Dave Randall, activist, musician and writer, talks about the politics of music and his recently published book
Why did you write a book about the politics of music?
Early on in my career as a professional musician I became aware of two things. Firstly, that music does indeed have a significant political power. Secondly, that such power is quite complicated and contested. So, for some time I've wanted to get to grips with the political power of culture and to understand it in more depth.
What was your first experience in this regard?
A seed was sown when I first heard the Special AKA song 'Free Nelson Mandela'. At the time I had no idea who Nelson Mandela was, but I knew by the end of the first chorus I wanted him to be free! That was the first song which connected global politics and music in a way that inspired and moved me.
Where does this political power of music come from?
I think the most important factor is whether music comes from - and in some sense remains connected with - broader political struggles. That‘s the most important factor: music which emerges from bold, confident political movements tends to be the most politically powerful music. And the artists who remain relevant tend to be those who make the effort to stay connected with the movements.
You give the example of the Arab Spring.
Yes, music was an important part of those uprisings – from Tunisia, where a rapper called El General helped to spark dissent, and Egypt‘s Ramy Essam, through to Syria and the tragic story of Ibrahim Qashoush. Music in those situations helped to bring confidence to people who had been oppressed for a very long time, and to cohere them around a set of political demands. Some of those musicians paid the highest possible price for their courage.
You also talk about the struggle against colonialism in West Africa and the contested role of music...
Music played an important role in West Africa in the struggles for independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, in the post-colonial West Africa of the 1970s, many young people became attracted to American soul as well as reggae music. Political leaders, however, were worried that this was a way for the United States to gain influence in the region – they were concerned it was a new form of imperialism. Tanzania's Julius Nyerere actually banned soul music.
Many people say that protest music is dead...
There are writers who repeatedly make the claim that overtly political music is dead. They tend to be middle-aged white men and I suspect they're blinkered by their own conservatism and nostalgia. They seem to think that political music began in the 1930s with Woody Guthrie and ended in the 1980s with Red Wedge.
You don‘t agree?
No. I grew up after that, and I found plenty of artists who inspired me politically. For me personally it was Rage Against The Machine, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Ani DiFranco and Public Enemy, among others. I think there have always been exciting overtly political artists, all around the world.
Who are today's political musicians?
Well, I find it interesting that a number of popular artists in Britain are now writing about the real concerns and challenges faced by ordinary working-class people such as: Kate Tempest, who describes these things in a very poetic and soulful way; Nottingham's Sleaford Mods, who talk in a very unvarnished way about how difficult life can be; and Stormzy who describes the reality of life for many people in London. In the United States you will find Kendrick Lamar, Run The Jewels, Janelle Monáe… there are many and I think we'll see more emerge in the coming months.
At the same time, austerity is making it ever more difficult for ordinary people to make music themselves.
As activists we need to fight against those cuts. We need to do what we can to enable people to be active participants in culture rather than just passive recipients. That means defending funding for music education and community music schemes. It's also important to defend local venues. One of the measures of the well-being of a society is the degree to which ordinary people are able to create culture and feel a sense of ownership over it.
Dave Randall's Sound System: The Political Power of Music by Dave Randall (Pluto Press) is out now.
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