Reminiscences of Rock Against Racism (RAR) is an essential buy for every socialist and anti-racist. This is not simply a collection of stories, but a guide to building a mass movement, and it couldn’t be more needed. With the racist bigot Donald Trump in charge of the US and the far-right rising across Europe, the movement against racism needs to be united on a scale much larger than anything we’ve seen in recent years.
Rock Against Racism was born out of the need to reject the racist politics which had crawled into the cultural sphere. In the mid-1970s deep disillusionment with the Labour government was feeding the growth of the Nazi National Front (NF). It was blaming Asian migrants for problems in jobs and housing while organising white skinheads into gangs to attack black and Asian people on the streets.
By 1976 support for the fascists was reaching a new level, with Eric Clapton publicly endorsing Enoch Powell on stage in Birmingham and David Bowie proclaiming his support for fascism in a magazine interview. Earlier that year Gurdip Singh Chaggar was murdered in Southall and just after Clapton’s performance the police attacked the Notting Hill Carnival. There was a racist wave growing in Britain and Roger Huddle and Red Saunders wanted to do something about it.
After the Clapton gig Red wrote a letter in anger calling him “rock music’s biggest coloniser” and asked Roger to sign it before sending it off to the NME. It called for a rejection of racist politics and formed RAR as an official organisation.
The response was incredible and within a few weeks they had over 300 replies. Red and Roger moved quickly to use the momentum, setting up gigs where they could.
The first account in the book is from Roger, emphasising that RAR was a political movement. He had joined the International Socialists (now Socialist Workers Party) in 1966 and his revolutionary politics played a key role in making RAR into a huge united front which turned the tide on the racism of the NF. He tells a story of setting up a publication to hold the organisation together as well as the early gigs which became battle grounds against the NF. The gigs were a show of unity, bringing black and white musicians to play alongside each other. Their slogan was “Reggae, soul, rock ’n’ roll, jazz, funk, punk: our music”.
They understood that most of the young people the NF were pulling in weren’t hardened Nazis, but they had been ignored and their communities destroyed by successive governments; and the NF was picking them up. Music was a way of breaking through to a lot of them, alongside the work of the Anti Nazi League (ANL), which stopped them marching in the streets. Punk was the music of rebellion and the NF was claiming the anti-establishment voice. RAR did an incredible job to reclaim the music and make racism unpopular among large groups of young people.
From their humble beginnings Roger paints a vivid picture which takes us to the first RAR carnival in 1978, when 80,000 marched against the NF from Trafalgar Square into Victoria Park, seven miles away in east London, to hear the likes of X-Ray Specs, Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson band and the Clash.
There are contributions from teachers, sound crew members, musicians, film directors, NHS workers and more. Their stories provide a detailed account of an exciting period of struggle and point to how we can make such a movement today. Selwyn Brown from Steel Pulse says there are people who still come up to him to say they were at Victoria Park or the Northern Carnival in Manchester, which “shows the incredible impact the RAR movement had and the enduring commitment of people to continue the fight against racism”.
John W Dennis, a full-time RAR organiser, gives a very detailed account of the difficulty in organising such an ad hoc movement at such a quick pace. He writes about the legacy of RAR with the Islington Music Workshop and now with Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR). In 2008 LMHR celebrated the 30th anniversary of the RAR carnival to a crowd of 100,000 people with artists such as Jerry Dammers of the Specials.
This year LMHR will be relaunching with the intention of putting on gigs all over the country alongside rallies with Stand Up to Racism. This will reinforce the legacy of the ANL alongside RAR, the cultural and political wings of the same movement. It’s very important that socialists throw themselves into building these to be large, vibrant events of music, poetry, art and culture, which celebrate our diversity while bringing us together.
Overall this book captures the spirit of a united front at its best: personal accounts told by the participants, sometimes contradictory, but always pushing in the same direction. Roger ends his account by saying that there are no fundamental differences between society then and now. Racism and capitalism still exist and therefore so does the need for an alternative. How that takes a cultural form is to be seen, but by having this book we are much more prepared.