The Ruby Kid, aka Daniel Randall, is a political activist and hip-hop artist. He has been a member of Workers' Liberty since 2002 and has been recording and performing music since 2007. Here, in an article originally published on his MySpace blog, he responds to an ongoing debate around the meaning of "protest music" in 2010, and whether the new youth and student movement needs "a soundtrack". For more info on The Ruby Kid, visit his website.
Things are kicking off a bit these days. You’ve probably noticed. Comparisons to the Thatcher era abound and, while the workers’ movement isn’t as strong now as it was then (before she crushed it), the comparisons are not without legitimacy.
I’m a socialist and, I hope, not an armchair one. I’ve been involved in activist politics for a lot longer than I’ve been involved in hip-hop and I think it’s fair to say that my politics are pretty much the defining dynamic of my life. I don’t think music is going to change the world and it’s certainly not paying my bills, so it’s basically a glorified hobby for me right now. But it’s an important hobby, and one of the things that’s interested me about the general response to the upturn in struggle we’re seeing is the questions some people are asking about the movement’s artistic, and specifically musical, accompaniment. John Harris put it most starkly in The Guardian: ”Where Is The Protest Music for 2010?” His article was specifically about The Agitator, a band whose music I can frankly take or leave and who people whose opinions I trust have accused of bandwagon-jumping. To say that Derek Meins of The Agitator is "the one man" who is "rising to the challenge" of "giving voice to the anger of the youth" is a bit over-the-top, in my view, partially because there are loads of people making "political" music (as a follow-up article by Harris showed) and because I think we've already proven ourselves pretty capable of giving voice to our own anger. But I’m not writing this blog to slag off The Agitator (never met them, I’m sure they’re decent folk, etc.) or even to respond to the article. I’m writing it because I’m genuinely interested in the question and because it’s one of the main things interviewers are asking me these days. And if blogs aren’t for self-indulgently sounding-off in a manner that assumes anyone else cares about your opinion, what are they for?
I’ve played a fair few shows in my time with solid “protest” credentials. I did a show with Kate Tempest recently in the Goldsmiths student occupation (and was booked to do one at UCL which didn’t quite come off). I did a spoken-word spot at Climate Camp in 2008 and I’ve done more benefit gigs than I can remember, for a whole range of organisations and campaigns (including Workers’ Liberty, No Sweat, Hackney Alliance, The Mule and even a few I’ve got a few disagreements with like the Anarchist Federation and RIO in Germany).
My name’s even come up in some of the current discussions: in this blog, for example, or even in the comments section on Harris’s Guardian piece, picking up on a description of me as a “revolutionary prophet”, used by a reviewer in Sandman Magazine a couple of years ago. (For the record, I definitely don't think of myself in those terms.)
Let me be clear about this: I’m not a “protest” rapper and I don’t make “protest songs”. I even baulk slightly at the description of my music as “political”, as if there’s somehow some music which is disconnected from or untouched by politics. I think all music, all art, is a product of the world that generated it and as such all art is “political”. We don’t need a special category for it. There are more (and, in my view, better) ways for music (or other art) to play a useful role in a struggle like this than simply communicating some of the movement’s ideas (or, in reality, an individual artist’s understanding of what the movement’s ideas are or should be) in its content.
Sometimes I write raps or poems that’re specifically, explicitly about class struggle. Sometimes I don’t. I don’t particularly think it matters. Fundamentally, that’s because I think it is that struggle – and not my music or The Agitator’s music or anyone else’s music – that is going to change the world.
Our movement will embrace art, but we’ll embrace the art that makes us feel something and we won’t vet it on the basis of its political credentials. When people bring sound-systems on demos they play dubstep or grime - music which, if it has political content in the crude sense that people who talk about “protest song” understand it, can embody some pretty reactionary ideas. They don’t play Billy Bragg or The Agitator or indeed The Ruby Kid. And that’s fine. I’m more than happy with that.
I also bristle at what I see as the snobbishness that sometimes underlies a lot of comment around this issue. People bemoan the lack of “political” music and disdainfully lament that people are watching X-Factor instead of listening to… I dunno… someone “political”, I guess. But firstly, the people who win X-Factor are invariably extremely talented singers and I have no interest in being snobbish or disdainful towards anyone who’s good at what they do. And secondly, the movement I’m interested in building will be made up of X-Factor viewers. It will be made up of people who listen to pop music. Undoubtedly as the movement grows and continues this debate will continue and probably a lot of people’s artistic predilections will shift and change. That’s good and healthy and I hope some people will be turned onto types of music and other art that they hadn’t experienced before. But for right now, a movement that demands people leave their existing musical tastes at the door and embrace only “political” music and “protest song” is not useful.
Here’s a crazy, fantastical scenario: every year, the X-Factor finalists release a song whose proceeds go to soldiers’ charity “Help For Heroes”. Maybe next year, some of the finalists will be young people who’ve been involved in this movement and who have done some thinking about the role of the state. Maybe one or two of them will make a fuss about the single. Maybe they’ll refuse to take part. Maybe they’ll argue that the proceeds should go to a working-class campaign organisation instead. Maybe there’d be a consequential explosion of debate about these issues not just within the movement but across society. Then we’d be getting somewhere…
One reviewer wrote of Maps [The Ruby Kid's latest EP] that it’s “ironic” that there’s less explicit class-struggle content on the record at a time when there’s more class struggle in society. Is it “ironic”? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because there is more real struggle for people to see, experience and participate in that I feel less compelled to write tracks like Only One Victory that mention Sacco and Vanzetti and talk about dialectics in the hooks.
I think art does have a direct role to play in any social movement; it can be used to raise awareness, challenge ideas, to raise money. Sometimes a direct exposition of political ideas in the content of a work of art is useful and important. If people feel my music can be useful in any of these ways, then great. But we shouldn’t get hung up on that or turn it into a dogma or pretend that only art which does this is legitimate or worthwhile or of any value. Like wiser folk than me have said, art must be judged on its own terms.
There is no single “soundtrack” to this movement. We will have many, and none. The music we will listen to and the art we will enjoy will be as diverse as the movement itself. We’ll listen to The Agitator, Tempa T, Bob Dylan, Matt Cardle and Rebecca Ferguson. A tiny handful of people might even listen to The Ruby Kid. But most fundamentally we will remember that, whatever we listen to, the frontline of our struggle is in our workplaces, schools, colleges, and communities. And not on our iPods. So listen to whatever the fuck you like and I’ll see you on a picket line sometime soon.