Book review: Sound System voices the political power of song from a musician’s perspective

Political music is everywhere, from the rap of Kendrick Lamar or duo Run the Jewels, to Ramy Essam and other Tahrir Square-based musicians of the Egyptian revolution, and in Beyoncé’s support for the American #blacklivesmatter movement.

Ramy Essam’s song Irhal (Leave) became an anthem for protesters at Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
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In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, as unrest began to simmer, it became fashionable to look at the cultural landscape and ask “where has all the protest music gone?” A generation whose formative years had been in or around the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and 70s was suddenly in middle-age – with national newspaper columns, or television or radio broadcast jobs. A cohort who had grown up on folk, rock or soul music that sought to speak truth to power – from Bob Dylan to Marvin Gaye to Joan Baez to The Clash – were suddenly left asking what had gone wrong.

Whether they were right to ask the question or not, those harking after more socially conscious art have stopped complaining so much. Political music is impossible to ignore. It is everywhere from the righteous rap of Kendrick Lamar or duo Run the Jewels, to Ramy Essam and the other Tahrir Square-based musicians of the Egyptian revolution, and Beyoncé’s startling use of pop’s biggest platform to support the American #blacklivesmatter movement and address issues such as Hurricane Katrina and African-American history.

In Sound System, a wide-ranging and punchy book, only a couple of hundred pages in length, the writer, activist and musician Dave Randall takes us on a journey through what he has learnt – much of it first-hand– about the political power of music during his decades performing across the world with bands such as British dance-pop group Faithless.

Randall makes his subjective position as a left-wing advocate of popular power clear, and as such it rarely compromises the telling – except perhaps in his scepticism about the motives of megastars such as Beyoncé, whose recent support for Black Lives Matter, he suggests, might be more because her “team thought it expedient (for one reason another) to get political” and capitalise on grass-roots action, rather than because of an individual and sincere belief in its rightness. He doesn’t mention that Beyoncé and her husband (and fellow millionaire) Jay Z have recently donated US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) to BLM and other charities and activist groups. Does this make them living saints? No. But it seems odd to impugn their motives as calculating brand management without evidence.

Generally, Randall’s focus, as well as his heart, is in a more interesting place than merely scrutinising the behaviour of global celebrities. He avoids retreading familiar ground – about those earnest protest songs of yore, when post-war mass pop culture was young – by basing his analysis on some of his own experience of the music industry, including his involvement in pro-Palestinian rights campaigns, such as the history of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign from a cultural angle. Suffice it to say, Faithless’s manager has not always been happy about the commercial implications of a band-member alienating some of the band’s audiences by wilfully getting involved in controversial issues.

Where the book thrives it is due to the fruits of some thorough and entertaining research. There are some great vignettes illustrating the fact that those with power have always understood the importance of music. “From pharaohs to feudal lords, muftis to maharajas, republicans to royals, rulers always have a music policy,” he writes. Emperors of China had an Imperial Music Bureau that supervised court music, watching in case it became a channel for dissent. The Catholic Church established “a Vatican’s Got Talent-style panel of cardinals” in the mid-1500s to choose the most appropriate composer to uphold the institution’s values.

We learn that politically potent music need not be sombre nor stridently political to have a huge impact. In 1974, the apparently silly and lightweight Eurovision Song Contest saw one of its entries, that of Portugal, flop in the competition but go on to be the anthem of the “Carnation Revolution” that soon deposed the country’s dictator, Marcello Caetano. That same year, the Italian entry, called simply “Si” (yes) caused huge controversy, because it was thought to be subtle propaganda ahead of a national referendum on divorce laws – and to be safe, the song competition was banned from TV broadcast.

Randall’s book also takes in some illuminating lesser-known examples of music’s collective political potency – he visits the Caribbean island of Trinidad to explore the history of the annual February carnival and its roots in dissent against British colonial power going back to the 18th century. The story is one of constant contestation, between those with the power, banning particular instruments and particular types of songs (including, in 1936, “those that insult members of the upper class”), and those with the drum in their hand. It is a back-and-forth that exists across the world – the notorious annual carnival in the Spanish city of Cadiz had historically involved groups of poorer locals writing and performing satirical songs, often aimed at local dignitaries and politicians. It is no wonder that this practice was banned by the country’s dictator, General Franco, nor that his death, after four decades in power, would see the carnival return with greater popularity than ever before (the best satirical songs now form the centre of a national TV event).

Through his determination to think through the everyday making and experience of music (so much of which takes place socially), what Randall's intellectual and actual journeys point towards, without ever saying out loud, is that all political conjunctures produce music that is in some way apt to the societies around them – even if this process is entirely unconscious. From Sound System's opening thesis, Randall gets to the nub of the matter: "our lives are steeped in [music] … it walks us down the aisle and marches us off to war". In this sense, how could music be anything other than political – if it infuses every part of our lives?

Good and bad songs alike have political resonance, whether vocalising explicit support for, or opposition to, the hegemonic values of the age – or more often, without doing either. The meaning is often contested, Randall observes, and this sometimes leads to unintended consequences. “All forms of music can be used as part of a system of oppression, but they can also be part of the story of our liberation – the social meaning isn’t fixed.”

Take Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA; at first glance, an upbeat song suffused with patriotic bombast, it doesn't require forensic insight – you really just need to listen to the verses – to realise it is a bleak tale of the knocks suffered by working-class Americans during and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Shortly after its release in 1984, it was praised by President Ronald Reagan at a campaign rally – he was in the midst of his re-election campaign and looking to capture some of the Boss's youthful popularity and energy.

It was a classic piece of political naivete, as Springsteen has long been on the Democratic side of American politics, and disavowed the Reagan endorsement. That year’s Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale, quickly tried to make capital out of this failed Republican co-option of the song and claimed Springsteen had in fact endorsed him. He hadn’t, and Mondale had to backtrack – both presidential candidates ended up looking foolish. The lesson is a clear and universal one: most songs contain innate political potency, whether blatant or very subtle, and that potency can be unleashed in different directions, by different groups. But like any kind of magic, if you misuse it, the music’s feedback loop can make you wish you had never started.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review who also writes for The Guardian, London Review of Books, Vice and The New York Times.