Sound System:
The Political Power of Music

by Dave Randall
(Pluto Press)

One thing I learnt from this book is that the military are the biggest employers of musicians in Britain.

As someone who expends a fair bit of effort supporting and promoting music, I know the struggle and sacrifice of new and exciting musicians just to get by. As a teacher, I am also well aware of the continuous fight to protect the place of music, and to defend children's access to it, in schools. It came as a shock, then, to find that in one sector there is more than enough public money for musicians to live on.

Obviously the powers that be know the power of a good tune.

In this very readable and highly enjoyable book, Dave Randall shows why it is important for our side to do the same.

He traces with passionate dedication the role that music has played in mass movements, most notably, of course, when opposing the National Front in the 70s, and in continuing to undermine racism today. He also details its motivating role internationally in struggles as diverse as those in Palestine, South Africa and Poland. The section on the Arab Spring is especially revealing, as he argues that music was partly responsible for challenging and overthrowing bloody regimes. Syrian firefighter and part-time poet Ibrahim al-Qashoush's rebel song, an anti government rhythmic chant built on traditional call-and-response forms, was seen as so subversive that when it went viral, he had to be murdered, with his voice box ripped out. Music can be very threatening to the status quo.

Conversely, our rulers can use it as a “weapon of mass distraction” or a bellicose march to rally their troops. Randall distinguishes between “our music and theirs”, describing the differences in content and production as well as the social role of the two. He also explains how our music can be stolen, commodified, and sold back to us, to keep us in our place. This process isn't only one way, of course, with many examples of musicians and popular movements appropriating and subverting bland pop pap, such as advertising jingles.

What particularly struck me about this book is the way that Randall also investigates, in some new and revealing ways, the relationship of music to society. From Plato to Grime, from The Vatican to X Factor via the Middle East and Trinidadian Carnival, he shows that music is conditioned by the society it is created in, while simultaneously able to challenge those conditions.

As a working musician (most famously with Faithless), Randall is also able to debunk some of the myths about the biz. A guitar for hire, his lifestyle maybe envied by many, but can still leave him feeling atomised, powerless and isolated. He still has to assert his rights with those who employ him, arguing not just over his working conditions, but also about what he plays and what he says. In this way, it is clear that musicians have the same issues as many of us in our work; commanded not to make waves or to bring up difficult issues, but to tow the line.

Most importantly, this insightful book aims not just to be an interesting academic read, but also a guide to action. The Rebel Music Manifesto provides some simple steps to harnessing the unsettling, inspiring and motivating power of music to help create a better world. A world in which, of course, the production and consumption of music will be revolutionised too, so that all children will have proper access to it in schools, and a world in which we certainly won't be marching to the military's tune.

Rosey R*E*P*E*A*T

An edited version of this piece first appeared in Socialist Review