The po­lit­i­cal power of song from a mu­si­cian's per­spec­tive

Dave Ran­dall de­liv­ers a punchy per­spec­tive on the po­lit­i­cal might of mu­sic,

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - writes Dan Han­cox Dan Han­cox is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view who also writes for The Guardian, Lon­don Re­view of Books, Vice and The New York Times.

In the af­ter­math of the 2008 global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, as un­rest be­gan to sim­mer, it be­came fash­ion­able to look at the cul­tural land­scape and ask “where has all the protest mu­sic gone?” A gen­er­a­tion whose for­ma­tive years had been in or around the counter-cul­tural move­ments of the 1960s and 70s was sud­denly in mid­dle-age – with na­tional news­pa­per col­umns, or tele­vi­sion or ra­dio broad­cast jobs. A co­hort who had grown up on folk, rock or soul mu­sic that sought to speak truth to power – from Bob Dy­lan to Marvin Gaye to Joan Baez to The Clash – were sud­denly left ask­ing what had gone wrong.

Whether they were right to ask the ques­tion or not, those hark­ing af­ter more so­cially con­scious art have stopped com­plain­ing so much. Po­lit­i­cal mu­sic is im­pos­si­ble to ignore. It is ev­ery­where from the right­eous rap of Ken­drick La­mar or duo Run the Jew­els, to Ramy Es­sam and the other Tahrir Square-based mu­si­cians of the Egyp­tian revo­lu­tion, and Bey­oncé’s star­tling use of pop’s biggest plat­form to sup­port the Amer­i­can #black­lives­mat­ter move­ment and ad­dress is­sues such as Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina and African-Amer­i­can his­tory.

In Sound Sys­tem, a wide-rang­ing and punchy book, only a cou­ple of hun­dred pages in length, the writer, ac­tivist and mu­si­cian Dave Ran­dall takes us on a jour­ney through what he has learnt – much of it first­hand– about the po­lit­i­cal power of mu­sic dur­ing his decades per­form­ing across the world with bands such as Bri­tish dance-pop group Faith­less.

Ran­dall makes his sub­jec­tive po­si­tion as a left-wing ad­vo­cate of pop­u­lar power clear, and as such it rarely com­pro­mises the telling – ex­cept per­haps in his scep­ti­cism about the mo­tives of megas­tars such as Bey­oncé, whose re­cent sup­port for Black Lives Mat­ter, he sug­gests, might be more be­cause her “team thought it ex­pe­di­ent (for one rea­son an­other) to get po­lit­i­cal” and cap­i­talise on grass-roots ac­tion, rather than be­cause of an individual and sin­cere belief in its right­ness. He doesn’t men­tion that Bey­oncé and her hus­band (and fel­low mil­lion­aire) Jay Z have re­cently do­nated US$1.5 mil­lion (Dh5.5m) to BLM and other char­i­ties and ac­tivist groups. Does this make them liv­ing saints? No. But it seems odd to im­pugn their mo­tives as cal­cu­lat­ing brand man­age­ment with­out ev­i­dence.

Gen­er­ally, Ran­dall’s fo­cus, as well as his heart, is in a more in­ter­est­ing place than merely scru­ti­n­is­ing the be­hav­iour of global celebri­ties. He avoids re­tread­ing fa­mil­iar ground – about those earnest protest songs of yore, when post-war mass pop cul­ture was young – by bas­ing his anal­y­sis on some of his own ex­pe­ri­ence of the mu­sic in­dus­try, in­clud­ing his in­volve­ment in pro-Pales­tinian rights cam­paigns, such as the his­tory of the BDS (boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions) cam­paign from a cul­tural an­gle. Suf­fice it to say, Faith­less’s man­ager has not al­ways been happy about the com­mer­cial im­pli­ca­tions of a band-mem­ber alien­at­ing some of the band’s au­di­ences by wil­fully get­ting in­volved in con­tro­ver­sial is­sues.

Where the book thrives it is due to the fruits of some thor­ough and en­ter­tain­ing re­search. There are some great vi­gnettes il­lus­trat­ing the fact that those with power have al­ways un­der­stood the im­por­tance of mu­sic. “From pharaohs to feu­dal lords, muftis to ma­hara­jas, repub­li­cans to roy­als, rulers al­ways have a mu­sic pol­icy,” he writes. Em­per­ors of China had an Im­pe­rial Mu­sic Bureau that su­per­vised court mu­sic, watch­ing in case it be­came a chan­nel for dis­sent. The Catholic Church es­tab­lished “a Vatican’s Got Ta­lent-style panel of car­di­nals” in the mid-1500s to choose the most ap­pro­pri­ate com­poser to up­hold the in­sti­tu­tion’s val­ues.

We learn that po­lit­i­cally po­tent mu­sic need not be som­bre nor stri­dently po­lit­i­cal to have a huge im­pact. In 1974, the ap­par­ently silly and light­weight Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test saw one of its en­tries, that of Por­tu­gal, flop in the com­pe­ti­tion but go on to be the an­them of the “Car­na­tion Revo­lu­tion” that soon de­posed the coun­try’s dic­ta­tor, Mar­cello Cae­tano. That same year, the Ital­ian en­try, called sim­ply “Si” (yes) caused huge con­tro­versy, be­cause it was thought to be sub­tle pro­pa­ganda ahead of a na­tional ref­er­en­dum on di­vorce laws – and to be safe, the song com­pe­ti­tion was banned from TV broad­cast.

Ran­dall’s book also takes in some il­lu­mi­nat­ing lesser-known ex­am­ples of mu­sic’s col­lec­tive po­lit­i­cal po­tency – he vis­its the Caribbean is­land of Trinidad to ex­plore the his­tory of the an­nual Fe­bru­ary car­ni­val and its roots in dis­sent against Bri­tish colo­nial power go­ing back to the 18th cen­tury. The story is one of con­stant con­tes­ta­tion, be­tween those with the power, ban­ning par­tic­u­lar in­stru­ments and par­tic­u­lar types of songs (in­clud­ing, in 1936, “those that in­sult mem­bers of the up­per class”), and those with the drum in their hand. It is a back-and­forth that ex­ists across the world – the no­to­ri­ous an­nual car­ni­val in the Span­ish city of Cadiz had his­tor­i­cally in­volved groups of poorer lo­cals writ­ing and per­form­ing satir­i­cal songs, of­ten aimed at lo­cal dig­ni­taries and politi­cians. It is no won­der that this prac­tice was banned by the coun­try’s dic­ta­tor, Gen­eral Franco, nor that his death, af­ter four decades in power, would see the car­ni­val re­turn with greater pop­u­lar­ity than ever be­fore (the best satir­i­cal songs now form the cen­tre of a na­tional TV event). Through his de­ter­mi­na­tion to think through the ev­ery­day mak­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence of mu­sic (so much of which takes place so­cially), what Ran­dall’s in­tel­lec­tual and ac­tual jour­neys point to­wards, with­out ever say­ing out loud, is that all po­lit­i­cal con­junc­tures pro­duce mu­sic that is in some way apt to the so­ci­eties around them – even if this process is en­tirely un­con­scious. From Sound Sys­tem’s open­ing the­sis, Ran­dall gets to the nub of the mat­ter: “our lives are steeped in [mu­sic] … it walks us down the aisle and marches us off to war”. In this sense, how could mu­sic be any­thing other than po­lit­i­cal – if it in­fuses ev­ery part of our lives? Good and bad songs alike have po­lit­i­cal res­o­nance, whether vo­cal­is­ing ex­plicit sup­port for, or op­po­si­tion to, the hege­monic val­ues of the age – or more of­ten, with­out do­ing ei­ther. The mean­ing is of­ten con­tested, Ran­dall ob­serves, and this some­times leads to un­in­tended con­se­quences. “All forms of mu­sic can be used as part of a sys­tem of op­pres­sion, but they can also be part of the story of our lib­er­a­tion – the so­cial mean­ing isn’t fixed.” Take Bruce Spring­steen’s Born in the USA; at first glance, an up­beat song suf­fused with pa­tri­otic bom­bast, it doesn’t re­quire foren­sic insight – you re­ally just need to listen to the verses – to re­alise it is a bleak tale of the knocks suf­fered by work­ing-class Amer­i­cans dur­ing and in the af­ter­math of the Viet­nam War. Shortly af­ter its re­lease in 1984, it was praised by Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan at a cam­paign rally – he was in the midst of his re-elec­tion cam­paign and look­ing to cap­ture some of the Boss’s youth­ful pop­u­lar­ity and en­ergy.

It was a clas­sic piece of po­lit­i­cal naivete, as Spring­steen has long been on the Demo­cratic side of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, and dis­avowed the Rea­gan en­dorse­ment. That year’s Demo­cratic chal­lenger, Wal­ter Mon­dale, quickly tried to make cap­i­tal out of this failed Repub­li­can co-op­tion of the song and claimed Spring­steen had in fact en­dorsed him. He hadn’t, and Mon­dale had to back­track – both pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates ended up look­ing fool­ish. The les­son is a clear and univer­sal one: most songs con­tain in­nate po­lit­i­cal po­tency, whether bla­tant or very sub­tle, and that po­tency can be un­leashed in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, by dif­fer­ent groups. But like any kind of magic, if you mis­use it, the mu­sic’s feedback loop can make you wish you had never started.

Michael Robin­son Chavez / Los An­ge­les Times via Getty Images

Ramy Es­sam’s song Irhal (Leave) be­came an an­them for pro­test­ers at Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

Ol­lie Milling­ton / Red­ferns

Writer, ac­tivist and mu­si­cian Dave Ran­dall, who has played with the Bri­tish band Faith­less.

Dave Ran­dall Pluto Dh60

Sound Sys­tem: The Po­lit­i­cal Power of Mu­sic

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