As with all forms of art, the purpose of music is widely debated. For some people, it should exist solely as entertainment and/or emotional escapism, while others fully support its potential as a powerful tool for social commentary and change. In his latest book, Sound System: The Political Power of Music, guitarist/ producer/ composer Dave Randall delves deeply and engagingly into the latter path, citing and expanding upon many historical precedents as support for his overarching thesis that yes, music can and should elicit worldwide progress. His in-depth accounts, in conjunction with his amicable voice and spread-out focus, make it a fascinating and crucial read for music fans, historians, and cultural activists alike.
Randall starts the book with “Roots”, a brief preface in which he explains why and how he took such an interest in his subject. It began in the ’80s, when he was a teenager “in a seaside town known for spiteful proto-punk rhythms & blues and a very long pier”. He and some friends attended a festival called Greenbelt, during which he heard “Free Nelson Mandela” by the Special AKA. As he puts it:
I had no idea who Nelson Mandela was, but I knew by the end of the first chorus I wanted him to be free. In that moment, surrounded by thousands of festival goers hollering the hook, I learned — instinctively felt — that the future is unwritten and ordinary people like me could have a say. Music, I realized, is our weapon.
In fact, one of his greatest strengths throughout Sound System is his ability to establish strong ethos (credibility) through balanced first-hand accounts and distanced representations. After all, he’s not just an outsider reporting on others’ activities; having played guitar with Faithless, Sinead O’Connor, and Dido, among others, he has plenty of personal experiences to draw upon as he takes readers on a “journey to discover what makes music so powerful… [and] shed light on the secrets of celebrity, commodification and culture.” By the end of it, he successfully addresses a central question: “[H]ow do we make music serve the interests of the many, rather than the few?”
Perhaps the best example of how culturally involved he comes from “My Turn”, a chapter in which he details the various ways he’s joined movements, promoted sociopolitical agendas, and of course, risked everything in the process. In particular, a formal protest against Israel and in support of Gaza (on which he was eventually joined by peers like Elvis Costello, Roger Waters, Gil Scott-Heron, The Pixies, and Massive Attack) resulted in him “receiving death threats, being condemned on Fox News as ‘evil’ and branded a troublemaker by the bosses of the band [he’d] been proud to be associated with for nearly two decades.” In the same chapter, he discusses how the internet, industry friends, and general word-of-mouth helped his 2011 song “Freedom for Palestine” become the [un]official battle cry of an entire nation. It’s truly captivating nonfiction that demonstrates precisely how much Randall believes in the political power of music.
Naturally, he probes quite far back into global history to explore how multifaceted the relationship between music and politics can be. For example, “Getting Political” finds Randall detailing how colonialism in West Africa was affected by it: “What once contributed to social harmony started to represent nationalist, or indeed pan-African cultural pride, and the movement for self-determination.” He references several important artists who “saw reggae, and most importantly American soul, as music of resistance to racism, colonialism and the conservative values of their parents.” He also notes how in 1969, Julius Nyerere — the premiere of Tanzania at the time —
banned soul music, which, while perhaps “well-intentioned”, nevertheless “should make us nervous — government bans on music are rarely a good thing.” He even connects the incident to the USSR’s “futile attempts to ban Beatlemania” before discussing the influence of revered Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, as well as how Stalin and Hitler “bestowed privileges on composers who could create the right tone for their propaganda — and both were quick to terminate the careers of those who did not.”
At first, he uses “Star Gazing” to show that despite how music “often comes from and enhances feelings of community”, it can just as easily be “co-opted by wealthy elites” and rulers “that invite us not to celebrate each other, but the great leader — be that god / the king / a dictator / a ‘star’ — or a new product.” Be it medieval Europe (“where the establishment was composed of feudal lords and the Catholic Church”), the French Revolution (which saw the first emergence of composers as “musical stars, in the modern sense”), or even last year in America (with the connection between Black Lives Matter and Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance), this section serves as a great survey of how both the powerful and powerless use music to seize control and/or justice.
Sound System is ceaselessly fascinating and incredibly well researched, with a narrative voice that’s simultaneously highly educated and humbly inviting. In a way, Randall writes like the hip history professor everyone wishes they had, and while his anecdotes regarding his own participations, as well as those of popular artists like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell, are intriguing, it’s the level of depth he goes into about much older and lesser known activists that truly makes the book a must-read for anyone interested in music, culture, and/or politics.