in the Category: music

How white punks fought racism

Rubika Shah’s White Riot zooms in on Rock Against Racism, the iconic political and cultural movement that rallied against the rise of the fascist party National Front and the increase of racist attacks in 1970s Britain. Supported by the likes of X-Ray Spex, The Buzzcocks and The Tom Robinson Band, RAR has strong links with the punk scene which was booming in the UK at the time.

Text by Emile Dekeyser

The title is borrowed from the first single by The Clash, another punk band heavily associated with RAR. The song was well-intended: The Clash were trying to argue that black and white kids are in the same boat, and the white punks should join forces with the black kids who were standing up for themselves against the far right, against institutional racism, against police brutality. However, because of its awkward wording, ‘White Riot’ has often been completely misinterpreted as a white power anthem.

borrowed from the first single by The Clash, often been completely misinterpreted as a white power anthem

Despite its good intentions, ‘White Riot’ remains an ambiguous song and, therefore, an odd title choice for an anti-racism film. At first glance, it could be argued that focusing on ‘white’ riots doesn’t sound all that inclusive. But during the film, it suddenly dawned on me: much like the song, the film is a call to arms for white people to be robustly anti-racist. Moreover, it teaches us four valuable lessons on how the white people in the UK punk scene used their platform to stand up against racism.

 

#1 confrontational lyrics

Perhaps punk’s most obvious outlet: by its very nature, punk lyrics are confrontational and in-your-face, and so are the anti-racism messages expressed in songs. 

One of the most powerful examples can be found on Power in the Darkness, the debut album by The Tom Robinson Band released in 1978. It can hardly get more straightforward than songs such as ‘Better Decide Which Side You’re On’, ‘Ain’t Gonna Take It’ and ‘The Winter of ’79’, in which Robinson expressed his dystopian predictions (all the gay geezers got put inside / and coloured kids were getting crucified) for the year ahead.
 


Straightforward in-your-face lyrics also characterise The Ruts’ The Crack (1979). The punchy anthem ‘Babylon’s Burning’ perfectly captures the social disorder and discontent, while ‘SUS’ criticises the law that authorised the police to arrest any ‘suspected person’, which resulted in the explicit targeting of black people who were bound to lose when it was their word against the police. 
 


However, things don’t always go entirely to plan. Similarly to The Clash’s ‘White Riot’, Stiff Little Fingers’ ‘White Noise’ was equally misunderstood. In the song, racial stereotypes are listed (Rastus was a n**** / thug, mugger, junkie / black golly gob / big horny monkey) and condemned through the use of irony (black wogs / your face don’t fit / black wogs / You ain’t no Brit), but the ironic stance adopted by singer Jake Burns leaves a lot of room for (mis)interpretation.  
 



#2 blending of black and white genres  

Punk and reggae, it’s an odd combo. The former is fast and guitar-oriented, the latter slow and bass-heavy. Yet, because of their shared marginalised position in society, it was almost natural for punks and black kids to be drawn to each other. The genre-blending served as a bridge between the two groups. The Clash covering Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ and Toots & The Maytals’ ‘Pressure Drop’ was a stepping stone for punks to get into reggae and vice versa. The same thing can be said for Basement 5, a quartet of London Rastafarians mixing dub-reggae with ferocious punk riffs.
 


It raises a question though. There is a case to be made that there are elements of cultural appropriation in all-white bands such as The Clash, The Ruts (‘Jah War’), The Slits (‘Cut;), and The Members (‘Stand Up and Spit’) incorporating reggae into their sound. However, it’s worth pointing out that these bands gave it their own twist, it’s punk reggae rather than the shameless white reggae made famous by The Police. Besides, even Bob Marley gave his nod of approval in ‘Punky Reggae Party’, his homage to the punk genre. Who would argue with the indisputable King of Reggae? ‘Punky Reggae Party’ shows that there was mutual respect and closes the debate. 
 



#3 concerts uniting black and white

Rock Against Racism made a point of always having black and white artists on the bill. In the film, RAR-founder Red Saunders explained this policy: 'We always had black and white bands together to break down the fear, because the National Front is trading on nothing but fear.'

Their very first gig had the London reggae ensemble Matumbi and 999, who had a huge following of white working-class punks. The most famous RAR concert was the Carnival Against The Nazis, held in 1978 at London’s Victoria Park. After a huge protest march through London, the demonstrators were treated to a diverse line-up featuring Steel Pulse (roots reggae from Birmingham), X-Ray Spex (fronted by black feminist icon Poly Styrene), The Tom Robinson Band and The Clash. 
 


The Clash would continue to do this during their career. Through their support acts, they introduced their predominantly white audience to traditionally black genres such as reggae (Lee Scratch Perry, Mikey Dread), old school rhythm and blues (Bo Diddley, Lee Dorsey), and even hip hop (The Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash). They did not only incorporate these ‘black genres’ in their music but also gave a platform to the originators.
 



#4 grassroots activism 

In the build-up to the 1978 Carnival Against The Nazis, Steel Pulse and The Clash were photographed while protesting outside the National Front headquarters with signs reading ‘Black & white unite and sounds for integration’. In the film, RAR-collaborator Ruth Gregory jokingly remarks that the musicians look much too cool to actually hold the placards. It’s a brilliant scene but also quite telling, as it implies that she regards this as a more symbolic form of protesting. 

Musicians look much too cool to actually hold the placards

Someone who cannot be accused of symbolic protesting is Tom Robinson. He was involved with Rock Against Racism from the very beginning, walking along in protest marches, attending various meetings of the RAR Central Collective, and playing RAR concerts. Robinson very much belonged to the grassroots movement. Because of this, The Tom Robinson Band had the honour to headline The Carnival Against The Nazis, despite being a lot less well-known than The Clash. The RAR-team felt that after a long day of protesting and advocating for a better world, Tom Robinson was the ideal person to bring everyone together and to unite black and white. 
 


The hard work carried out by the RAR-collective, along with the support of various bands, paid off: the National Front was defeated at the 1979 general election. But, as the closing credits state, the fight is far from over. Institutional racism hasn’t disappeared and there are still fascists marching down the streets. White Riot proves how important it is for bands to use their platforms in order to encourage their fans to organise, unionise, and fight the good fight.  

 

 

Film Fest Gent presents: White Riot
15, 19, 20 October - Sphinx cinema, Ghent
Buy your ticket here