Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Rebel Music: Thirty Years of Rock Against Racism

By Alexander Billet

"Art and politics don't mix." So we are told time and again whenever an artist or musician dares to speak out and be heard. Politicking, it seems, is best left to the politicians, and musicians are better off leaving it that way.

The Carnival Against the Nazis, staged by Rock Against Racism in Britain 30 years ago today, was one of the many moments in history that prove what utter bollocks that is. While racism trolled the streets of Britain, this festival united black and white, immigrant and native born, punk rock and reggae in opposition. It was one of those iconic moments when the interplay between popular struggle and popular culture stepped forth for all to see. Yet again, it was proof positive that in the fight against oppression and inequality, music can indeed play a crucial role.

British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor summed up the influence Rock Against Racism had at its high-point on April 30th, 1978: "[F]or those who attended the original concert in 1978 it was a show that changed their lives and helped change Britain. Rock Against Racism radicalised a generation, it showed that music could do more than just entertain: it could make a difference."

The Ugly Spectre

Looking at Britain in the late 1970s, it's hard to argue that something different wasn't definitely needed. The UK was in the grip of an economic crisis. Unemployment and inflation were rife. Earlier in the decade, the British government, broke, had gone to the International Monetary Fund looking for a bail-out. The IMF agreed, but with the stipulation that social services were slashed throughout the Kingdom. By the mid-70s, welfare had been gutted, and the financial security of the working class wasn't any more secure.

It was only a matter of time until the crisis in the broad country reached the world of music. On August 5th, 1976, the legendary Eric Clapton took the stage in Birmingham's Odeon Theatre and delivered a drunken racist tirade. He said Britain was on the verge of becoming a "black colony," and that "we should send them all back." He urged a vote for racist Conservative politician Enoch Powell in order to "keep Britain white." Powell had become infamous in British politics eight years earlier when he delivered his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech (as in "if Britain doesn't stem the tide of immigration, rivers of blood will flow through our streets").

There was, of course, a great irony to Clapton's comments. Most of his music wouldn't have existed if not for African American blues. And, of course, his career had been floudering until his smash-hit cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" a few months prior. For him to be promoting the complete separation of black and white was laughable.

Irony aside, there was a much more sinister context for Clapton's diatribe: the rise of the National Front. The National Front was a political party founded in the late 60s by far-right former members of the Conservative Party and hardcore racists. They preyed on the fear of ordinary people by pointing the blame at Britain's sizable immigrant community of Asians and black Caribbeans. The NF toed the line heard from the Minutemen in the US today: that thieving and depraved brown-skinned invaders were stealing the jobs of respectable, hard-working white people. Though the NF tried to couch their platform in legitimacy and distance themselves from the "racist" label, they allowed white supremacists and neo-Nazis to join their ranks from the beginning. Even more horrifying was their increasing profile in the mid 70s. By the spring of '76 the NF had polled 40 percent in the northern city of Blackburn. "Paki-bashings" were becoming more frequent; in July Asian immigrant Gurdip Singh had been beaten to death by a gang of white youth. The public response of the NF's John Kingsley Read was "one down - a million to go."

Thankfully, the kind of ideas being spread by Clapton and the Front wouldn't go unopposed. The initiative was taken by Red Saunders and Roger Huddle, two artists who had been radicalized by the global uprisings of 1968. Both had been fans of Clapton and most of the artists that had revolutionized music in the 1960s. As anti-racists, they were disgusted by Clapton's comments. Upon hearing of them, they phoned up several friends and acquaintances, fellow artists and activists, and wrote an anti-racist manifesto that appeared in Sounds, Melody Maker and the New Musical Express, Britain's three largest music rags, along with the Trotskyist newspaper Socialist Worker. To say the letter's language took Clapton to task is an understatement: "Come on, Eric... Own up. Half your music is black. You're rock music's biggest colonist... P.S. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you!"

More than just a letter, though, Saunders, Huddle, and their co-signatories called for the formation of a organise "a rank and file movement against the racist poison music" to challenge the message of the National Front head-on. The name of this organization would be Rock Against Racism. Almost immediately, hundreds of letters began pouring in from people expressing enthusiastic agreement and wanting to know how they could get involved.

Battle Lines Drawn

As it would turn out, Huddle and Saunders had impeccable timing. "The founders of RAR were all soul fans," said Huddle, "but what really propelled it into what became a mass movement was the explosion of punk." White youth in Britain had tired of the pre-packaged version of rock 'n' roll being fed to them by major labels. Punk, with its visceral, back-to-basics approach, and uncomprosmising willingness to tell it how it is had found an incredibly enthusiastic audience. To many in the punk movement, Clapton's comments were yet more evidence that he was about as relevant to the times as woolly mammoth dung.

It seems that punk was something of a kindred spirit with RAR. Billy Bragg, a well-known politically active musician in his own right, made the connection right away: "I had seen the Clash on the first night of the White Riot tour and I remember thinking that the fascists were against anybody who wanted to be different - once they had dealt with the immigrants then they would move onto the gays and then the punks. Before I knew it the music I loved would be repatriated."

In the black community, the urgency of the real world was also finding an expression in music. Jamaican reggae had taken an increasingly militant turn in the 70s thanks in large part to the low-level civil war in that country. That militancy clearly resonated with a Caribbean immigrant community targeted not just by the NF, but by the police supposedly keeping them safe. Three weeks after the Clapton incident, London police incited a riot during a Caribbean carnival in Notting Hill, in what would become a well-remembered uprising against police racism. Around the same time punk was forcing its way onto the charts, London based Caribbeans would start making their own version of the heavy roots sound emanating from the islands in groups like Steel Pulse and Aswad.

The fields were clearly fertile for something potent to grow. Three months after the initial call to form went out, Rock Against Racism held its first show in East London featuring Carol Grimes. RAR started popping up all over the UK. Kids would call up from smaller cities asking what they could do to set up a local chapter. They attracted immigrant and British-born youth, punks, rastas, artists, dock workers would show up to shows and work security. Groups of musicians were signing up left and right to play RAR benefits. Roots reggae stalwarts like Steel Pulse, Aswad, and Misty in Roots often headlined. The vanguard of the punk movement, including the Clash, Buzzcocks and Sham 69, were frequent endorsers.

The organization also reaped the benefits of, and in some ways helped foment, the burgeoning Two Tone movement. Two Tone was the logical result of the collision between reggae and punk: multiracial bands that played Jamaican ska with a decidedly punk attitude. Groups like the Specials and the Selecter had a look, sound and message that proudly touted racial solidarity and most were regulars at RAR gigs.

Before long, the organization was publishing a magazine, Temporary Hoarding, which, in Huddle's words, was "the only really revolutionary cultural paper in Britain then or at any time." It's first issue summed up their political and musical mission in a page one editorial: "We want rebel music, street music, music that breaks down people's fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music."

While the starting point for RAR was fighting racism, they made clear from the start their opposition to all oppression. Some of RAR's earliest supporters were the Tom Robinson Band, a group of agit-rockers whose front-man, Robinson, had long been outspoken about his own sexuality. Organizers were keen on including women artists, and Temporary Hoarding frequently drew the connections between fighting racism and sexism, and commented frequently on the crisis in Northern Ireland.

After all, the National Front were also virulently homophobic; they were on record as saying rape wasn't really a crime; and they were staunch believers that Northern Ireland belonged to the British Empire. The NF had made their cause out to be one side of a cultural war between what was "English" and what wasn't. RAR also saw it as a clash of cultures, but reshaped the parameters. As the name of the magazine suggested, RAR were drawing battle lines. A early slogan was "Reggae, Soul, Rock 'n' Roll, Jazz, Funk, Punk - Our Music." Another read "NF = No Fun." This was clearly a fight between a culture of repression and one of freedom. Like Billy Bragg, RAR saw a direct link between fighting oppression and a vibrant and fluorishing youth culture.

We Are Black, We Are White, We Are Dynamite!

That cultural war was only going to get more heated. In 1977, the National Front announced plans to march through the majority black neighborhood of Lewisham in London. Their move was made even more inflammatory by their slogan claiming that 70 percent of muggers were black. The NF's momentum, however, was about to hit the mother of all brick walls. The call for their march simply angered way too many people. On August 13th, 1977, the NF attempted to march through Lewisham, and were faced with thousands of counter-demonstrators; community members, union workers, socialists and other militant anti-fascists confronted the racists as they attempted to march. It didn't take long for the police line to crumble and demonstrators clashed. In the end, the National Front was prevented from reaching their final rallying point. What would come to be known as the Battle of Lewisham was a historic victory against the British fascists, and would inspire the foundation of the Anti-Nazi League.

The Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism were natural allies. Both were uncompromising in their anti-racism and their belief that the Front should be opposed head on, leaving no platform for the Front to spew their hate. RAR and the ANL's membership overlapped from the beginning. Bands associated with RAR would frequently attend ANL demonstrations. And so when the ANL planned a large march through the National Front strongholds in East London, it made sense for Rock Against Racism to provide the entertainment afterwards.

It's somewhat funny that the Carnival is what's remembered today given that the march was originally intended to be the main event. The Anti-Nazi League worked hand in hand with Rock Against Racism. While the march would send a political message, the music festival would be a celebration, a glimpse of the freedom and dynamism that a world without oppression might have to offer.

The day of the event exceeded all possible expectations. Richard Buckwell, a member of the organizing team describes it: "we expected 10 or 20,000 people, which would have been excellent, a big rise in the numbers who came on the marches and the demos. But on the day there were tens of thousands of people there." The march started in Trafalgar Square with about 10,000. When it ended in Victoria Park, the ranks had swollen by thousands. People had come from all over the country: punks, hippies, trade unionists, immigrant shopkeepers, bohemians, women's rights groups, gay activists; all had come to watch the carnival. By the time the headlining acts took the stage, the crowd was estimated at 80,000.

This naturally blew the organizers away. At most, they had expected 20,000. The PA system they had procured for the event couldn't blast much louder to accomodate more than that. The Carnival Against the Nazis had no corporate backing, and was run on a shoestring budget, heavily dependent on donations and volunteer labor. Tom Robinson, whose band headlined, describes what it was like: "At the park the gig was a ramshackle affair. Nowadays outdoor pop concerts make us think of corporate sponsorship, backstage catering, TV crews, guest lists, security guards, hospitality and VIP areas. But the Carnival Against the Nazis had none of that - RAR operated completely outside the showbiz establishment."

Perhaps that's why so many in attendance found the show so electrifying. All the artificial filters imposed by the music industry (ultimately composed of the same people who argue against confronting the Nazis) were completely absent. Very little came between the message of the performers and the audience.

That message was carried throughout the day by the brilliant acts. More than that, RAR's mission of fighting oppression with music seemed to actually work, if for no other reason than the sheer diversity and passion of the bands. The carnival was kicked off by X-Ray Spex, not only a Two Tone band, but one fronted by Poly Styrene, one of the most underrated front-women of the 1970s. Accounts of Steel Pulse's performance seem to always include their performance of their single "Ku Klux Klan" with them wearing white hoods in a salty and provocative act of satire. The Tom Robinson Band's performance of "Glad to Be Gay" was an explicit demand for solidarity between oppressed groups. And the Clash's set has become the stuff of legend, with Sham 69's Jimmy Pursey joining them onstage for their encore of "White Riot" (which had ironically been misconstrued as a white supremacist song upon its release; not that anyone could make that mistake now!).

And what of the audience? Did they just come for the music? Not likely. It seems that there were a good number in the crowd who had come to be inspired, who, through music, had been introduced to the idea that a world without racism may be more than just a pipe dream. Among the crowd was Gurinder Chadha, today a filmmaker, but in the 70s the teenage daughter of immigrants. She had to lie to her parents to come to the carnival, but it was something she wouldn't forget: "The whole of the park was jumping up and down to the Clash," Chadha says. "It was an incredibly emotional moment because for the first time I felt that I was surrounded by people who were on my side. That was the first time I thought that something had changed in Britain forever."

It was the first of many anti-Nazi carnivals held throughout Britain. The next few years would see festivals in Leeds, Brixton and Manchester, turning out tens of thousands. Countless other small shows were held, and an unknown number of people were inspired and moblized by Rock Against Racism. When the organization folded in 1981 at a carnival in Leeds featuring the Specials, the National Front was in shambles. Indeed, the Front's former deputy would later state years later that both the ANL and Rock Against Racism were key in the organization's collapse.

We Still Want Rebel Music

Today the National Front is a shadow of its former self. However, the threat of racist scapegoating at the ballot box is far from over. The economic ineptitude and soft Islamophobia of the Blair and Brown Labour governments has opened the door for the British National Party, whose origins lie in the NF, to use the same anti-immigrant racism as their predecessors to make gains in local councils. With the London Assembly elections taking place on May 1st, the BNP is within reach of getting a seat. Luckily, the fighting spirit of Rock Against Racism is also still alive, and the Carnival Against the Nazis is revered by anti-racists of all stripes.

Rock Against Racism was relaunched in 2004 as Love Music Hate Racism. It has been active over the past four years combatting the BNP's influence with the help of Unite Against Fascism, heir apparent to the ANL. This past Sunday, the 27th, LMHR held a 30th anniversary festival commemorating the Carnival Against the Nazis in Victoria Park. Tom Robinson performed, along with some of today's most dynamic acts such as Roll Deep, The Good the Bad and the Queen (featuring Paul Simonon of the Clash) and members of Babyshambles. The carnival was more than a celebration, though. Throughout the day, performers and speakers spoke of the need to openly oppose the BNP on the streets, campuses and in the workplaces. And, if only because it seems hard to top the original carnival, it's amazing to know that over 100,000 turned out this time around!

There is a lesson for artists and activists on this side of the Atlantic, too. The notion of using popular music to organize political protest may seem a foreign one when surveying the pop-addled airwaves. There are plenty of signs for hope, though. The resurgence of garage rock in the mainstream has signalled a return to the gritty confrontation of punk rock. Hip-hop holds countless talented, politically active MCs in its ranks. And if anyone believes that the youth in this country aren't angry, then they simply haven't been paying attention. From a meaningless war to a hopeless economy, to our own homegrown versions of racism and scapegoating, it seems clear that youth are getting dealt a bad hand. What would happen if the same music kids listen to in order to escape and make sense was actually pointing the way to something better?

Rock Against Racism and the Carnival Against the Nazis answer that question brilliantly. Both are undeniable proof that music isn't something merely to be bought and consumed. Music, ultimately, belongs to us. It reflects our experiences, our worries, our hopes and dreams, and if we fight hard enough, it can bust the walls down and give us a taste of what's on the other side.


Sam said...

Great article.

It's worth pointing out that, in fact, *no* rock music would exist if not for black artists. It all came from blues. Hell, Black Sabbath was originally called The Polka Tulk Blues Company (don't tell neo-Nazi black metal morons).

David Asher said...

Great blog post here!
Eric Clapton talks about this incident in his autobiography with much shame. Normally I wouldn't be convinced about anyones self professed guilt about making such statements. However, he writes with such humility and honesty, it is hard not to believe him over his own greif on saying such a shameful things.

Kate Webb said...

Where did you get your copies of Temporary Hoarding for your banner? I worked for RAR in its heyday and if you wrote to us in London I may well have been the person who sent them off to you! I've recently disintered some of RAR's archives which I'm hoping to put up on my blog - including a bag full of material from RAR groups in the US. If you - or any of your readers - were involved with RAR groups in the US (or anywhere else come to that) please get in touch, with memories, information about carnivals, gigs or magazines.