Harold Stallworth feels like a black republican.
Boots Riley, the afro sporting, blackfist wielding frontman for The Coup, has always defied the notion that politically-charged rap requires a certain level of compromise—a willingness to serve the medicine with a generous side of corn syrup. In their heyday, which lasted through the better part of the 1990s, The Coup rarely ventured off message. The group’s stance on socio-economic issues was generally clear and consistent. And what made their medicine so easy to ingest was Riley’s commitment to documenting the human condition. He was a master storyteller, and his writing, at its best, gave voice to folks on the short end of bad policy, holding the powers that be accountable by simply illustrating the plight of their victims. Riley’s best days as a musician would seem to be long behind him, as his track record in the 21st century, both as a member of The Coup and as one half of the rap-rock outfit known as the Street Sweepers Social Club, has failed to live up to the impossible standards set by his earlier works. But his new screenplay, “Sorry to Bother You,” is a much belated return to form.
“Sorry to Bother You,” titled after The Coup’s 2012 album of the same name, was published in book format by McSweeney’s and packaged with the 48th issue of their quarterly fiction journal. The screenplay is set in Riley’s hometown of Oakland, California, historically a hotbed of civil unrest. By the time the lead character, Cassius, weasels his way into a low wage telemarketer gig at a shady call center, he’s already flirting with eviction and fueling his early-model Honda Civic in 40-cent increments. The job proves difficult for Cassius until an older black co-worker stationed in a neighboring cubicle puts a bug in his ear: “Let me give you a tip,” the old man insists. “Use your white voice. Like the one you use when you get pulled over by the police.”
Against his better judgment, Cassius starts to read all his scripts in Caucasian overdub, which, to his surprise, comes off so fluent and intuitive that clients on the other end of the line jump to invest in whatever it is he’s peddling, from encyclopedia sets to indentured servitude. Shortly after, he gets promoted to the rank of Power Caller and relocated to a top floor suite, leapfrogging his co-workers with longer tenure—most of whom have been not-so-secretly campaigning to form a labor union in hopes of negotiating for higher wages. Naturally, Cassius is branded a sellout by his close friends and family. Even his highschool sweetheart and live-in girlfriend, Detroit, accuses him of being “morally emaciated.”
Cassius is mindful, even remorseful about his sharp heel-turn, but he quickly finds that workers rights are of little use to the one-percent. He knows he’ll eventually be forced to choose between wealth and integrity, and its this see-saw of greed and goodwill that makes him such an endearing lead. Well, that and his love of pastel suits and E-40 deep cuts.
“Sorry to Bother You” is a pointed critique on corporatocracy that takes a weird and unexpected turn toward science-fiction in its final act. Riley, over the course of 100-odd pages, recaptures the sly humor and raw storytelling ingrained in The Coup’s first three retail albums. And in true Bay Area rap fashion, he still understands that the best jokes are told with a straight face. “There is no exaggeration to be found here,” he writes in his foreword. “No farce, no satire, no sarcasm. If there is humor, it is only because you find the sad and terrifying state of humanity humorous.”