in a segregated society in Durham, North Carolina, believed in the need for systemic change, particularly where economics were concerned. "I raised my children with that consciousness," he said. Boots' dad wasn't always a lawyer, but he was always an activist. He held various other occupations, including bus driver, political organizer, and field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality in the '60s. Eventually he got his law degree and became a public defender before eventually moving into private practice.
"Raymond, as I must call him, is Boots because I carried him around with me to meetings, changing his diapers," his father says. Walter recalls a photo of baby Raymond at nine months, holding up a copy of Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. He notes that his son digested the book at an early age; it was perhaps no surprise that Ray became "very much concerned about issues of race. ... He became a person that wanted to know what was going on around him."
Boots, who acquired his nickname in high school following an unfashionable footwear choice and later adopted it as his stage name, eventually had a catharsis. "All of those questions culminated to, later on in my life, figuring out that it didn't have to be this way," he said. To this day, the Coup's frequent references to "revolution" betray a Lennonesque (John, but also Vladimir) faith that things can improve. As he says in the new song "We Are the Ones," an anthemic proletarian ditty that posits some of the sociological and economic causes of the drug trade, We're the have-nots/but we're also the gon'-gets.
Like any parent, Walter Riley wanted his son to have a better life than the one he experienced in the Jim Crow-era Deep South. Yet while he urged Boots to go to college and possibly even "sell out and get a job," he supported and encouraged his son's rap dreams, putting up money for concerts and an indie label, Polemic Records, which released the Coup's first EP and is still run by Boots' brother Manuel. Many members of the civil rights generation haven't always seen eye-to-eye with the hip-hop generation, yet in the Rileys' case, little or no gap exists between father and son.
"There is a message in Raymond's music and his life that I totally identify with," Walter says. He notes, however, that sometimes he has been concerned about the repercussions of Boots' activism, particularly his antipolice stance. "I don't think cops are the primary focus for our anger," he said. "They serve the system."
But the system itself is one thing father and son agree about.
Just hours before Dawn gave birth to Zola, Boots outlined his view of the system during a panel discussion at Stanford University's Hip-Hop Archives.
"The image of black people is always being criminalized," he said. "The culture that surrounds us is being criminalized. And so there has to be a reason for more police in the streets, there has to be a reason why we're always broke, there has to be a reason why we're under the impression that we're under. It's never that's it's a system that's against us, it's always that it's the culture that we create that points to our inherent inability to cope. That's what all of this discussion is really about. The discussion is about 'all of the culture that black folks make is somehow not as smart as it could be and not as progressive as certain forms of art.'"
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