From the Devil’s Interval to rave to grime, music has always provided more than just a soundtrack to political events – it has actually changed their course. Martin Gleghorn is galvanised by Dave Randall, who appeared at a Durham Book Festival fringe event organised by People’s Bookshop.
Culture is a political battleground: it always has been, it always will be, and everything within its scope will necessarily be bitterly contested. And if you consider yourself to be a progressive thinker, the bad news is that you’re likely to be playing catch-up to powers with a potentially far greater financial and systematic strength. Dave Randall’s assessment of this cultural battleground might come across as bleak, but he so brilliantly delves into the ways in which music can actively influence, promote and define new political ideas that it becomes impossible to come away from hearing him speak without feeling galvanised.
This was reinforced by a great set from Peterlee band and activists The Kets, who followed Randall with songs tackling social and political problems from Peterlee to Ukraine.
That being said, Randall acknowledges that music is not a silver bullet on this cultural battleground; indeed its unique political potency is directly connected to how vulnerable it is to being co-opted.
The rave movement crystallises this through the rise of the superstar DJ and the superclub – but this had initially been an underground movement of such magnitude it had prompted John Major’s government to create legislation against people gathering in unsanctioned spaces dancing to ‘repetitive beats’. The fear the ruling classes had of a cultural movement that meant so much to so many people despite not having emerged from any recognisable source cannot be overestimated.
More recently, while nothing against grime might have been written into law, its crossover into the mainstream masks the perpetual shutdown of grime gigs in the movement’s infancy. Race is a much more prominent issue around grime, but both it and rave were most significantly characterised by large gatherings of young, working-class people that the authorities felt the need to shut down.
Grime and rave are contemporary examples of how fearful the ruling classes have always been of music, both historically and globally. Randall’s research has taken him back to twelfth-century feudal Europe, and the deathly fear of the ‘Devil’s Interval’. His work has also led him to focus on the role of music in the Arab Spring; protests in Syria demonstrate how musicians do not merely soundtrack a political uprising, but actively become revolutionary figures in their own right.
The brutal brakes that were put on the Arab Spring; the co-opting of rave into a clique of superstar DJs; grime’s legitimisation being cemented through Stormzy’s stunning Glastonbury set – seemingly incomparable moments which have nevertheless highlighted the political power of music over the past three decades.
We find ourselves, as Randall notes, living in the most politically divisive time in memory – a moment in which any lingering, fanciful notions of the political centre ground have been exposed as a hopeless myth. If progressive thinkers are finding themselves playing catch-up, they could do much worse than channel the ingenuity of the Trinidadian carnival-goers who, when faced with the banning of their drums by British colonial powers, fashioned new instruments out of bamboo cane and disused U.S. oil drums from World War Two.
Randall argues that our current political landscape demands active engagement. We have to use music to actively shape the political landscape rather than it being used to merely provide a soundtrack. You might wonder how you would even begin to go about this, but Randall helpfully points us in the direction of two great modern philosophers who pose the questions we still need to grapple with: Marvin Gaye asked ‘What’s going on?’ Lenin asked ‘What Is To Be Done?’
Over the course of history music has been the lens through which radical new political ideas have formed – this can and must remain the case.
Dave Randall’s Sound System was just one of several Durham Book Festival fringe events organised by People’s Bookshop, which combine music, politics, history and culture. Book your tickets for those coming up on 11th and 12th October via the Durham Book Festival website.