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Soundtrack To The Revolution: How Music Can Inform Activism

Scally Mag Team

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ScallyMag looks at music and the relationship it has to activism, and how it can shape our understanding of our own experiences…


Laurence Westgaph is a local historian who conducts ‘walking tours’ which aim to inform and educate people on the city and its relationship to slavery. I had been meaning to attend one for a while, and a few days ago I managed to tag along to one of the sessions. This particular walking tour was about community activism in Liverpool in the 80’s; a change from the usual subject matter as it was Mandela Day.


During the tour, Laurence invited a couple of people who were young men back in the 1980’s to say a few words about their experiences along the way. As the group patrolled the area of Princes Avenue in the blistering heat, stopping at different locations to listen to the wisdom being expounded, one particular speaker stuck with me. His name was Errol.


Dreadlocks as long as his existence, and smooth skin which glistened under the Toxteth sunshine, he was as Rastafarian as can be. He modestly stepped to the front of the group when called upon, and gently pulled up the waist of his jeans as he began to tell us his experiences of being a young man in the 1980’s. The Methodist Church provided the backdrop, with Arthur Dooley’s Black Jesus statue watching across the road as we gathered in the middle of the newly renovated boulevard.


Errol said many amusing and interesting things. From his memories of experiences with the “Babylon”, to a run-in with Prince Charles, he had us hanging on his every word. Yet it was the importance he placed on music as a form of education in his community activism which got me thinking. He spoke about how if it wasn’t for the sounds of conscious and radical reggae that he would not have known, or been interested in, the inspirational figures from afar and the socio-political struggles that his community shared with many others.


From Bob Dylan to Bob Marley, and John Holt to Public Enemy, some forms of great music are often born out of a lived experience of oppression or are made in defiance against systems of power. The sounds of community activism are aplenty, particularly in the 20th and 21st century.


Billie Holiday’s 1939 ‘Strange Fruit’ is one of the early contemporary examples for thinking about the role of music in describing and informing socio-political issues and experiences of human injustice. The lyrics of the song paint a disturbing picture of lynching of Black people in the American South.


Listening to Errol on our walk made me think of the music I listened to growing up. We were big hip-hop and gangster rap heads in school. Tupac vs Biggie was debate of the era: who was the best? It always felt to me that Tupac, aside from the glamourisation of violence and sexual exploitation in some songs, had the aura of an intelligent revolutionary who’s thinking was steeped in his learning from his mother who was a Black Panther.


A lot of his albums contains songs which talk about wealth inequality, teenage pregnancy, negative policing experiences, poverty, and relationships. It was only as I got older and was able to relate to some of the things spoken about in these songs, that I was able to comprehend how music can play a part in being exposed to such issues, and how it can help to rationalise our material and emotional life experiences.


Closer to home, Liverpool band The Farm released ‘All Together Now’ in 1990 which was originally an anti-war song. Lead singer Peter Hooton told the BBC in 2010 that the song is “about the working classes being sent to war. People across a divide who probably had more in common with each other than the people who had sent them to war in the first place.” The song was appropriated years later and adopted for different football tournaments. Some believe the meaning of the song was lost due to this; however, it provides an example of how music can be used to galvanise our own individual or collective means outside of its original intent or meaning.


In Errol’s case, not only did the music he was exposed to help to rationalise his life experiences in 1980’s Liverpool, but it also provided a historical context to some of his later community activism. The music he listened to was able to shape his understanding of some of the actions that needed to be taken in order to see an improvement for his community.


In his book ‘Noise: The Political Economy of Music’, Jacques Atalli suggests that music anticipates things to come. In other words, musicians can see into the future. If Atalli is to be believed, then it could an idea to listen. Music can mould our interaction with the places we inhabit and help us to strategize a resistance (as we learned from Errol). According to Gil Scott-Heron ‘the revolution will not be televised’. Maybe so, but I can bet it will have a soundtrack to go with it. The beauty is, we get to pick what record that will be. As long as it isn’t a broken one, we should be just fine.