Amy Downham is inspired by a recent book about music and politics.
I met Dave Randall a few years ago on an antiracism march. I had recently joined rs21 in search of reassurance that I wasn’t alone in the way I thought and felt about the world. We talked and
agreed about the importance of sharing political thoughts with like-minded folk – how that simple act could give you encouragement and hope for a better world. If this is a familiar sentiment to
you then Randall’s Sound System: The Political Power of Music is a book that will leave you involuntarily nodding your head in agreement.
Randall tackles the dominant issues of neoliberalism, capitalism and alienation within the creative industry of music with dexterity and clarity. From the history of the Notting Hill carnival to Pop Idol, from Victor Jara’s songs that inspired the Chilean revolution in 1973 to Ibrahim al-Qashoush’s s songs in the Syrian uprising of 2011, Randall takes us on a fascinating journey through the history of music and politics that opens our mind and eyes to the world around us today and shows how powerful music can be as a way of communicating political ideas. He argues:
“Good art… dares to honestly communicate how the person making it feels about their experience of the world around them. When an artist does that successfully, their art will resonate and touch the lives of others.”
This line among many others moved me to tears. I couldn’t agree more. I work in the creative industry as an actress and feel it is our duty to reflect the world around us, to represent ‘the mass’. The feeling as an audience member that your life is being represented is such a powerful thing. It can make the impossible seem possible and the apathetic feel enthused.
There is representative theatre and music out there. The problem is getting it to reach every corner of society. Randall highlights this problem in the context of the music industry. How do you get political music to reach everybody? When Randall wrote the song “Freedom for Palestine” under the name OneWorld, music labels refused to sign the song and the BBC refused to play it. Randall shares with us his experience with Faithless and their decision to join the boycott against Israel. He describes the huge pressure put on bands by managers and record companies to drop their political aspirations. Bands that followed through with the boycott did so with minimum publicity. Are we really ‘free’ to create whatever we wish when we are suffocated by a world that revolves around profit?
At one time music was used solely for the benefit of community. Randall talks about the first ever festivals, when a group of people come together in a space and dance, drink and sing. There is a certain lift at these events, we stop thinking about our place on the social ladder and for a moment we are one, enjoying the same experience and expressing ourselves in any way we want. This
is still the case to an extent at music festivals, but big companies have caught on, with the fundamental focus being on profit and hierarchy. There is an ‘us and them’ mentality with the stars on stage in elaborate costumes and the punters paying obscene amounts for tickets and queuing for hours to get a spot at the back of a huge, overcrowded tent.
I learnt so much from reading this book. While some political books I have read have been dense and difficult to process intellectually, I found Sound System both easy to read and thought provoking. Music is something that everyone encounters day to day. It can and has engaged people politically. This is no easy feat but as David Bowie once said:
“Always go a little out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting”.
Randall encourages artists to be creative and bold,
“not to shy away from making music that is overtly political… [and to keep in sight] a vision of greater democracy – a world in which the dictates of the market are cast off and ordinary people figure things out collectively.”
It’s so important that we never lose hope and always strive to make things better. Randall’s book filled me with energy, empathy and enthusiasm. I hope it does the same to you.