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Making music matter

Organisers claimed it a huge success, but the BNP won a seat on the London Assembly days later. Lena De Casparis and Alex Nunns explore the impact of the Love Music Hate Racism carnival – and the future for such events

10 to 13 minute read

Young women festival-goers stand at a gig barrier holding placards that read 'Stop the Nazi BNP' while smiling and putting thumbs upCREDIT: PA PHOTOS

The Love Music Hate Racism carnival in Victoria Park last month was seemingly a great success. Organisers claimed an attendance of over 100,000. A mass of teenagers in skinny jeans mixed with somewhat older lefties in ill-fitting jeans. Big name acts from a range of cultural backgrounds shared the same bill. There were even periods in the day when it stopped raining.

But the carnival had loftier ambitions. It aimed to hurt the British National Party (BNP) in May’s local elections, and to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Rock Against Racism (RAR) concert of 1978. In the former objective, it would appear it failed. The BNP vote went up slightly in London on 1 May and the party won a seat for the first time on the London Assembly – though organisers claimed that without the carnival it would have done even better. As for the latter, the anniversary focused attention on the changing relationship between music and politics.

Whereas April’s event had the feel of a celebration of diversity, 30 years earlier RAR’s ‘Carnival Against the Nazis’ had been more of a musical street fight, confronting the National Front (NF) on its own stomping ground. In the mid 1970s the fascists were making their presence felt. Not only did the NF secure 5 per cent of the vote in elections to the Greater London Council in 1977, but fascism was penetrating the youth culture through some sections of the skinhead movement and using thuggery to intimidate blacks and Asians.

Owning the streets

‘They felt that they owned the streets,’ says filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, best known for directing Bend It Like Beckham. ‘They felt that they could come in and put up their posters and literature, and they were trying to claim different parts of the country as theirs. When I came to Victoria Park in 1978 I didn’t even tell my parents because they thought I was going to get killed by some Nazi – that’s how strong the sense of violence was.’

In this battle for Britain’s youth, it was not initially clear who had music on their side. In 1976 a drunken Eric Clapton had declared from a Birmingham stage that ‘Enoch was right’. Appalled, rock photographer Red Saunders and others sent a letter to the music press calling for a new campaign called Rock Against Racism to rid music of ‘racist poison’.

The ensuing movement was a grass- roots, largely working-class phenomenon. The 1978 carnival was only the biggest of a series of gigs, invariably locally-organised, in towns and cities across the country. Each show would feature black and white artists on the same bill – usually reggae and punk – and would be directly connected to the fight against the NF, whose initials were tagged forever as standing for ‘No Fun’ and ‘No Future’.

Red Saunders stresses that ‘Rock Against Racism wasn’t started by some political person who said this is a good political idea – we must combat racism with music. It was a group of passionate people who loved music and wanted music that hated racism. Self-activism is vital – it’s not about telling someone what to do, it’s about the passion.’ The impact that RAR had on the NF is debated. Supporters believe it stopped the Nazis in their tracks, as evidenced by a poor performance in the 1979 election. Others attribute that to the rise of Thatcherism, and assert that a concert in a park couldn’t have changed anything.

But in the minds of huge numbers of people it did. It demonstrated that there were tens of thousands of people willing to risk physical violence to express their disgust at the NF. It showed that the fascists were not cool, and, above all, that they were a minority.

It also had a profound effect on individuals such as Billy Bragg. At a benefit night for the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight in March, Bragg told his personal story: ‘Until I went on that march I had never done anything political. Going into the park and seeing a hundred thousand kids like me, I realised that this was the issue my generation was going take a stand over – the issue of discrimination.’

Changing perceptions

‘It was the audience that changed my perception of the world,’ Bragg says.’So when I went into work on the Monday morning I knew I wasn’t in a minority. I knew what made me different from my middle-aged colleagues who were racist and homophobic.’

The band that drew Bragg to Victoria Park in 1978 was the Clash, and it was only fitting that bass player Paul Simonon should headline the Love Music Hate Racism carnival 30 years later with his current group, The Good, The Bad and The Queen. Backstage at the event, the authors of this article, who hadn’t been born when the Clash played three decades earlier, asked Simonon what it was like. ‘It was really good fun,’ he said with a cheeky smile. ‘You missed out.’

So what did he make of the re-run? ‘There’s no comparison because it’s a different time and place,’ he replied. ‘But it’s still an important issue and that’s why I’m here today as I was back then. Whether society has or hasn’t progressed, these issues still need to be brought up and that’s what’s important.’

Other veterans of 1978 were more willing to draw contrasts. Stood in the corner of a fairly grotty backstage tent, still looking cool after all those years in a beaten leather jacket, was Jimmy Pursey, formerly of Sham 69, who at the original carnival famously went on stage to sing ‘White Riot’ with the Clash. ‘Journalists are trying to spin it as if we’re having to come here 30 years later because racism is still as it was – but that’s not true,’ he told us. ‘Today is a celebration because we’re now an umbrella nation – we’ve got an English tongue but we’re all as one.’

Gurinder Chadha agreed. ‘This is more like a party. It’s more a case of people coming to see the music. Thirty years ago there was this real sense of politics, of people coming forward to vote for change with their feet.’

Indeed, the presence of breaking artists like Patrick Wolf (who seemed to have stolen the heart of every young person we spoke to) and big acts like Hard-Fi and Roll Deep ensured that teenagers greatly outnumbered the survivors of ’78 – the most encouraging aspect of the event. On stage there were no legendary Clash-like performances and the sound was often victim to the wind, but the music was good enough to make the day a success as a concert.

And it couldn’t be said that the political message was absent. Artists’ sets were interspersed with speeches from the likes of Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn and Stop the War convenor Lindsey German. The crowd was regularly implored to put their middle finger up to fascism and chant ‘Fuck the BNP!’ There were stalls, placards, and enough leaflets to account for a medium-sized rainforest.

Despite this, the event didn’t feel like the front line of a battle. To an extent this is a testament to the success of the original carnival. Rock Against Racism put music firmly on the side of the anti-racists; it won the argument. Open racism is almost wholly absent in the music industry, and indeed in most of the creative industries today, and largely absent among music lovers. In the park Zac, aged 12, summed up what the rest of the kids were saying: ‘Racism is very uncool.’

The nature of the threat has changed too. The BNP are just as much of an electoral force as the National Front, but they are smarter than their forebears, in both senses of the word. The absence of the fear of violence naturally takes the edge off an event. As Jimmy Pursey put it, whereas the skinheads used to smash up Sham 69 shows, the Nazis are all in suits now, they’ve all become fucking estate agents’.

Much of the cultural and musical importance of 1978 came from a coincidence of timing – it happened right at the height of punk, one of the
most intense and explosive movements in popular music. The punks and the skinheads were drawn from the same pool of working-class youth – the conflict of ideologies that raged among them was direct and personal. Moreover, punk had an umbilical bond with reggae music, making anti-racism an obvious and necessary political cause to take up.

That these factors have no parallel today leads Paul Gilroy, the pioneering black cultural historian, to warn against ‘reaching to the shelf for the Rock Against Racism recipe, which we can repeat and it will all be alright’.

But does 1978 have to be unique? RAR was a great cultural success for the left, since unmatched. The idea of the politically motivated concert certainly survived, but was distorted into the bloated philanthropy of Live Aid, and then handed down to successively less interested generations, culminating in Live 8, which was ridiculed, and Live Earth, which was ignored. The sense of popular activism was lost along the way.

The key to RAR was that it was a grass-roots musical initiative, to which the left lent its organisational skills and expertise. Since that time, there seems to have been little attempt to search out and support more organic musical expressions of dissent and revolt. The left’s relationship to music has
been limited to having artists to round off demos or raise the quality of conference socials.

Froth on the top

‘Nowadays culture and music to the left in the UK is the froth on top, the added extra, the luxury. They need to change – music should be central,’ says Mark Perryman, who has helped put on various benefit gigs and other events. ‘We are the only country in Europe that doesn’t put on a yearly left carnival – the biggest music festivals in France and Italy are the left ones.’

The Left Field at Glastonbury is perhaps one exception. Its organiser Geoff Martin thinks ‘it’s been a massive failure of the trade unions not to seize the opportunities that culture and music provide. They need to be a lot funkier about it all so they can appeal more to all the young people – otherwise they are missing a whole generation.’

Martin is more optimistic about the future: ‘There are some signs that things are starting to change. The Left Field is wholly run by the trade union movement. So hopefully it will carry on from there.’

Ken Livingstone is a politician who long ago recognised the power of music and culture, funding countless events in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere while London mayor, particularly celebrating the festivals of London’s many ethnic groups. Speaking to us in Victoria Park a few days before his defeat in the mayoral election by Boris Johnson, he said: ‘These days the best way of reaching people is through the cultural things they get involved in because the mass political parties have largely withered away. It’s about the issues, whether it’s environmentalism or anti-racism. And if you put music on they’ll come.’

But some feel April’s event, like Live 8 and Live Earth, was not sufficiently slanted towards activism. As Nick Lowles from the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight put it, ‘They didn’t tell people what to do in the next four days. If they had told people to get out campaigning we could have had at least 5,000 people out on streets.’

‘I’m just not sure concerts are the most effective way of stopping the BNP,’ Lowles told us. ‘The event cost a huge amount of money and we have to ask was it the best use? In that same week the Daily Mirror ran an eight- page anti-BNP spread paid for by the trade unions. It cost half the amount of the carnival and will have a massive impact in comparison.’

Tell us what to do

In the park, 15-year-old Clementine told us: ‘The constant “Fuck the BNP!” is good but you need to give us more information – you need to back it up and tell us what to do.’

Grime artist Bashy, one of the prominent black performers on the bill, argued that Love Music Hate Racism has to expand to truly entrench its message. ‘This could realistically be a 24-hour event with artists from up and
down the country,’ he said. ‘Maybe one year it should be in Coventry, one year in Birmingham. Another year in Liverpool. Because people are experiencing racism up and down the country. It’d be known of, like the Notting Hill Carnival, so everyone would know Love Music Hate Racism.’

For Bashy, the important thing is the interaction of the crowd: ‘If everyone’s supporters can mix together they’ll understand that while all the artists on the stage come from different genres and different backgrounds, they’re together, so the audience can do the same thing.’

Other musicians playing at April’s concert had a more subtle take on how music can combat racism than that given by the politicos. Looking slightly
nervous before his headline performance with The Good, The Bad and The Queen, former Blur frontman Damon Albarn told us, ‘Music gives an example of how things can be done, when you get different cultures coming together as different musicians play together. That’s doing it by example, showing there’s no need to be divided by race when we can learn from each other, work together and be greater for it.’

Roll Deep, another of the big acts from the Victoria Park bill, shared the sentiment. ‘Being made up of over 15 nationalities among us, we’ve always backed Love Music Hate Racism and will continue to do so until racism and fascism is completely wiped out in our society.’

There is no doubting the power that music has to influence people. Hanging around backstage, Carl Barât, who alongside Pete Doherty was the driving force in the Libertines, cited feedback from fans as evidence. ‘Our involvement in this cause has definitely made the fans think about the issue,’ he asserted. ‘Knowledge comes from thinking. Racism comes from ignorance.’

And there lies the real impact of Love Music Hate Racism. In the short-term, it might not have hurt the BNP like Rock Against Racism hurt the National Front. But it communicated a message to thousands of teenagers, such as 17-year-old Safy, who said he liked the mix of politics and music ‘because people are more likely to listen to someone they admire … They should be doing this over loads of issues.’ And Eleen, 14, who assured us that ‘today has inspired me to do more stuff – there should definitely be more events like this! Free gigs are great!’

For more information go to www.lovemusichateracism.com

Alex Nunns is a writer, editor and activist. He worked as Jeremy Corbyn’s speechwriter from 2018-20, and his book The Candidate won the 2017 Bread and Roses Award

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