Sound System: by Dave Randall

Sound System: by Dave Randall

Randall ultimately believes that music can move the masses toward something better.

Sound System: by Dave Randall

3 / 5

Musician and activist Dave Randall suggests that music can change the world. As a political battering ram, a tool of communication, the subject of commodification, a platform for celebrity and a spiritual or social endeavor, music’s many facets speak as many volumes about the consumer as they do the producer. Randall ultimately believes that music can move the masses toward something better.

Randall claims to have been awakened to this notion in the 1980s by the Special A.K.A. song “Free Nelson Mandela.” That track was released in 1984, when interest in ending apartheid in South Africa was swelling across the globe and a fight for justice for the imprisoned Mandela was seemingly just beginning. As a member of Faithless and supporting player to that outfit’s occasional singer Dido, Randall soon gained greater exposure to audiences and cultures across the world, and he would also develop an increasing awareness of Billy Bragg, Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy.

In these pages, he departs on a journey that is sweeping in its sense of world and musical history but deeply convincing in its personal conviction, humor and conversational yet intellectually hungry tone. With literary flourishes that swing on a pendulum that would make both Greil Marcus and James Joyce proud, the author writes how he’s convinced that music is far beyond entertainment, that it’s a tool that the powerful have always understood both as a potential salve and an instrument of revolution. Along the way, there are stops in Notting Hill, the Caribbean and other locales, each revealing their own level of use for communication via the power of song.

The author examines the power of colonialism and the havoc it brought to the arts when, for instance, musicians in West Africa were expected to (sometimes literally) sing the praises of the right, but he also casts an eye to the power the form wielded when the weight of colonialism was lifted. Musicians threw off the chains imposed upon them by outside forces, reclaiming their power in both subtle and explicit ways. Reggae and American soul music, he writes, became the music of “resistance to racism, colonialism and the conservative values” of prior generations.

An element that may prove less gripping for scholars is Randall’s tendency to overstate his revelation: power always recognizes its enemies and will do what it can to quash them. Still, the casual tone of the writing and our recognition that Randall is discovering this not necessarily as an academic buried deep in library stacks but as a man in the field makes it more forgivable.

It helps that he examines celebrity and the hoi polloi’s alleged obsession with it and reminds us that it’s nothing new. After all, one could launch a claim that Randall is part of the problem he so desperately wants to solve. Yet we also realize that he’s using his stance to work as counter-friction to the motion of the machine. The scope of the text and its tendency to veer to the anecdotal does occasionally undermine Randall’s authority, and yet what he writes is true: music does indeed have the power the inspire change and that power should be respected and even feared.

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