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Rock Against Racism, 1978: When music united against fascism

BY Becca Inglis

27th Apr 2023 Music

Rock Against Racism, 1978: When music united against fascism

In 1978, Rock Against Racism fought back against a surge of far right rhetoric with a historic concert, which united thousands of activists and music fans

On 30 April, 1978, 100,000 music fans marched on London’s Victoria Park. This was Rock Against Racism, a grassroots movement that for two years had been using live music to campaign against fascism, which was seeing a worrying uptick across the country.

The final straw

When Rock Against Racism threw its first 1976 gig in East London’s Princess Alice pub, the Sikh teenager Gurdip Singh Chagger had just been murdered.

“One down, a million to go,” was the reaction of the National Front chairman, John Kingsley Read, to the stabbing. That same year, David Bowie had named Adolf Hitler “one of the first rock stars” to Playboy.

"Half your music is black. You're rock music's biggest colonist"

It was Eric Clapton’s infamous outburst at the Birmingham Odeon—where he threw his support behind Enoch Powell’s chilling “Rivers of Blood” speech (Clapton later admitted feeling ashamed and repeatedly apologised for his remarks)—that spurred the rock community to action.

“Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. You're rock music's biggest colonist,” read an open letter published to magazines like NME and Melody Maker, which called on anti-racist rockers to assemble.

Rock Against Racism rises up

The Clash performing at Rock Against Racism, 1978Courtesy of Visit Films/Rebekah Shah. The Clash showed onstage that racism had no place in true punk

Two years of community organising and live music culminated in the historic free concert in Victoria Park.

Joining the march through London’s East End were not just punks but trade unionists and members of the Asian and Black communities being targeted by racist attacks.

"Joining the march were not just punks but trade unionists and members of the Asian and Black communities"

Musicians like The Clash, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex and Jimmy Pursey demonstrated onstage that punk and reggae were united in multicultural activism, though the sound was famously awful—the organisers expected 10,000 to show up, and the PA they hired was woefully ill-equipped to service a crowd ten times the size.

Not that that seems to have mattered to those who attended. Much more than a concert, Rock Against Racism showed just how powerful music could be for uniting the people—and how strong those gathered were together, even when it felt like intolerance and violence were on the rise.

Banner credit: Sarah Wyld, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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