From the Civil Rights movement to Black Lives Matter today, musicians have always been at the forefront of the fight against racism and oppression.
Two music-driven antiracist movements to emerge in Britain over the last half a century played a role in shaping society and culture domestically and around the world. This article will look at Rock Against Racism, Love Music Hate Racism and the continued relevance of the model they adopted to this day.
The origins of Rock Against Racism
The year 1976 was characterised by the James Callaghan's Labour government's acceptance of International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed austerity measures, leading to unemployment, disillusionment, and anger, particularly amongst the young. This context was a fertile breeding ground for the Nazi National Front and British Movement, who were trying to scapegoat Britain's post-war migrant communities for the country's economic woes.
In this same year, on 4 August 1976, rock musician Eric Clapton used a packed-out gig in Birmingham to unleash a racist rant in support of anti-immigrant politician Enoch Powell. Clapton said, "I think we should vote for Enoch Powell. Enoch's our man. I think Enoch's right; I think we should send them all back….Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white."1
Clapton's racist comments were a clear threat to black communities and antiracists as he was wedging the door open for the far-right to increase their influence amongst music lovers. Red Saunders, a member of an agitpop theatre, and Roger Huddle, knew they had to respond to Clapton's outburst. They penned a letter to Melody Maker and other music publications calling out Clapton's hypocrisy.
"What's Going On, Eric?... Own up. Half your music is black... Who shot the Sheriff? Eric. It sure as hell wasn't you!"2
The letter ended with a rallying call for musicians and fans alike to help form a Rock Against Racism movement. They received hundreds of replies to the open letter, and a new cultural movement began to take shape with a straightforward antiracist ethos.
Rock Against Racism's groundbreaking approach
Rock Against Racism (RAR) would organise over 400 gigs around the UK between 1976 and 1982. These events included hugely successful carnival-labelled music festivals, attended by tens of thousands of people and performances from bands including The Clash, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Specs, Misty in Roots Aswad, Tom Robinson's Band and The Ruts.
RAR activists sought to occupy music and popular culture as a space for antiracism and multicultural exchange instead of the National Front, who preached a bigoted mono-cultural nationalist politics that rejected difference.
The method of RAR was to bring together young black and white people at events by offering an eclectic mix of punk and reggae on show line-ups. Today it is easy to take for granted the plethora of cultural influences that a musician will draw on as they develop their unique style of music. Yet, in the mid-1970s, RAR's approach was truly ground-breaking and became a considerable influence on SKA and 2Tone genres that were emerging at the time.
RAR's cultural politics played a key role in halting the rise of the National Front by instilling a confident antiracist spine in popular music. The RAR movement made it uncool to be a racist as their slogan went; 'NF = No Fun.'
Whilst the Anti-Nazi League and other anti-fascist groups would occupy the streets and challenge the National Front by day, RAR worked in tandem by making sure that the nightclubs were spaces to promote a clear antiracist and anti-Nazi message. In so doing that, RAR, in no small part, helped lay the foundation for multicultural Britain.
Love Music Hate Racism emerged to pick up the mantle of its predecessor
Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) began life as the slogan of the Rock Against Racism movement of the mid-1970s to early 1980s. Still, it was a fitting name for a new antiracism campaign to emerge in the early 2000s to pick up the mantle of its predecessor.
In 2002 LMHR was formed at a time when the British National Party had begun to make electoral gains. Under the leadership of Nick Griffin, the BNP started to pursue a euro-fascist strategy similar to Jean Marie Le Pen's Front National in France.
Their tactics aimed to rain in some of the acts of violence and intimidation on the streets against migrant communities and their anti-fascist opponents. Instead, there was an attempt to re-orientate the party into a 'respectable' electoral machine capable of winning local and national elections seats.
There was early evidence of the worrying effectiveness of this strategy in the 2002 council elections. In Oldham that year, the BNP won its highest ever share of the vote (35 and 30 per cent respectively) in two wards, whilst gaining three council seats in Burnley.3
The task for LMHR was straightforward, to draw on the tried and tested method utilised by RAR and reignite a cultural movement that would promote unity through the power of music.
In the early 2000s, reggae and punk had long since been replaced by various other genres of music that were now reflecting the experiences and tastes of young people. Indie, grime, garage hip hop, RnB, bhangra, drum and bass were some of the many genres of music capturing young people's attention. The name LMHR better reflected this diversity than Rock Against Racism.
Love Music Hate Racism in the early 2000s
LMHR first gig was in Burnley; following the BNP's local election success in the town, it featured the band Chumbawamba as show headliners. The antiracism campaign would hold many successful gigs and festivals in the early 2000s, such as a carnival in Manchester headlined by Ms Dynamite in 2002, a Victoria Park carnival in 2008 and the following year at the Stoke Britannia Stadium.
Tens of thousands of people attended these events, and international artists such as Kelly Rowland, Babyshambles, Chip and Kano, Kasabian and Kaiser Chiefs performed. Alongside music events, LMHR took artists into schools to warn of the dangers of the BNP politics of hate.
These tactics were impactful in discouraging support for the far-right, particularly in Stoke, where the street organisation the English Defence League (EDL), formed in 2009, had held large mobilisations in the city. LMHR worked collectively with Unite Against Fascism, who effectively challenged the far-right on the streets just as Rock Against Racism had once worked together with the Anti-Nazi League to oppose the National Front.
History warns us against complacency
Love Music Hate Racism has gone through somewhat of a revival in recent years. To address the spread of racist hate and far-right content on social media, LMHR collaborated with leading record labels in 2017 and 2019 on two separate impact days in the lead up to UN Anti-Racism Day.
International artists such as Ed Sheeran, Stormzy, Dave, Dupa Lipa, Coldplay, Jorja Smith, Mahalia and many more took part in the initiatives by showing their support for the campaign on social media. Love Music Hate Racism began putting on floats in the Notting Hill Carnival in 2017 and launched a fortnightly show on Soho Radio called #SpeakUpThursday last year to continue the conversation that surfaced online following the brutal murder of George Floyd.
Whilst there is not currently a far-right threat on the scale that the National Front, British National Party and English Defence League once posed, history warns us against complacency. The Government's hostile environment policies, anti-migrant rhetoric and the abuse of England players taking the knee provide a breeding ground for far-right movements to regroup.
With this in mind, Love Music Hate Racism has a continued relevance in utilising music as a tool for combating hatred and bigotry.
Last month LMHR partnered with Barking and Dagenham Council to put on the Becontree 100 festival. The festival, which included performances from Frank Turner, Nova Twins, Joe Talbot (IDLES) and Yolanda Brown, promoted an antiracist message and celebrated the multicultural nature of the borough. It was precisely the opposite of what Nick Griffin and the BNP would have brought to the borough if antiracists and anti-fascists had not stopped them.
Next year, Love Music Hate Racism hopes to work with a new generation of musicians ready to take up the mantle and spread our positive antiracist message at their shows. LMHR hope to be again running live music events in cities across the UK from late autumn.
Rick Blackman (2021) Babylon's Burning: Music, Subcultures, and Anti-Fascism in Britain 1958-2020, London: Bookmarks.
Roger Huddle & Red Saunders (2021) Reminiscences Of RAR: Rocking Against Racism 1976-1982 (2nd ed.), London: Redwords.
Ian Goodyer (2013) Crisis Music: The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
1Rick Blackman (2021) Babylon's Burning: Music, Subcultures, and Anti-Fascism in Britain 1958-2020, London: Bookmarks, p117.