Racism, Rock and Rebellion

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1970’s Britain was host to a culture of prejudice, racism and social division, yet amongst its climate of discord was born a system of organizations dedicated to fighting back against the racism which so deeply permeated British society. The 1970s marked the beginning of a crisis over capitalism where the state and employers attempted to saddle blame on the working class and the oppressed over the failures of the British economy. This culminated in the growth of class conscience and the rise of resistance unprecedented since the 1920s. Race began to be used as a form of identification rather than social control, which saw black and Asian peoples group together into communities of resistance which were then aligned with class struggle by social activists and anti-racist promoters.  Understanding racism during this period is best done by observing three bodies which were involved in the fight against, as well as the persistence of, racist ideology: The National Front, Rock against Racism, and the Anti-Nazi League.  

The national Front

The National Front is a political party focused on far-right ideologies of fascism and nationalism. Although formed in 1966, it made real growth in the mid 1970s. A large reason for this was the recruitment of working-class youths. The party acknowledged the commonly felt anger amongst working class youths at their bleak futures due to high levels of unemployment, thus they manipulated this into anger surrounding immigration and race. The creation of the zine ‘Bulldog’ began circulating amongst school kids and young adults. The editor, Joseph Pearce, was at the forefront of the campaign of youth initiation. In an interview with Don Letts in 2019, Pearce explained how National Front campaigners would go to football matches and music gigs and recruit and sell zines. By the mid to late 1970s the National Front had a huge following and were marching and protesting through immigrant communities regularly.

Rock Against Racism

Rock Against Racism (RAR) was a grassroots political and cultural movement which emerged in 1976, in reaction to increasing support for the National Front and an alarming rise in racist attacks in the streets of the UK. Its aim was to bring together black and white musicians and fans, through concerts, carnivals and local gigs, in order to discourage young people from embracing racism. Music supplied a new language of resistance for these communities, and Ian Goodyer has called it ‘one of the most dynamic anti-racist campaigns of the last 30 years’. In 1978 alone, RAR organised 300 local gigs and 5 carnivals, including a huge London event in April, where bands like The Clash, Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots played for an audience of over 100,000 people. RAR drew upon cultural forms of black identity such as reggae and carnival, and juxtaposed them with the punk subculture and its anti-establishment feel; this hybridity provided a degree of integration between black and white musicians, leading to the emergence of new ‘ska’ bands, such as the Specials, who played at the last RAR carnival in 1981. However, historian Roger Sabin has criticised RAR for being implicitly racist, arguing that by concentrating on a narrow stream of popular music, the campaign was ‘blind towards the plight of ethnic minorities who lacked the cultural cachet of Afro-Caribbean rebel youth’, such as British Asians. Significantly, Asian communities endured much of the far-right violence of the 1970s, and yet they were often invisible to punk’s radical vanguard. Yet, ultimately, RAR was successful in its aims, and by 1981, the National Front had fragmented, and its racist politics no longer posed a threat to British society.

The Anti-Nazi League:

Often criticized for being limited in its scope (Gilroy), Virdee has argued that the ANL was in fact a diverse group, and that it incorporated the general fight against immigration controls and racism into its protests, one slogan reading “Stop the Nazis; No Immigration Controls”. The movement was also wider in scope than previously assumed. The Socialist Workers Party was deeply involved: it was they who coordinated these groups and established a national effort. Moreover, Trade Unions engaged as they never had done before, supporting minority workers at the Grunwick Strike. Multiple unions that had previously acted against Asian workers came out to support them (Ramdin): APEX offered to make the strike official and pay those involved, and at the TUC Conference in 1976, workers were called to lend their support. The ANL collaborated with RAR. Together they organized carnivals throughout 1978 and 1979. Brockwell Park in 1978 saw more than 100,000 people attend. Other minorities also joined, namely the Irish, due to their memory of the racism still experienced. The ANL garnered the support of the white working class youths, consequently diverting support away from the NF. Ultimately, it “stimulated people into collective action and led them to forge one of the most influential progressive social movements in British history” (Virdee).

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