Interview: Dave Randall | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Dave Randall is a musician, author and political activist. He has toured the world playing guitar with the likes of Faithless and Sinead O’Connor and has used his inside knowledge of the industry to write his new book, Sound System: The Political Power Of Music. It investigates the raves, riots, and revolution of contemporary culture and looks at how music can challenge the status quo and lead to social and political change. We have a quick chat with the author ahead of his event at Durham Miners Hall on Sunday 6th October as part of Durham Book Festival.

Tell us more about your book Sound System: The Political Power Of Music. What inspired you to write it?
I’ve been working as a touring musician and thinking about politics for well over two decades. During that timeI discovered many incredible stories of music and politics coming together. Be it the story of Beethoven furiously scribbling out the dedication of his 3rdSymphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, Shostakovich’s uneasy relationship with Stalin, the clandestine support given to jazz and post-war avant-garde by the CIA, Rock Against Racism…the list grew and grew… But I couldn’t find any accessible book that attempted to gather those stories together to better understand and learn from them. There were several books written from a left-wing perspective that I thought were very good –Frank Kofsky’s Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (1970), Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art (1963) and the works of Sidney Finkelstein – an American Marxist writing in the late 1940s. But these are all quite old and tended to focus on a specific genre. More recent books that impressed me include How Music Works by David Byrne and The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. But these newer books either side-step politics or come from a liberal rather than a Marxist perspective. So I felt that a book was missing. Since I didn’t know of anyone else writing it, I thought I’d give it a go.

Throughout history has music always had political intent?
Depending on how you define ‘political’, yes – though not necessarily consciously on the part of the composer or musician. From pharaohs to feudal lords, muftis to maharajahs, republicans to royals, rulers have always had a music policy. All have given patronage to some musicians and many have tried to suppress the music of others. It has also always been used by ordinary people as a means to enjoy and celebrate the company of each other. And, of course, progressive political activists have attempted to consciously harness the power of music to challenge the status quo. So yes – music has been used politically since the beginning of class societies, and culture more broadly has always been politically contested. 

In your opinion, which genres/artists are trying to force social and political change at the moment?
People often reduce the conversation about music and politics to a list of new, progressive political musicians or genres. If you forced me to give you a list it would include Stormzy, Kate Tempest, Idles, Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness, Lowkey, Wara…and the list would go on and on. What I’m more interested in is the reasons why artists become overtly political in the first place and the factors that make them effective in the role. That’s a conversation about the importance of mass movements and political organisation – something I look into in detail in the book.

Do you think the commercial forces in music try to oppress an artists desire to political?
Mainstream music industry gatekeepers tend to be conservative and risk-averse. And some will be outright Tories. So yes – they will sometimes discourage artists from expressing themselves politically – especially if the issue is perceived to be controversial. So expressing concern about climate change (although political) would probably be fine, but expressing solidarity with Palestinians…may be not. But the big cheeses of the music industry ultimately follow the money. If there’s an appetite for anti-establishment music then that music will be made and it’ll find its audience. My advice to musicians who are thinking of being more outspoken politically is to go for it. You might alienate a few corporate types (I certainly have in my time!) but you’ll find your true friends and comrades. That’s more valuable. 

Which song/album made you realise that music could be an instrument of change?
The book begins with me finding political inspiration as a teenager when I first heard The Specials AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela. One day I found myself at a festival, and the DJ dropped the tune and I witnessed thousands of festival-goers hollering the hook. I had no idea who Mandela was, but I knew by the end of the first chorus that I wanted him to be free. I include that story because the experience not only awoke my interest in international politics; it also planted the seed of an idea that maybe ordinary people could collectively change the world. That was a very significant moment for me.

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