The author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music and founder of south London music collective Slovo speaks to Mayer Wakefield

Enough is the new single from South London based collective Slovo, featuring Italian singer Barbarella, Idris Rahman (saxophone) and Robin Hopcraft (trumpet). It is taken from Slovo’s new album ’Bread & Butterflies’.

All profits from sales and streaming will go to Friends of the Earth and Stop The War Coalition.

Slovo is a south London music collective founded by former Faithless guitarist and producer Dave Randall. He has contributed to Grammy award-winning albums by Dido, and worked with Sinead O’Connor, Emiliana Torrini and many others. He is also the author of the book Sound System: The Political Power of Music (Pluto Press 2017). Check out an interview with him below:

“Do we want peace or endless war, do we know what we’re fighting for?” The second track, Enough, from your band Slovo’s latest album Bread & Butterflies is a rallying cry against injustice. After the electoral defeat of Jeremy Corbyn how do you see the future of the movement in Britain and where is music’s role in that?

It seems to me that progressive political change takes place when at least two of the following three forces converge: 

1) Electoral victories for principled lefties.

2) Mass protests and campaigns which take people into the streets.

3) A willingness by workers to take industrial action – walk-outs, strikes and occupations – to win political demands.

The first is probably the least important of the three, and as you suggest, it’s off the cards anyway for the foreseeable future in the UK. That means we have to focus on fighting for the other two. I believe music can help give people the confidence to get involved and can  unite them around political demands. But equally, it can also be used to distract people from the task and divide them. Music, like all culture, is politically contested.

Slovo’s music touches on a vast range of issues from climate chaos to war to revolution. What tends to come first the songwriting and the subject matter or the instrumentation?

Usually the music comes first – some chords on the guitar or a groove that moves me in some way. Then I’ll ask myself what emotions it invokes and what lyrical theme – political or otherwise – might fit. That’s the order of things in a creative sense, but it’s the politics that really drive the project – that’s why I make Slovo albums in the first place.

Gaza has been under attack once again recently. In your book Sound System you discuss the effectiveness of the cultural boycott of Israel. Will the fact that large scale concerts are off the cards for the foreseeable future damage the boycott or help sustain it? 

Cultural boycott is a tactic, chosen by Palestinian civil society, that seeks to highlight what’s going on in Israel and the Occupied Territories and apply pressure for change. So boycotting is an act of solidarity, but simply not playing in Israel for other reasons – such as Covid-19 – is not. Therefore in the short term the cancellation of tours due to Covid-19 makes the tactic temporarily less effective, but there are many other ways in which people can and must show their solidarity with Palestinians and demand change. And cultural boycott will no doubt be an important part of the struggle again soon. I think it has proven to be quite an effective tactic, and I hope more musicians will do the right thing and join the boycott.

The Sound System chapter ‘Star Gazing’ raises interesting questions about the corporatization of popular movements and how music can be a part of that. How can musicians avoid falling into that trap?

Establishment figures and big business will always try to co-opt music to serve their agenda. This has been true throughout history and across cultures. Their job is made more difficult when artists publicly support campaigns for progressive change – when they are connected with political movements – that’s the key factor. To give one example, Rock Against Racism was effective in the UK in the 1970s because it brought musicians together with political organisations and activists, and rank and file trade unionists. Musicians became part of a mass movement for progressive change. That’s harder to co-opt and corrupt than isolated artists taking decisions in record company boardrooms. 

Compared to the world of sport, the music world has been seemingly less vocal in its support for the latest Black Lives Matter uprising. Is it just taken for granted that musicians support BLM and should that be the case?

Well don’t forget that the latest upsurge in BLM protests has come at a time when sporting events are taking place again, but concerts for the most part aren’t. Many musicians have publicly declared their support for BLM including some huge artists. I discuss Beyoncé’s support for the movement back in 2016 in my book, and she has recently made a similar gesture. 

The music industry as a whole has observed a day of reflection (#theshowmustbepaused) and social media blackouts etc. So things are happening, but in my opinion it is far too little. In fact it is my belief that the mainstream corporate music industry has a long and shameful record of all too often reinforcing racist stereotypes and profiting from caricatures which exaggerate differences between different ethnicities, nations and people. It doesn’t help that on the 2019 Billboard Power 100 list of music industry influencers, only around 13% are People Of Colour – and less than 2% Women Of Colour. That must change urgently. But as Cornel West eloquently said of the experience of the Obama administration in a recent interview with CNN, it’s not enough to have “black faces in high places”. We also need wealth and power to be redistributed within the industry and beyond, so that A&R, artist development, creative and marketing decisions are made by people from the communities the artists represent. We need music for the people by the people, rather than music from the people but curated and owned by the powerful. 

Despite the glamour attached to being a musician you are often underpaid workers, reliant on unstable, seasonal work. What new challenges has the Coronavirus crisis presented and are there any positive opportunities that have come about?  

Coronavirus has of course led to a huge loss of work and wages in a sector which, as you rightly say, was already perilously precarious. On a personal level there have been some silver linings – not least experiencing London with less traffic on the roads, less planes in the sky, less pollutants in the air and more birdsong. But professionally speaking it’s been tough. I’m pleased to say that we’ve been able to keep creating during lockdown. Two of the songs on the new Slovo album were in fact finished during lockdown and the video for the track ‘Woman On The Edge Of Time’ was also made during lockdown – filmed on phones by the performers and edited at home. I think it’s a great video – so that’s pleasing.

I think many of us have taken solace in music during this period, what have you been listening to? Anything in particular stand out? 

Yes – I’ve been doing a lot of listening. Three very different albums I’ve been enjoying and would recommend are ‘The Prairie’ by Tom Brosseau, ‘The Healing’ by Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness and ‘Schlagenheim’ by Black Midi. 

What’s next for Slovo and you personally?

I’m hoping we can play some shows with Slovo soon, but realistically that won’t be until next year. Between now and then I’ll continue to make music in the studio and I’ll be starting work on a new book. I’ll also be joining all those trying to build a movement capable of bringing down this rotten government. So, I’ll see you on the streets soon!

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