Having been invited to open the ‘Love Music, Hate Racism‘ festival in Kenilworth at the weekend, below is the transcript of the speech that I made. Special ‘thank yous’ to the organisers and everyone that supported the event…
Unlike this summer, the summer of 1976 was the hottest since records began.
Things weren’t just hot because of the sweltering temperatures: temperatures were also rising on the streets because of the growing spectre of racism.
In London that year, the far-right, neo-Nazi National Front attracted over 100,000 votes in the local government elections.
Whilst at the Notting Hill carnival, the rise in the levels of policing from 200 officers in 1975 to 1,600 in 1976 resulted in confrontations between London’s black community and the Metropolitan Police. Unsurprisingly, Britain’s tabloids reported these events as ‘race riots’ the following day.
In music, David Bowie was photographed giving a Nazi salute from a limousine whilst at the Reading festival, a number of black artists were forced to leave the stage following a barrage of racist abuse.
And then on the 5th August 1976, Eric Clapton began his set at the Birmingham Odeon by asking whether there were any foreigners in the audience. Asking them to raise their hands, Clapton declared, “I think that we should all vote for Enoch”.
For those of you too young to know who he was referring to, Enoch Powell was a Conservative MP whose name became a byword for racism, having declared in 1968 that within 15 to 20 years Britain would see the white man fall to the whip hand of the black man. In what became known as his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, Powell concluded by stating that continued immigration would end in racial confrontation and bloodshed on the streets of Britain.
Describing Powell as a ‘prophet’, it was the response to Clapton’s comments that bring us here today. Musicians and political activists were mobilised, and as a direct response to Clapton, the Rock Against Racism movement was born. Hastily arranging small gigs that saw black reggae artists play gigs alongside white punks, less than a year later, the Rock Against Racism movement was drawing more than a 100,000 people to a gig in London’s East End where the Clash headlined.
In the words of one of my favourite bands the Long Blondes though, “that was then and this is now” and in the summer of 2008, Britain is a different place to what it was back then.
On the plus side, racism has been largely marginalised from general society where through good legislation and various initiatives, such views and attitudes are no longer accepted as being the norm.
Marginalisation however doesn’t mean that racism has been eradicated.
Unlike 1976, Britain today is a far more diverse place where communities are no longer identified solely by their skin colour or ethnicity. These haven’t gone away, but nowadays we have a much greater focus on religion or nationality for instance, and with this, so the markers and discourses of racism have changed.
Take for instance how the BNP focused on Muslim communities, campaigning for the local elections in May 2006 under the banner of ‘Islam Referendum Day’. And let’s not forget that the BNP won a seat on the London Assembly this year and are the official party of opposition in the Barking & Dagenham council chambers.
Or how the Daily Mail and Express repeatedly publish stories about immigrants and asylum seekers taking ‘our jobs’, ‘our houses’ or ‘our benefits’. So much so, that just a few weeks ago, the Daily Mail published an apology to Britain’s Polish community.
And so in music, artists and activists are again coming together all over the country, where small gigs and festivals are being put together to show solidarity: solidarity against all forms of racism, all forms of oppression, and all forms of discrimination.
Whether its against blacks, Asians, Whites, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Poles, Turks, women, the young, the old, gays, lesbians, the disabled or whoever, the message underpinning racism, oppression and discrimination is the same: a message that is fuelled by hate.
I want to end my slot and open this festival with a quote from the musician, political activist and Rock Against Racism stalwart, Billy Bragg. In his book “The Progressive Patriot”, a book that sets out to reclaim a sense what it means to have a British identity and to be proud of that identity – an identity and heritage that I am extremely proud to have – he says something that all of us can take away from this festival today:
“although you can’t change the world by singing songs and doing gigs, the things you say and the actions you take can change the perspective of others”
Love Music, Hate Racism – enjoy the festival !!!