Black History Month: Rock Against Racism
Online Science Editor Isabel Murray gives a comprehensive historical run-down of the Rock Against Racism organisation of the late ’70s.
Music may not be at the forefront of your imagination when you think about revolutionary moments, but 30th April 1978 revealed how music can be a crucial ally to anti-racism movements and made explicit the power of music in such a way that has and should never be forgotten. Motivated by the growing atmosphere of racism and the subsequent impending threat posed to Britain’s non-white population, Rock Against Racism was an organisation dedicated to opposing the racism that was being so normalised in society. While their 1978 concert in London’s Victoria Park proved pivotal, a very different musical scene was unfolding just two years earlier…
The late 1970s was a dire setting for rising racism and fascism in Britain
If you had found yourself at Eric Clapton’s 1976 concert on 5th August, you would have been witness to a drunken and shameless rant concerning Enoch Powell, a Conservative MP who delivered his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, in which he laid out anxieties about how Britain was no longer dominated by the white man and how one of his constituents feared “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” While you may have expected Clapton’s rant to have condemned this unabashed racist declaration, in reality Clapton was equally bold in expressing “Enoch was right” and that he thought “we should send them all back.”
The late 1970s was a dire setting for rising racism and fascism in Britain. This was epitomised by the menacing presence of the National Front, a political party on the extreme right which centred around keeping Britain white. One of the most upsetting victories of the party occurred in 1976 when they managed to win 40% of the vote in the local spring election in Blackburn.
It was this political climate that undoubtedly prompted the numerous racial attacks that occurred. Gurdip Singh Chaggar, 18-years-old, was murdered in 1976 by a group of white youths. Kennith Singh, 10-years-old, was murdered nine days before 1978 Victoria Park concert, stabbed eight times in the head. His killers were never caught. A week after the concert, Altab Ali, 25-years-old, was murdered by three teenage boys. One month following this, Ishaque Ali was murdered. Alongside these targeted attacks, three weeks before the Victoria Park concert was due to commence, two parcel bombs were sent by the neo-Nazi group Column 88 to left-wing organisations.
However, politics wasn’t isolated in promotion of bigotry; music also suffered from the disease. Unfortunately, Clapton wasn’t alone in contributing to a sense of intolerance in the music scene. This was around the time where Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux were comfortable with wearing swastikas to be ‘provocative’ and David Bowie was seen seemingly giving a Nazi salute while at Victoria Station and had gone on record claiming “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars” (though he later condemned this period of his life).
What people that were complicit with Clapton’s mindset were willing to overlook was how heavily rock music took it’s influences from and even outright appropriated black music and cultures. This is what occurred to photographer and activist Red Saunders after he heard what Clapton had had to say. Saunders was so angry at what Clapton had proclaimed that he protested by writing an open letter which was signed by others who shared his views. In this letter, Clapton is called “rock music’s biggest colonist” and the letter is finished off with the line “P.S. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!”, a nod to Clapton’s recent cover of Bob Marley’s classic ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, highlighting Clapton’s blatant hypocrisy.
It took only two weeks for this letter to garner over 600 replies and only three months after it was published, Rock Against Racism’s first ever concert was put together. In Leeds, Paul Furness created a Rock Against Racism club, A Rock Against Racism magazine called Temporary Hoarding was produced, and quickly support grew throughout the nation for this movement that proved music could be more than just a source of entertainment. It could be a facilitator of change.
Which brings us to the Victoria Park concert in 1978, headlined by Tom Robinson and The Clash, in which people from near and far came to protest racism, with approximately 10,000 marching from Trafalgar Square, decorated with fluorescent signs and even papier mâché fascist figures. By the time the concert was in full swing there was an estimated 80,000 or more in attendance. The power of having such a large group of like-minded individuals, banded together in the East End, arguably the hub of the National Front, cannot be overstated. This was to be reflected in the outcome of the 1979 election.
As 1978 drew to a close, Rock Against Racism had successfully coordinated 300 local concerts and five carnivals and had during the lead up to the 1979 election platformed a ‘Militant Entertainment Tour’ which was participated in by 40 bands at 23 concerts that stretched across over 2000 miles of road. It appeared all these efforts were not without reward, as the general election results showed that despite nominating 303 candidates, the National Front failed to get a single seat and managed to pull only 0.6% of the vote. Although the elected Prime Minister that year, Margaret Thatcher, was also known for racist remarks (notably she acknowledged the fear that Britain “might be rather swamped by people will a different culture.”), the immediate and more severe threat of the National Front gaining power had been quelled. Using punk and rock music as a way to campaign for the underrepresented and socially outcast as well as to emphasise key political issues had worked.
Rock Against Racism disbanded in 1981 (although it was revived in 2002 under the new name Love Music Hate Racism) but did not fail to leave behind an extraordinary legacy. Although less successful, the Red Wedge, an anti-Thatcher campaign that emerged in 1987, took its cues from the Rock Against Racism movement. Live Aid and subsequently Live 8 are also said to have been inspired by Rock Against Racism, though the two undeniably have very different aims and methods.
With political extremism still prevalent today, from the threat of the BNP here in Britain to political leaders that fail to denounce white supremacy abroad, we might ask ourselves: what can music do to help make the future a better place for all?