Music Columnist Jodie Leith examines the Rock Against Racism movement of the 70s, and how its indelible legacy mirrors the Black Lives Matter movement and current world affairs today.
“We peeled away the Union Jack to reveal the swastika”
– Red Saunders, founder of Rock Against Racism.
Britain in the 1970s was a society at war with itself; racial and class tensions had reached a high with mass unemployment, racism, rioting and the establishment of far-right fascist political party the National Front (NF), which at the time managed to secure 5.7% of votes in London.
But in 1976, following an Eric Clapton concert in Birmingham, Red Saunders and fellow members of radical theatre troupe Cartoon Archetypal Slogan Theatre found themselves appalled by the treatment of people of colour, specifically in the UK. This was highlighted by Clapton onstage as he endorsed Enoch Powell (a then Conservative minister infamous for claiming black immigration would lead to “rivers of blood”), made a series of racist remarks and repeatedly chanted the slogan of NF, “Keep Britain White”.
Saunders and others were so outraged by Clapton’s racist statements that they wrote to NME. At the core of the letter, they lamented Clapton’s hypocrisy, as his discography of rock and blues were rooted in black culture (with blues often argued by academics to be synonymous with the newly acquired emancipation of the enslaved people in the American South) writing, “Own up. Half your music’s black – you’re rock music’s biggest colonialist”. Additionally, Clapton’s first great hit I Shot the Sheriff came from the hands of Jamaican reggae icon Bob Marley, leading the group of activists to write “P.S. Who shot the sheriff, mate? It sure as hell wasn’t you.” Their letter was immediately printed and urged readers to join their new movement, Rock Against Racism.
Rock Against Racism (RAR), operating with the slogan “Love Music Hate Racism”, saw artists, writers and political activists join forces and begin promoting punk and reggae gigs under the RAR name in resistance to emerging racist attitudes within society and popular rock music. These racists attitudes extended beyond Clapton as other musicians also made racist remarks – hitmaker Rod Stewart was quoted admiring Enoch Powell, proclaiming that “immigrants should be sent home”, and rock-God Bowie once compared Adolf Hitler to a rock star and stated his love for fascism (although since claimed it was the result of substance abuse psychosis).
However, the emergence of racism wasn’t just prevalent in stars, but also grew within fanbases. An escalating neo-Nazi movement emerged amongst young white British youth, particularly working class and especially amongst punk fans and within the skinhead subculture. Rubika Shah’s 2019 documentary White Riot, screened earlier this year at Glasgow Film Festival, follows the birth and legacy of RAR. In the film, Pauline Black of ska band, the Selecter, notes, “It was a scary moment because punk could’ve gone either way […] Some of the bands did have NF following”.
A grassroots fanzine for RAR called Temporary Hoarding was founded to combat this mentality, utilising their platform to expose racism and change the divided opinions of the young British working class. It’s important to note that this was a time when many young black people were often being stopped by police and searched under the now scrapped “sus” law, subject to police brutality and unjust incarceration.
A key aspect of Temporary Hoarding was that it gave readers the ability to host their own RAR gigs all over the UK. Following the very first RAR gig in London in 1976, with a how-to host your own gig guide included in the fanzine, RAR expanded immeasurably with more than 200 local RAR groups throughout the UK, later spanning across the globe. The response was enormous at a time when Britain’s punk music scene had what White Riot describes as “a constant air of violence” and divisive politics.
The movement culminated in 1978 with 100,000 people marching from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in Hackney for a RAR outdoor concert in collaboration with the Anti-Nazi League. The Carnival featured performances from long-time RAR supporters the Tom Robinson Band and punk legends X-Ray Spex and Steel Pulse. But the most iconic performance came from The Clash, who brought Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 onstage to join them on vocals for their anti-fascist hit White Riot, a call for white youth to fight for a worthy cause. This was particularly poignant as Sham 69 were rumoured to have a large number of National Front supporting fans, and Pursey’s appearance at the Rock Against Racism concert was a bold statement against prejudice. It was clear in music a new decade had dawned.
Following smaller local gigs, Scotland also held their own Rock Against Racism carnivals at The Clydeside bandstand in Glasgow, Ferguslie Park in Paisley and the largest, with 8000 in attendance, at Craigmillar Park in Edinburgh following the success of the Victoria Park concert. While the Carnivals ended in 1981, to this day many still host their own versions of the RAR gigs.
In retrospect, these zeitgeisty events share striking similarities with current world events today. Over forty years after the establishment of the RAR movement, racism is still an extremely pressing issue within society.
The recent killing of George Floyd, a black man, by white police officers in Minneapolis has brought people together to protest against police brutality. The protests have extended further than the United States, and like most of the world, large numbers of demonstrators have gathered in Glasgow Green to acknowledge the need for substantial systemic change.
The music industry in the UK has also, again, called for change. Racial discrimination has far from disappeared within the business, with former X Factor winner Alexandra Burke revealing she was told to bleach her skin to “appear whiter”, wear her hair in a way that would “appeal to white people” and was constantly barraged with racially motivated abuse online. Additionally, Kanya King, founder of the Music of Black Origin awards (MOBOs), published an open letter highlighting racism within the music industry, including deliberate attempts by British press to negatively portray the MOBOs, which led her to remortgage her house in a desperate bid to allow the awards to continue.
While the lack of progress over 40 years in regards to racist attitudes is extremely disheartening, the voice of the people in the face of injustice rings out stronger than ever. Just as the Rock Against Racism movement was established at a crucial and volatile time in history – the Black Lives Matter movement has also found great support at a time when society needs it most. It’s imperative we understand the power that these movements have and essential, more than ever, that we join them and respect one another and stand united, together, at the face of racism.