activism books design

Sound System – the political power of music, by Dave Randall

At some point this evening the election results will be announced, and our Prime Minister will come out to do a victory speech. If previous occasions are anything to go by there will be balloons and cheering supporters, and a popular song will be ruined for everybody. A politician will give into the temptation to dance, and the footage will live forever on the internet. So there’s something to look forward to, whichever way you voted.

I’ve been thinking about music and politics because last week while I was on holiday I read Dave Randall‘s book Sound System: The political power of music. Randall is a guitarist and producer who has toured with the likes of Faithless, Dido and 1 Giant Leap. He also has a healthy interest in politics and protest in music, and has been collecting stories and talking to interesting people all around the world.

I’m sure there are more scholarly and comprehensive histories of protest music, if you’re looking to study the subject. If you want a general overview of the role of music in politics, I doubt you’ll find one more engaging than Sound System. Randall approaches the topic with a natural curiosity and a conversational style, an ear for an anecdote and a passion for justice.

Central to the book’s thesis is that there is no particular genre of ‘protest music’. Every style can be used to oppress or to liberate, and “the meaning of all music is contested”. Neither does a song need to be written specifically as a protest song to make a political point. Randall demonstrates this with the story of the Beatles in Russia, where their music was banned and circulated in underground networks as a subversive sound of the West.

I’d never heard of this, and the way that Russians traded improvised records made on old x-rays. It’s one of many fascinating stories. It would never have occurred to me to look up the history of the steel drum either, and I will look at it differently when I see the Trinidad delegation march by in the Luton carnival this year. I won’t summarise it and spoil it, but it’s a story that goes back 300 years and has its roots in the defiant celebration of plantation slaves.

One of the book’s strengths is how international it is. There’s Victor Jara in Chile or the martyred song-writers of the Arab Spring, Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, Afrobeat and Highlife. I like the way the book takes the time to explore beyond the obvious examples. A lot of readers will know about the role of music in the apartheid struggle, mainly through songs such as ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. There was also a South African punk movement that was undermining apartheid from within, largely unknown to Western audiences. It’s good to see both sides covered.

There’s lots of commentary too, and enough theory to satisfy my latent cultural studies interests. Randall looks at how music is used in propaganda, to distract or to control. There are some astute observations on consumerism and authenticity, drawing distinctions between the music that is created “by us for us” and thus brings people together, and music that is created “by them for us” and reinforces existing power structures. Because it’s written by a musician rather than a historian or journalist, there’s a insider perspective to these observations that gives them an extra weight.

Randall isn’t just out to tell stories. He’s an activist himself, and he discusses his own experiences of protest songs, boycotts and how to use the platform you have. And the book is an active encouragement to go ye and do likewise, with a ‘rebel music manifesto’ at the back. If you’re disappointed tonight, pick up a guitar and a copy of Sound System, and see what it might inspire.


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