Dave Randall is a professional musician and ex-member of the SWP. In this new book he charts his own awakening into the world of music and politics and tries to explain why music is so important to all of us.
It is a major task and Dave begins by taking us on a historical tour starting in 380 BC and ending with own involvement in the recent anti-austerity demo in London. Like many people he was turned on to politics by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in the 1980s. Recalling hearing the Special AKA’s perform Free Nelson Mandela he says; “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 realised, is our weapon.”
For me, finding out how and why people become politically active is fascinating. Dave is unusual in that he has had a life at the top of the music industry in bands such as Faithless, and also working with famous (or maybe infamous) singers such as Sinead O’Connor, as well as the more interesting musicians such as Sengalese kora player Doudou Cissoko.
Dave also, quite rightly, shows the importance of grassroots organisations such as Rock Against Racism in the late 1970s and its influence on many, particularly working class young people, in relating their lives to politics through music. But whilst lauding the latest version – Love Music Hate Racism- he fails to understand that today many people (of all ages) are disillusioned with left politics, whatever the mood music.
RAR was successful because it allowed young people to express their sense of hopelessness and unhappiness through not just writing good (and not so good music) but giving them a platform to perform their music at gigs and encouraging them to start their own political campaigns.
Like many people who write about music (and this may reflect his SWP politics) there is a major gap in the books in that he can relate to and write about the politics of the Arab revolutions, but there is no mention of the music arisng from opposition to the British presence in Northern Ireland. There has always been a vibrant Irish revolutionary tradition in music and in the 1980s and 1990s we saw a renaissance with bands such as the Pogues and singers such as Christy Moore, as well as less well-known bands (but just as important) Marxman and Easterhouse.
One UK based band that had an incredible influence and is missing completely from the book is the anarchist band Chumbawamba. Is it because of their politics? They didn’t just write some of the best songs about alienation and injustice, but took part in the Miners Strike 1984-5. Over 30 years their songs reflected the mood of the era; songs that were also catchy, melodic and great to dance to.
Also missing from the book are few direct comments from women singers and musicians. And I do have to challenge his interpretation of Beyonce’s performance at the 2016 NFL Superbowl where she performed her song “Formation” with references to Black Lives Matters, and the Black Panthers. Dave, after pages of analysis, decides that; “When one of the world’s biggest popstars gets political in this way, a space is momentarily forced open in the mainstream media for debate.” I don’t think so. If Beyonce wanted to really make a difference to black people in the USA she could have given them her lunch money (probably a million dollars) to would help build organisations such as BLM, rather than allow her to rebrand herself as a C21st Black Power figure.
Why has this happened? It says something about the decline of the Left that at a political demo today you are more likely to see well off singers such as Charlotte Church spouting about injustice rather than fast food workers or care assistants.
One thing I really like about this book is Dave’s Rebel Music Manifesto where he encourages the reader to get active not just in music but politics. To me, this is much more interesting and important that the many pages devoted to the history of music and its relationship to political regimes and the masses.
In 2017 many people are angry about their lives and have little hope for the future. Thousands of people are out on demos, but no political party or left groupso far seems able to inspire those people to do much more than demonstrate. Music is important in politics and as anarchist Emma Goldman said; “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.”
Buy it here