SR: The album seems to be a riff on “bread and roses” the socialist touchstone phrase. Is that a fair understanding?
DR: Yes. This idea that we not only need our daily bread to feed us, we also need joy and romance. I’m interested in the double meaning of the word bread, meaning money and the economic system. I’ve chosen butterflies as a symbol of the fragility of the natural world. We can’t continue to create our daily bread, in both senses of the word, while ignoring the fact that we rely on the natural world. There’s also a small nod to the area in which I live, because the butterfly on the front cover is actually a mural on a wall in Camberwell and the butterfly itself is the Camberwell Beauty.
SR: The album addresses climate change, neoliberal economics, depravation and the lockdown. Can you tell us a little bit about the need to both look at the hardships of life and finding the positive?
DR: To make the world a better place, we need to confront the areas in which humankind is falling short at the moment. We can’t just use music and art to distract us and to make us feel better. We need to also use them to confront issues. And I believe there are reasons to be hopeful. Look at the way that most people reacted to lockdown. Apparently, government advisors were planning how to deal with massive civil unrest. Actually, what happened was ordinary people responded with great altruism, generosity and mutual support groups. Later, there was an outpouring of anger at the murder of George Floyd and the huge Black Lives Matter protests all around the world. The great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci said “we need pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will”. These things do make me feel optimistic. The question of course is what we do next; how we harness this new awareness; how we action it; how we actually make sure that things do change. That’s the big question now. In your 2017 book, Sound System: The Political Power of Music, you wrote, “If we want to erode the alienation we experience in our everyday lives, we must build trust, confidence and solidarity in our communities… There are few better places for that to begin than on an impromptu dancefloor in a pub, park, street or tenement block.” There’s been a lot of discussion around what can be done about racism. How can music help us to do that? The origins of modern racism can be traced to attempts to divide and rule workforces, be it slaves being transported who were mutinying, or workers on the factory floor uniting to demand better conditions. It stems from systemic economic issues and has to be dealt with as such. So, there’s a limit to what introspection can achieve. Education is important, of course, but so too is action. I’m a materialist in the Marxist sense. I believe that if we unite to try to change the world then that experience itself will transform us. Music events can sometimes provide a first step in that direction. Music won’t change the world on its own, but it can bring people together and give them some hope and confidence.
SR: What do you think of the fact that illegal raves have returned under lockdown?
DR: One of the central arguments I make in the book is that all of culture, including music, is politically contested. The rulers throughout history and across cultures have understood that music has a political power and they have tried to harness it to advance their particular agenda. And ordinary people, conversely, have also used music to articulate their wants and needs and ambitions. The story of dance music is an interesting example of this. In the days of the Thatcher government, working-class communities were being attacked, public spending was being slashed and so on. Some young people reacted by attempting to build a sense of community around music. In particular, free illegal raves. The music industry was relatively quick to co-opt the scene and its anti-capitalist ideals were replaced by expensive super-clubs, VIP areas behind the velvet rope and high-earning celebrity DJs. I argue that the scene was relatively easy to co-opt because it wasn’t linked to broader political movements. That’s the crucial bit that was missing. The illegal raves now take place in a very different context. The government isn’t taking the threat of Covid-19 seriously enough for ideological reasons. They want the economy back to normal, no matter what. The young people who go to these raves unwittingly help that agenda. Their intentions are probably good, but I don’t think it’s something that we should uncritically support.
SR: Do you think it’s getting harder to resist commercialisation?
DR: The mainstream music industry is becoming more narrow. It would be more difficult now for four workingclass lads from Liverpool to have the sort of success The Beatles enjoyed. Pop stars are disproportionately from wealthy backgrounds and big hit songs are on average written by, I think, four-anda-half people: pop music by corporate committee. But there’s a limit to which the mainstream music industry can control things. What matters are the mass movements of the streets. If a movement like Black Lives Matter reaches a critical mass, then pop stars will very often choose to respond. Beyoncé is a good example. Political movements can change the conversation in society. And if we can help to foment that sort of bottom-up change, even the mainstream music industry will respond in some way, shape or form. I think when pop stars do reflect movements back at people, that can help. It helps to keep the conversation going with the greatest number of people. And that’s got to be good for building the movement.
SR: You have written in the past about Beyoncé’s use of the symbols of black liberation, such as in her Superbowl performance in 2016. You challenged her conclusion that the “best revenge is your paper” (black capitalism). Do you think her involvement waters down or siphons energy from the movement?
DR: I don’t think that the solution to racism is to get rich and look to a ‘black Bill Gates’, as Beyoncé suggests in the song. I am much more with people like Killer Mike, the rapper from Run the Jewels, who believes in social change from below and who was active in the campaign for Bernie Sanders. To quote Cornell West, “it’s not enough to have black faces in high places”. We must remember that Black Lives Matter had to be created when Barack Obama was in the White House. It’s good that there are African-American people with cultural weight in America, but it’s not the whole solution. We need to tackle the system which creates racism in the first place. And in order to do that, we need a mass movement from below.
SR: What political music projects are you working on now?
DR: There’s always a lot going on. I might take this Slovo album live next year when we’re able to do that, when lockdown is finally lifted. I’d certainly like to do that and I know that our singer Barbarella is keen too. It looks likely that I’ll be working with a young South African singer doing some production and writing work. And I’ve started another book, which I’m excited about.
Bread & Butterflies by Slovo is available at slovo.bandcamp. com. Sound System: The Political Power of Music by Dave Randall is available at Bookmarks Bookshop. For a longer version of this interview go to the Future Heist podcast (available on iTunes, Spotify and Soundcloud).
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