Forty years ago this month the biggest party ever held in Brockwell Park took place under the banner Rock Against Racism. On 24 September 1978 more than 120,000 revellers came from across the country for the era-defining free carnival, headlined by Elvis Costello and Aswad. It was the biggest event pulled off by the music-led political campaign and it helped to change British society.
The vast crowd met in Hyde Park, where they heard speeches by Tony Benn MP, leading trade unionists and musicians, before marching to Brixton in a procession led by bands playing on floats and joined by several steel bands. The carnival programme warned: “It will happen here … if we don’t stop them now when they’re still weak.
That is why the Carnival is there for you and me and quiet people who didn’t stand up to the loud mouthed racists on the bus. So we can dance to our music in the streets. Then it won’t happen here.
If we start now and make this Carnival the beginning …” Rock Against Racism (RAR) and its sister organisation the Anti-Nazi League helped to make anti-racism common-sense for a generation of young music fans. They did so by demonstrating that life is more fun if you’re anti-racist and by arguing that casual racism is the thin end of the wedge which leads to fascism.
As the Tom Robinson Band put it at the time: “We don’t need no racial hatred. We don’t need no lies. We don’t need no bombs or poison. ’Cos we’ve got joy on our side.” Forty years on it’s a message we must spread again.
Drawing inspiration, no doubt, from the Trump administration, former London mayor Boris Johnson decided to stir the pot of hatred by using a column in a national newspaper to make derogatory remarks about the way some Muslim women dress. The sadly predictable result was a rise in hate crimes committed against those women. This comes at a time when the far right are gaining ground electorally across Europe and are growing in confidence here.
Last month London’s largest socialist bookshop, Bookmarks in Bloomsbury, was ransacked by a far right mob including UKIP members who tore up books and insulted staff. We must stop the rot. It’s time for us all to think creatively about how we can challenge bigotry and build a broad, united campaign to take on the far right.
The trade union movement should once again work with groups such as Stand Up To Racism to organise national demonstrations and carnivals based on the RAR model. It’s encouraging that smaller events are already taking on the challenge in Brixton.
One example is the AFROPUNK takeover, which kicks this month off. AFROPUNK’s website describes the Brixton takeover as “a week-long, multi-disciplinary offering of events and exhibitions…in line with AFROPUNK’s desire to connect through Diaspora; creating bonds between those with a shared mindset.”
A highlight will be the Saturday 8th Brixton Academy show headlined by hiphop supergroup August Greene (Robert Glasper, Common & Karriem Riggins) with special guests including Laura Mvula and Akala. For several years AFROPUNK have combined excellent new music with progressive political perspectives.
At a previous London event acts performed under a huge banner stating: NO SEXISM NO RACISM NO ABLEISM NO AGEISM NO HOMOPHOBIA NO FATPHOBIA NO TRANSPHOBIA NO HATEFULNESS
Brixton Come Together festival Saturday 22 September
This is a welcome echo and extension of the demands made by RAR four decades ago. Albeit on a more modest scale to RAR or AFROPUNK, the Brixton Come Together festival does what it says on the tin on Saturday 22nd in Windrush Square. This year the free festival pays special tribute to the Windrush generation with a series of performances and talks in collaboration with the Black Cultural Archive. Head to the Hootananny for the afterparty, where French Afrobeat collective Afro-Social Club and, from Salvador in Brazil, Afrocidade take the stage.
Dave Randall is a musician and author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music.