Can music change the world?

Submitted by Matthew on 1 April, 2010 - 4:13

The Ruby Kid is a hip-hop artist who performs with Black Jacobins. Al Baker is a songwriter from Manchester who fronts folk-punk band The Dole Queue.

As part of the recent “Red Scare Tour” they joined up to play to hundreds of people across the country, including a packed-out benefit gig for Leeds UCU’s strike fund. Here they discuss the crossovers between politics and music, and what it means to make “political” art.

The Ruby Kid: We both get referred to as “political” artists a lot of the time; what does that label mean to you? Do you think it’s a useful one?

Al Baker: I never describe my music to people as “political”, because that has certain connotations that I would prefer to distance myself from. In most people’s minds (and with good reason), political music is preachy, unsubtle and, often, just not very good.

I think the problem is that describing music, or any art, as “political” invites a confusion between political ideas expressed as art, and art which contains political ideas. The first is simply propaganda, and there’s definitely an element of that in what I do, but the second describes my work better.

There are definitely songwriters out there who operate in the opposite way to how I do, but for me the song comes first and the politics (almost) always come along by accident.

My lyrics are an expression of how I see the world, and because I see it through a particular political framework my songs are shaped by it. My aim is that the audience can, hopefully easily, reverse engineer the aesthetic devices — the rhymes, the melody, whatever — and get at the ideas behind the songs that way rather than me having to shove it down their throats. The most important thing is to make the song sound good though.

Lots of people do call me a political songwriter, but I don’t mind it so much, and I guess it is useful, because I have written plenty of straight up protest songs. If people want to call me a political songwriter, that’s fine, as long as they don’t get offended when I write a love song.

RK: I often find it difficult to write explicitly political lyrics that don’t just sound preachy and hectoring. You seem to manage that nuance pretty well; is it a difficulty you’re conscious of yourself?

AB: When I started writing songs I just proselytised for two and a half minutes over three chords and called it done, but I was always very careful to pay at least some attention to rhyme and metre. Those songs were pretty good, but I think those I’m writing now, where the poetry is the principal feature, and the meaning’s more subtle, are mostly better.

The problems are usually reversed these days for me. I skirt around my subject matter with so many allusions and tricky lyrics sometimes that I have to stop and remind myself to actually say what I mean once in a while.

RK: The whole question of the politics of music is a massive one that we’ll only be able to scratch the surface of here, but just briefly — how far do you think it’s possible to disconnect the two? For example, a lot of rappers I listen to and whose music I really enjoy have absolutely horrendous politics (particularly on questions like sexuality and gender). I guess there are some analogues on the punk scene with bands like The Ramones, whose politics are a bit problematic to say the least. I’ve always been of the view that art has to be judged on its own terms and not subordinated to political perspective; what’s your view?

AB: P.G. Wodehouse is one of my all time favourite authors, but he is at the very least a horrendous snob, and at the worst, depending on who you read, a Nazi sympathiser. His use of the English language and sense of humour, though, is peerless (case in point — “A melancholy-looking man, he had the appearance of someone who had searched for the leak in life’s gas pipe with a lighted candle”).

The artist and their art, to my mind, are entirely separate entities, so you can’t really draw any strict conclusions about the one from the other. I don’t think there can be such a thing as morally bad art, though bigotry is ugly no matter how it’s expressed, so, often, art which expresses bad politics will simply be bad art.

RK: We played a couple of benefit gigs on our tour, including one for the strike fund of Leeds UCU. Do you think “using” your music for working-class political causes is the best way that “political” art can have an impact? Is the content of the art actually secondary to the cause to which it’s put?

There are some (possibly apocryphal) stories about Wham! wanting to do a benefit gig for the NUM during the miners’ strike — obviously the content of their music wasn’t “political” but, as far as I’m concerned, an artist who’s prepared to raise money and awareness for class-struggle causes is infinitely more politically worthwhile than, say, Rage Against The Machine whose lyrics are full of anti-capitalist bombast but will happily be poster-boys for Shelter — a corporate charity that shits on its own workforce. What are your thoughts?

AB: I do really like feeling that my music has made some kind of practical difference to the world, because I’m so incredibly inept at bringing about any practical change myself. This is kind of related to the last question, in that, if Wham! wants to do a benefit for the NUM, then that’s great, but it doesn’t make their music any better. If Dylan wants to release a CD exclusively through Starbucks, that’s an appalling political decision, but he’s still one of the greatest songwriters of all time. So, yes, political art can have an impact, but only to roughly the same extent as a home made cake topped with a catchy political slogan at an anarchist bake sale.

RK: This is the age-old question for aspiring left-wing musicians; would you sign to a major? Let’s assume, perhaps naively, that you get offered a “no political strings”-type deal at some major label. Would you take it? (For what it’s worth I really can’t see a case against; refusing to sign for a label out of a sense of anti-capitalist principle makes about as much sense as refusing to get a job.)

AB: I comfort myself in the absolute certainty that I’ll never have to make a decision like this. If I could make a living wage (still a distant dream) out of what an independent label could pay me, then I hope that I’d have the stones to take that over a major contract. However, If Sony BMG wants to give me job security for life, total creative control, a six-figure salary and no restraints on who I can play and raise money for, then I’d have a really hard time thinking of reasons why not. Not going to happen though is it? It’d take a more talented songwriter than me to be able to bend to the will of the big labels. “We need two more love songs on the next album, Al,” says they. “You’re going to need to break my heart twice before the deadline then, mate”, says I.

RK: Fundamentally, what do you see as the interrelationship between art and the kind of struggles you think can change the world?

AB: I think lyrics can change people’s minds, but only by being didactic, and perhaps unpleasantly preachy. I think non-lyrical art (instrumental music, literature, visual art), like drugs, can’t plant new ideas in people’s heads, only reinforce, challenge or alter the perception of what’s there already. I think the best way that music can help change the world is by working as a social tool for bringing people together, who can then foment and plot, and of course for raising cash for worthy causes. Thinking your music can change the world by itself is appalling vanity.

RK: What have you got coming up in terms of future releases, gigs, etc. Will “The Red Scare Tour” become a regular fixture? (I certainly hope so...)

AB: We’re just about to record my second album, which definitely qualifies as “long-awaited”. I’m incredibly excited at the prospect of recording in a “proper” studio, rather than a basement or my bedroom as before. The album will be out in the summer, and I will hopefully find a label to help me put it out. As for the “Red Scare Tour,” I think it should definitely happen again. The next few years, whatever happens in May, are going to be politically formative to say the least. I think there’s a lot of good to be had from lefty bands pinning their colours to the mast (so to speak) and helping popularise the notion of having opinions again.

• The Ruby Kid and Al Baker online at: and and

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