Musician Dave Randall’s new book Sound System—the Political Power of Music is aimed at music fans and political activists alike.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. Dave told Socialist Worker, “This is a time when people want to talk about politics.”
“Perhaps a year ago music fans had their head in their hands about the death of David Bowie.
“But now they want a serious conversation about how we change the world—and the role that music might play in that struggle.”
For Dave this opens up opportunities to argue about the “absolutely crucial” relationship between music and political organisation.
“Possibly the most important theme in the book is that progressive music is most effective when it is attached to broader political movements,” he explained.
“Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit had the US Civil Rights movement.The Special AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela had the anti-apartheid movement.
“The punks rocking against racism had the Anti Nazi League.”
But, Dave argues, when music isn’t part of a bigger movement “it is much easier to incorporate into the system”.
He explained, “Rave was a response to widely held feelings of alienation to Margaret Thatcher’s and then John Major’s Tory Britain.
“But rave didn’t have that sort of connection. It was easier for the world to change house music than the reverse.
“It went quickly from ideals of community and free parties to expensive super clubs and megastar DJs.”
Are there artists today that politically excite Dave?
“Kate Tempest, who talks about the contradictory and alienating lives we lead, is a brilliant commentator,” he said. “There’s also the Sleaford Mods with unvarnished stories of working class life and exploitation.
“And of course there’s Stormzy with a number one album talking about the reality of life on an estate in south London.”
Dave argues we should focus on music that’s “by us, for us” not “by them, for us”.
“Music ‘by us, for us’ enhances community but music commissioned ‘by them, for us’ reinforces hierarchy,” he said.
“This has been true for hundreds if not thousands of years.”
He explained, “In 12th century Europe the establishment of the time used music to reinforce the message that their social order is ordained by god.
“They tried to ban any music that they thought might have made their congregations think about worldly pleasures.
“But away from the churches and cathedrals people were listening to exactly the sort of melodies that the church didn’t want them to listen to.
“This was the equivalent of rave or grime at the time—loved by the people, loathed by their rulers.
“Throughout the history of music you see this tension between these fundamentally different approaches to music.”
So what is to be done?
The Rebel Music Manifesto chapter in the book gives “some suggestions on how we make music that serves the interests of the many and not the few”.
That means we have to “defend community music schemes, local venues and fight for everybody to be able to access music education.
He said, “If you’re writing music don’t be afraid of putting political demands in your songs.
“You’ll at least provoke a debate and that’ll be useful.
“Use whatever tools you have at your disposal, such as social media, to put pressure on famous artists to back Love Music Hate Racism and progressive campaigns.
“The more connected you are as a musician or a music fan to the movements, the better.”