The Song of Change: When Rock Fought Racism

The 70's. 

Nostalgia-sweetened memories of disco diva days and bell-bottomed jeans are perhaps first to flood the mind, but when the rose-tinted glasses come off, a dismally stained reality confronts the fantasy.  

We face instead a reminder of how spews of bigotry and racist murders engulfed the streets of England, threatening the lives
of Asian and Black communities who found that home was a frightfully hostile place as ever.  

But impassioned refusals to let hate win and music and art as the chosen armour to defend against the onslaught of racist violence, a bleak decade of discontent for many would begin to offer a glimmer of hope. 

And just like that, The Rock Against Racism movement was born. 

It was in fact a drunken fuelled rant by rock and blues musician Eric Clapton that lit the spark of protest. “Keep Britain white”, “get the foreigners out” and a merciless assault of disturbing racial slurs were few of the venomous words Clapton would spit at his stunned audience. 

Though the notorious 1976 concert would be one of the countless incidents that warned of the severity of the nation's racist epidemic, it was one that would trigger an urgency, an alarming awakening that the time to act was now. 

The creative minds of activists and artists came together, united by a love of music and a plea for peace. 
“We want to organise a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in rock music… All those interested please write to Rock Against Racism.” 

Replies from hundreds of likeminded individuals came flooding in, expressing their favour to the mission outlined boldly in the letter the activists would send to New Musical Express. Change was just on the horizon. 

It began somewhat subtly with a few gigs played to small crowds of bobbing heads with open minds, but the passion and power with which they gathered was far from subdued. The inaugural gig that took place in 1976 at the Princess Alice pub in East London would galvanise spirits who empowered by the message and the music sought to establish Rock Against Racism concerts locally, including the city close to SAA-uk's heart, Leeds.  

It was here in 1977 that the second-ever Rock Against Racism gig took place, and soon after, the Leeds RAR club was formed, where music would build unity amongst communities every Friday night for 18 months. Of course, there was still the very real threat of far-right groups who, with a thirst for violence, would attempt to destroy the gigs. The imprint of fascism they sought to establish, however, would never last long as communities only grew stronger, bringing RAR to the attention of more and more through creative expression and D.I.Y savvy attitudes. 

Soon enough, the hundred became thousands. And on a sun-kissed day in July 1981, around 17,000 change-seekers marched their way through the city till they reached Potternewton Park, where the legendary Northern Carnival Against Racism was to be held, marking the last hurrah of the RAR concerts. 

At a time where all that was conceivable for Leeds was a dreary looking future as racist attacks grew disturbingly more gruesome and invasive, it would be nothing short of mesmerising to watch as music broke down barriers and facilitated harmony between each member of the colourful crowd.  

The sounds of resistance had been a success. And though the music movement came to an end 5 years later, the empowering climate and mindset of change that the piercing thrills of electric guitars and hypnotic reggae beats would ignite at the 500+ concerts and 5 carnivals RAR would go on to organise was here to stay. 

Refreshingly, here to stay would be an ethos passionately championed by the iconic punk band Alien Kulture, three members of which were second generation British Pakistanis. Without their mention, no discussion of Rock Against Racism would be complete.  

A dual oddity may at first confront those introduced to the band, perhaps now and most certainly during their heydays of 1979-1981 owing to their peculiar name and what would have been a rare sight, an Asian band playing punk. 

Fortunately, bringing the stories and experiences of British Asian people to what was a typically white led genre of music proved to be no fear.  

In fact, the unfounded fear of racial minorities, one exasperated by Margaret Thatcher's comment that "people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture" was one they would aim to conquer. And so, it was only fitting that band christened themselves after Thatcher's fear-mongering attempt, an act of defiance and reclamation.  

The four friends Ausaf Abbas, Azhar Rana, Pervez Bilgrami and Huw Jones were armed with a name, a dream, and a love for punk. But despite being practically strangers to the world of music making, the impassioned lyrics to their songs such as culture crossover, airport arrest, and Asian youth would take them to the stages of 30 gigs, most of which were part of the RAR movement.  

Unapologetically, they took the discourse around South Asian people into their own hands, creating an alternative picture to the habitually negative ones that were painted. Speaking of their real, lived experiences, they touched on everything from the fear that loomed over the heads of British Asians every day as a result of racist terror to navigating the complexities of holding a bi-cultural identity. Alien Kulture's message was one you could not ignore; brown voices deserved to be heard, and they were not afraid to be loud! 

Exam season would ultimately beckon the quartet away from the stage, and after two short years, in 1981, they would disband, sadly without ever shooting to stardom. 

Yet, their story is not one of dejection, for in Abbas's own words, “the whole reason for forming a band was to prove that anyone could do it", and that they certainly did do. 

For all the artists out there, professional, novice, and hopeful, here's a reminder to embrace your passion, and never underestimate the power of the arts to turn the tide! While there's a great deal of courage that comes with art, we hope you find inspiration to show the world yours.

by Dimple D'Cruz 
SAA-uk's Marketing and Communications Assistant

It may be unbeknown to you, but there's an important role you play in amplifying South Asian history.  

Through immersing yourself in events promoted by culture and art organisations, or even sharing your own experiences, there's so much you can do to learn, engage, and empower! 

If you found this article interesting, share this post with someone you know who would like to read it.
Image Placeholder

Company No. 3391845

Charity No. 1080292 | © Copyright South Asian Arts 2023 | Our Terms & Conditions

Website design by Kal Mellor & developed by Cloud Payments Ltd