Sound System: The Political Power of Music
Pluto Press Left Book Club, 2017
210 pp, $38.99
As a teenager, British writer and musician Dave Randall unwittingly attended a music festival in his home town where he heard the Special AKA sing “Free Nelson Mandela”. He experienced an epiphany.
“I had no idea who Nelson Mandela was,” he writes, “but I knew by the end of the first chorus I wanted him to be free.”
Feeling the solidarity of the crowd hollering the song’s hook he grasped that ordinary people could have a say in the world — and how we can do it. “Music, I realised, is our weapon.”
Now, as a successful professional guitarist, he has deepened his musical and political understanding from within the belly of the beast of the musical-industrial complex.
Randall is a supporter of the cultural boycott of Israel as part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, but this book looks deeper. He seeks to “shed light on the secrets of celebrity, commodification and culture” and examine “what makes music so powerful”.
Adopting an engaging first-person narrative style, he leads the reader through some of the unspoken rules of the music industry. For instance, you can always tell when the management has selected a band member for star status by how they travel — the chosen one flies business class, the rest economy.
Randall has lent what star power he has to progressive causes — and put his career on the line. In 2010, his band Faithless decided to boycott Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians. To put it mildly, the band’s management did not like this decision — nor did Fox News, who labelled Randall “evil”.
Others have since joined the protest, including Elvis Costello, Roger Waters, Gil Scott-Heron, The Pixies, and Massive Attack.
He gives a chapter to analysing how music is a contested battleground between the oppressed striving for liberation and the powerful seeking to channel protest. The wealthy “invite us not to celebrate each other, but the great leader — be that god/the king/a dictator/a ‘star’ — or a new product”.
Randall’s book swings between Aristotle and Beyonce as he teases out his central question: how “do we make music serve the interests of the many, rather than the few?”