Socialist Worker

Babylon’s Burning—music, culture and the fight against fascism

Music has always been part of anti-racism. Author Rick Blackman told Socialist Worker about his new book linking three campaigns, from 1958 to today

Issue No. 2769

ock agAinst Racism events, such as the 1981 Leeds carnival, united people against the Nazis

Rock agAinst Racism events, such as the 1981 Leeds carnival, united people against the Nazis


Your book covers a lot of history and three movements. What can people active in Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) today—as well as those very familiar with Rock Against Racism (Rar) in the 1970s—take from it?

The premise of the book was to see if there are connections between the three movements, LMHR, Rock Against Racism and Stars Campaign for Interracial Friendship (Scif).

All three organisations were reactive—formed in response to seismic events in British politics.

For Scif it was the Notting Hill Riots, for Rar it was the National Front making gains in elections and a drunken, racist tirade by the guitarist Eric Clapton. For LMHR it was the rise of the BNP and English Defence League.

They’re all the cultural wings of a broader movement. LMHR, Rar and Scif are not necessarily the things that confront fascism on the street.

But their purpose is to challenge the periphery of the fascists—to challenge the hard racist ideas and show we have a shared experience and culture, whether you’re black, Asian or white.

Rick Blackmans new book, Babylons Burning

Rick Blackman's new book, Babylon's Burning


As part of that shared tradition, Scif is probably the one least known about. Can you tell us how it was formed and what it did?

The Notting Hill Riots happened in west London at the end of August 1958. They involved sustained violence against black people.

Fascists, such as Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, and Colin Jordan’s White Defence League had been organising in the area.

Wherever it really all kicked off, there had been rallies by Mosley where he’d encouraged people to go out and attack black people. We’re not talking 20 blokes after the pub—we’re talking 1,000 people in some cases, just marching down the street attacking any black person they saw.

One group of people they organised around were the Teddy Boys. These were working class teenagers who were rebelling against rationing and not being able to wear sharp clothes—it had nothing to do with racism or even rock and roll at first.

It was a classic fascist tactic, recruit among the middle class for leaders and intellectuals, the respectable face of fascism, and among the working class for a street army.

In response to the riots a group of musicians wrote a letter to Melody Maker—a newspaper for the blues and jazz scene—saying they were appalled by the level of violence.

Most importantly they were saying they were against the racism of the violence, and that people should accept others, whatever the colour of their skin.

It was on the front page of Melody Maker. And they received hundreds of replies from people.

They also organised club nights where black and white teenagers could listen to musicians and dance together.

A lot of this was quite ­localised, in Notting Hill, because that’s where Mosley and the Jordan concentrated their activities.

This was September 1958, literally just a couple of weeks after the end of the riots. It was also a time when there was ostensibly a colour bar in Britain.

Dancehalls might have signs on their doors saying “no coloureds”. Even in those that didn’t, it was very obvious that there was a colour bar in operation.

Scif was very flagrantly breaking the colour bar.

It might sound quite tame by today’s standards, but for 1958 and 1959 it was groundbreaking stuff.

Mosley tried to stand for election to parliament in nearby Kensington North, but he was defeated. The work that Scif did contributed to that.

The other thing that came out of it was Claudia Jones. She was a Scif member, and she went on to set up the Notting Hill Carnival.

So did this feed directly in to Rar and LMHR?

Between Scif and Rar there were no direct links.

One of Rar’s activists David Widgery was aware of Scif, but there was no direct link at all—it had been lost from history.

But even if there wasn’t a baton being passed from one to the other, there are many similarities between the two.

What happened with the founding letter of Scif, and Red Saunders’ letter to Melody Maker founding Rar, is almost exactly the same.

There were calls from Scif to people to put on their own gigs, the same as what happened with Rar.

But while Scif was localised in London, for Rar it was a nationwide thing. People always remember the big stuff.

But there was a spontaneous growth of small Rar clubs that appeared all over the country.

These were an important forum for people to get together and listen to music in an environment where there wasn’t any racism. But they were also places where organising could happen.

LMHR does a similar thing today, such as sponsoring the Becontree festival in east London earlier this month—a place that was big territory for the BNP back in the day.

All three organisations rose organically without necessarily knowing about each other.

It shows that when fascists start to organise, things spring up.

People say what can we do to stop racism and fascism, how can we use our culture and the culture around us as weapons against fascism?

That’s what’s heartening about it.

Babylon’s Burning by Rick Blackman is available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or phone 020 7637 1848

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.