sound system

Dave Randall’s Sound System is a wide ranging and highly engaging discussion of politics and music that you just can’t put down, finds Sofie Mason


Dave Randall, Sound System: The Political Power of Music (Pluto 2017), xiii, 210pp.

When young people are most unlikely to trust politicians, let alone vote, where did #Grime4Corbyn come from? How did rappers Jme, Stormzy, Ghetts, Akala and so many others come together in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s shake-up of the Labour Party and then of the establishment itself? Now is the time to look at the power of music in politics and this is just the book to do it.

Randall gives us the kind of fizzing high-octane research that you will find yourself reading out to colleagues at work, friends in the pub and strangers in waiting rooms. Intelligent analysis like this is rarely so much fun. Perhaps because Randall, best known for his work as guitarist with electronica band Faithless and for his own band Slovo, has actually lived the conundrums he explores.

We all know that artists, in whatever medium, seek to tell stories to make sense of the world, but Randall, in exploring the ramifications for music in this search over the centuries, succeeds in catching us up in his own story – part autobiographical, part anecdotal, part polemical – delivering insights with good humour and a light touch. I would even go so far as to say that the book is part-thriller as you are desperate to know, wrapped up in the twists and turns of Randall’s argument, whether music can really ever break free from the stranglehold of big business, and be a force for change.

The premise we start with is that all forms of music (and Randall touches on most of them throughout the book from classical to jukebox, rave, rap, punk and even free improvised) can be used to either inspire us or sedate us. It can be the soundtrack to class struggle or the muzak of conformity. It can be part of a system of oppression or part of the story of our liberation. The point is that the social meaning isn’t fixed, irrespective of intention:

‘The teenage me who saw music as a weapon was right. But it’s one that can be seized by any side in a conflict. And the same piece of music or musical act can simultaneously advance different agendas. Culture is contested and context is key’ (p.16).

We follow this contest enthralled. Randall explains that the establishment has always understood the power of music as far more than just entertainment: from the Imperial Music Bureau of the old emperors of China to the CIA-backed cultural wars of the 50s and 60s and on to the horrific murder of Ibrahim Qashoush, the ‘nightingale of the revolution’ in the Syrian protests of 2011. Culture is a key battleground in the fight for hearts and minds and the ruling classes have repeatedly re-appropriated protest music across the ages to re-package it and sell it back to us as harmless fun.

Randall admits that musicians themselves are capable of being on the wrong side of history. Among a number of intriguing examples, I was most shocked by Madonna who has always appeared to me to be too head-strong, liberated and just too damn rich to worry about her career nose-diving. However, in 2003 the Dixie Chicks took to the stage at The Shepherd’s Bush Empire to proclaim they were ashamed of their president and opposed the proposed war in Iraq. This resulted in denunciations from the US press and a slump in ticket sales. While Madonna publicly supported the Dixie Chicks’ right to speak out, she postponed the release of her new album and shot a new video. Even Madge can feel the fear and self-censor!

However, irrespective of coercion and collaboration, we the people need music that speaks to our experiences, to our trials and tribulations because ‘to remain profitable, the mainstream music industry must give us at least something of what we want. In that “something” lies opportunity’ (p.28). Randall explains beautifully how music can identify with our feelings of loneliness, articulate our discontent, reassure us we are not alone and gather us together into a glimpse of a shared collective consciousness. This sense of the collective can offer a temporary escape from the deepening alienation of modern capitalism (pithily described in the chapter dedicated to ‘A Short Musical History of Neoliberalism’) and, if the music is in step with an organised social movement, it can also empower us to challenge the status quo and imagine a world less alienated.

The next twist though is that this longing to be connected and to have better lives can also lead us down the blind alley of hero-worship; gazing upwards in awe at our pop idols, buying expensive tickets, queuing for hours, being searched by security, being herded around, being kept apart by barriers and bouncers. This is our modern day via crucisto our new secular gods. Randall swiftly debunks the myth of celebrity with an insiders’ view of how manufactured and equally alienated it is.

‘To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: we’re still in the gutter because we’re distracted by the stars’ (p.109). But, twist again and, just when you think music will always be co-opted and sedated, ‘something happens to remind us that even the most mainstream of mass entertainment remains politically contested’ (p.110). That ‘something’ could be Beyonce’s black fist salute at the 2016 NFL Super Bowl when the Black Lives Matter campaign was growing. Or Randall’s own campaign song ‘Freedom for Palestine’. But music cannot change the world on its own, he argues. Of course, it provides a soundtrack to change but Randall wants us to remember that it can also, on occasion, and in tandem with social upheaval, shape the spirit of a growing movement. He illustrates the point by looking at examples where music and mobilisation come together as with Rock Against Racism in the 70s and 80s that successfully helped steer the ‘common sense’ of a generation against racism. ‘Political organisations need good tunes. But good tunes also need political organisations’ (p.48).

Randall ends with the question: what is to be done? Can music be used to challenge the political and social order or is it inevitable that it will always be re-appropriated by the ruling classes as an instrument to manufacture consent? Is there a way that people can come together as active participants of their culture and use advances in new technology to duck and dive away from the grip of the industry profiteers? Will Grime MCs help to shape the cautious new confidence in the streets and in the workplaces that last month’s election has unleashed? I recommend you read his Rebel Music Manifesto (chapter 11) and make up your own minds. This is a book that is finely scored, richly textured and a treat to read but, more than anything, it is a call to arms because we all play a part in this contest and it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.

Sofie Mason

Sofie Mason is a political activist, arts campaigner, trade union official and occasionally works for all-female plumbing company Stopcocks.

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