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Did music fight racism?

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Original BBC report on Rock Against Racism carnival in April 1978

By Andy Dangerfield
BBC News

It's 30 years since Rock Against Racism was formed to tackle growing racial tension in Britain. A series of concerts reached its climax in east London's Victoria Park on 30 April 1978, when the Clash played to 80,000. Did it have a lasting impact?

Many people believe writing letters to complain is a waste of time. But Rock Against Racism (RAR) was one movement that was sparked by a single letter-writer.

Photographer Red Saunders penned the words that inspired RAR, incensed by comments blurted out by musician Eric Clapton at a Birmingham concert in 1976.

RAR CONCERTS
The Clash's Paul Simonon at Rock Against Racism Carnival
Nov 1976: First RAR gig, east London
Apr 1978: RAR Carnival, east London
July 1978: Northern Carnival, Manchester
July 1981: Specials headline RAR Carnival, Leeds

Clapton had urged his audience to back former Conservative MP Enoch Powell's anti-immigrant stance. The guitarist, who has since said he is not a racist, suggested Britain was becoming "a black colony".

Saunders' words were printed in NME and Melody Maker.

"One of the biggest rock stars of the time was spouting awful racist nonsense. I'd been a fan of his and was absolutely shocked," says Mr Saunders.

Quoting the Bob Marley song Clapton had covered to achieve his first UK solo hit, the letter ended on the biting note: "Who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you."

The letter received an overwhelming response - nearly 400 replies in two weeks. Rock Against Racism was born. The fledgling organisation had close links to the Anti-Nazi League, and was soon organising a string of concerts featuring like-minded bands.

The concert in Victoria Park was seen as paving the way for later giant cause-driven shows like Live Aid and Free Nelson Mandela.

High unemployment

Weyman Bennett was a School Kids Against the Nazis activist at the time of the Victoria Park concert.

"In contrast to the sense of fear that came before, the carnival brought a sense of elation," he says.

The late 1970s were a time of recession, strikes and high unemployment, which RAR's founders saw as having created fertile territory for racists. The National Front was gaining support in the polls.

Riot in Lewisham
The 1970s and early 1980s saw racial tension and riots

By 1978, anti-racist gigs were being held across the country. By the time of the Victoria Park carnival in April of that year, the movement had enough support for thousands of people to march the six miles from Trafalgar Square to the concert.

"It was put together by a lorry load of anti-Nazi enthusiasts, a couple of elastic bands and tuppence hapenny," Mr Saunders jokes.

The Spectator's Toby Young, who was at the Victoria Park concert, is one of those who has been sceptical about the lasting effects of the event.

Reminiscing recently, he said: "It's naive to think a few well intended musicians can do something about a problem so widespread and endemic."

While the extent to which RAR eased racial tensions is debatable, the performers involved said it certainly had a huge impact on their approach to music and sparked a rise in black and white artists performing on the same bill.

Black performers

This was a key plank for a movement that boasted the slogan "music that breaks down people's fear of one another".

Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex, who opened the concert, explains that before RAR she had always performed with white artists. "RAR brought black and white artists together on stage," she says.

Don Letts
It used to be a black and white issue - today there's more racism against Muslims or eastern Europeans for instance
Don Letts, Musician

David Hinds from Steel Pulse, who also performed, thinks RAR brought together different types of music.

"White people started going to gigs with black performers. People started to learn about different languages, dances, foods and cultures."

A modern day incarnation of Rock Against Racism, the renamed LMHR (Love Music Hate Racism) formed in 2002.

The movement has organised a concert for 27 April, again in Victoria Park. But can racism still be tackled by popular music?

"Racism is just as much of a problem today," says Mr Bennett, who is now LMHR chair.

"Today things are more covert. Racists wear suits and look respectable."

Musician and film-maker Don Letts agrees. "It used to be a black and white issue. But now it's more complicated. Today there's more racism against Muslims or eastern Europeans for instance."

The Sheffield Rock Against Racism gig, 1977
RAR gigs brought black and white fans together

London grime DJ Target, of Roll Deep, who is playing at the anniversary concert thinks music remains a good way to connect with young people.

"Kids of today would prefer to listen to a song than to a politician they can't relate to. A concert is a good way to communicate the anti-racism message," he says.

Drew McConnell from Babyshambles, who will collaborate on the day with artists from Reverend and the Makers and the Guillemots seems to think LMHR can succeed.

"British people can be very apathetic. But when things start getting bad they have a quality of standing up and saying 'We're not going to stand for this.'"

There will always be those who believe music and politics should never mix, but rock's anti-racists will plug on nevertheless.

Black and white photographs courtesy of Syd Shelton. An exhibition of his work, A Riot Of Our Own, is on display at the Chelsea Space Gallery, London, from 2 July.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I was at the Victoria Park concert in 1978, it was a great day, but was somewhat disconcerting to see the crowd was 99% white. Black people were just getting on with it. The Clash's White Riot really puts it into perspective.
Glenn, Sydney, Australia

In 1980 I co-wrote a song which was released (by Phonogram) on an album. The song was called Sharpesville and dealt with the apartheid regime in South Africa. This one song proved to be an example as to the power of music against racism as it led to interviews on German radio/press which increased awareness on the topic in Germany. It also led to the Sunny Jim Band's van being defaced by white South African racist graffiti. Of the many songs I have written, it remains the one I am most proud of.
John Barry, Berlin, Germany

"Today things are more covert. Racists wear suits and look respectable." I'm not old enough to remember but did Enoch Powell shave his head and wear combat trousers with Dr Martens? Or is Mr Bennet just as fond of stereotyping people as the racists he quite rightly deplores? I really wanted to go to Vicky Park but ended up staying in bed with a toothache. As much as I wanted to see the bands I wasn't prepared to take the political message TOO seriously. I've been to the Respect/Rise festival in the summer a few times now and always enjoy myself, but I often get the impression it's being run by people desperate to prove how non-racist they are, rather than actually addressing the real issues. Unfortunately racism still exists, but the nature of it has changed radically and people still seem to treat it as they did in the 70s. Political correctness and white condescension, rather than prejudice, towards other races is becoming increasingly more damaging to the mentalities of young minorities and most racial violence now occurs between different minority groups.
Charlie, London

Music certainly raises awareness of political issues in the young, where politicians fail to make in roads. Look at the Clash at the height of Rock against Racism, they used their music to educate youth against the NF.
Phil Brand, London, England

I for one thinks it's great, to put the message that racism is wrong is a worth while cause. What disturbs me most is the lack of concern with award ceremonies eg. MOBO. These kind of awards detract from the talent and are more about what is or not black music and what should be excluded. We all sing, we all dance, the awards like this should be about all not just 'us' mentality.
Jo, Caloundra, Australia

How can you be sure that the artists are there for a reason other than self promotion? You can't and when you hear the drivel that pours forth from the likes of U2 - good old Bono, let's make poverty history? I don't see him giving away his millions to help the cause. As they say - who gives more, the millionaire who donates 1% of his wealth or the pauper who gives what he can spare? RAR should continue, just don't believe the acts - they're acts.
Phil Bower, Sydney, Australia

Of course it's impossible to know what would have happened without RAR. But the fact that the seemingly-inexorable rise of the National Front ended during the period when RAR was most active suggests that it did something right. It wasn't just the big set-piece events that were important - there were dozens of RAR groups around the country putting on local gigs too. It really reached the grass roots.
Mr Henderson

Along with the Anti-Nazi League, it was pivotal in helping to smash the fascists - more so than anything that the politicians at the time were doing. And it is good to see that Love Music Hate Racism is putting on a festival this weekend to try and re-spark this enthusiasm for anti-racism in an attempt to stop the current version of the NF, the BNP, in the run-up to the May elections.
Scott Bronstein, London

Music has an exceptional power, music and politics should always be mixed. In Brazil music always helped the youngsters to understand what was going on with politics and to stand up against them, specially when we had the Army as dictators back in the 1960s. Nevertheless, these values must be taught within our homes.
Andrea Bosi, Brasilia, Brazil

Music certainly increased my awareness of racism. I hadn't heard of Steve Biko before hearing Peter Gabriel's song. I think that RAR was part of a general movement, along with alternative comedy, that made many of my generation stop and think instead of accepting the status quo.
Tont, Halesowen, England

Music has long been a great unifying force. In the 80s there was at least some cultural criticism going on in songwriting, and direct political statements - there needed to be. A song like Ghost Town by the Specials neatly captured the depressed mood of the Thatcher era. Now that the industry has determined that music should be separated by genre and target audiences means much of that unity becomes diffuse and lost. The old differences restored and reinforced. Music now needs more focus, and should not shy away from confronting issues, and expressing dissent. Music should however not be used in the service of party politics eg Cool Britannia. There is no doubt that RAR since the late 70s has made a lasting impression, and defied and challenged racial prejudice.
OddBoy, Salford

Anyone who repeatedly listens to a song cannot help but be influenced by the message in the song which is not to say they will follow it slavishly. When it comes to taking practical action, however, it is down to those "boring" politicians, business leaders etc change things.
Anne Murray, Chester, Cheshire

The main problem you face with concerts such as these is the string of bands and performers jumping on the bandwagon to support their own image and benefit for themselves. I find it very hard to believe a political message coming from self-absorbed cheesy bands such as Babyshambles and especially U2. These performers detract from the bands that actually do something to fight for global injustice, such as Propagandhi.
James, Shepherd Bush


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