Reproduced below is a short article I wrote for a Black History Month blog being hosted at the University of Birmingham.
To read the article from the blog, click here. Alternatively, read on:
Acknowledging Birmingham’s Multicultural Music Heritage
The summer of 1976 is remembered primarily for it having been one of the hottest summers in living memory. Things though weren’t just hot because of the sweltering temperatures: temperatures were also rising on the streets because of the growing spectre of racism.
Whilst the National Front had attracted over 100,000 votes in the local government elections and increases in the levels of policing at the Notting Hill Carnival – from 200 officers in 1975 to 1,600 in 1976 – resulted in violent confrontations between London’s black community and the Metropolitan Police, maybe more unlikely was the emergence of racism from within the music scene. As well as David Bowie being photographed giving a Nazi salute from a limousine, a number of black artists were forced to leave the stage at the Reading Festival following a barrage of racist abuse.
But it was at the Birmingham Odeon on the 5th August 1976 where the most significant incident occurred. As he took to the stage, Eric Clapton began his set by asking whether there were any “foreigners” in the audience. Asking them to raise their hands, Clapton added, “I think that we should all vote for Enoch”: the Enoch in question being Enoch Powell, the Conservative MP who declared in 1968 that within the foreseeable future Britain would 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 result in racial confrontation and bloodshed on the streets of Britain.
Describing Powell as a ‘prophet’, it was the response to Clapton’s Birmingham comments was significant. Musicians and political activists were mobilised, and as a direct response, the Rock Against Racism movement was born. Hastily arranging small gigs that saw black reggae artists play gigs alongside white punks, within a year later the movement was drawing more than a 100,000 people to a gig in London’s East End where the Clash headlined.
One of the bands taking part in that gig was Steel Pulse. Formed in the Handsworth area of Birmingham, the band’s first major label release was ‘Ku Klux Klan’, a song that confronted racism head-on. This was followed by the album ‘Handsworth Revolution’ which was not only one of the major landmarks in the evolution of British reggae but was also in the 1980s, one of the biggest selling reggae albums worldwide. In fact in the 1980s, three Birmingham bands – Steel Pulse, Musical Youth and UB40 – were the biggest selling reggae artists in the world, only outsold by Bob Marley.
Also important were Birmingham’s The Beat who as part of the Two Tone music movement, one that fused elements of ska, punk rock, rocksteady and reggae.
The birth of Rock Against Racism, the global prominence of various reggae bands and more recently, the emergence of a globally significant Birmingham-based bhangra scene have all helped foster a collective identity that sought to counter racism and other forms of discrimination.
Of course, none of this has meant that racism and other forms of discrimination have been eradicated from Birmingham or indeed wider society. But as musician, political activist and Rock Against Racism stalwart, Billy Bragg stated in his book “The Progressive Patriot”:
“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”
And what has been said by some of those in Birmingham – through their songs and their actions – have brought about change. Change that is, for good.
For more about Birmingham’s multicultural musical heritage, see Deborah Aston’s film “Made in Birmingham”.