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Fighting the fascists with music – then and now

This article is over 13 years, 11 months old
The Northern Carnival against the Nazis this weekend is part of a tradition of using music to help fight the far right. Yuri Prasad talked to some of those who are putting pop together with politics – from the 1970s through to today
Issue 2199
Listening to the Specials at the Leeds carnival against the Nazis, in 1981
Listening to the Specials at the Leeds carnival against the Nazis, in 1981

The Love Music Hate Racism carnival in Barnsley this weekend will be everything that the British National Party despises. It will be a celebration of all that is brilliant about multicultural Britain.

Grime MCs Roll Deep will share a stage with hardcore rockers The Blackout. Mobo award winner Chipmunk will play alongside veteran reggae stars UB40.

And thousands of young people – of all backgrounds – will come together in a sea of swaying bodies to soak up an atmosphere of unity and to chant their hatred of the Nazis.

According to carnival organiser Lee Billingham, the event will help reach parts of the society that are often vilified by press and politicians alike:

“The crowd will be young, from 14 years old and upwards. Many will be worried about their futures as unemployment rises and college course are shut down. They are the people that the British National Party (BNP) would love to be able to attract.

“Of course, some people will come to the carnival for the music. But once they are here they will find that they like the politics too.”

That’s exactly what happened at last year’s carnival in Stoke.

“For many people, carnival is the first political event they’ve ever been to,” says Lee. “That provides us with chance to win a new generation to becoming anti-racist activists.

“Loads of people sign up to go leafleting in the areas where the BNP are standing, and some decide that they should organise Love Music Hate Racism gigs in their towns.

“In Stoke we sold around 1,500 Love Music Hate Racism T-shirts. Afterwards, whenever I went back to the city, I’d see gangs of kids wearing them. That really wound up the BNP.

The cultural impact of the carnivals is important too.

Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) deliberately chooses to mix acts from different genres together in order to break down barriers.

“We’ll take a political ska-punk act, like The King Blues, and put them on a stage with an MC, like Tinchy Stryder, and we’ll surprise both,” says Lee.

“Tinchy says he was blown away by the way his crowd were all chanting against the Nazis, while The King Blues were thrilled to be playing to such a young, pop-loving, audience.”


Lee points out that this blending of styles and audiences is part of a tradition that goes back three decades to the campaigns organised by the Anti Nazi League (ANL) and Rock Against Racism (RAR).

Together they organised hundreds of gigs, carnivals and demonstrations that sought to smash the Nazis of the National Front (NF) and the British Movement. One of the last wave of Carnivals against the Nazis was held in Leeds in 1981, attracting a 25,000‑strong crowd.

Mick started helping organise RAR gigs in the city in 1977, when he was just 14 years old. He says the city was a battleground: “They were very different times,” he told Socialist Worker. “The NF was the main Nazi organisation then, and they were determined to spread fear and intimidation.

“About 50 of them would gather every Saturday to sell their newspapers in the city centre, and they would regularly flog their youth paper, Bulldog, outside our schools.

“The NF were extremely violent and would attack anti-racists, including my dad, myself and many of my friends. Lots of people I knew were bottled or stabbed, or given a good kicking.

“The Nazis were also trying to muscle in on the local music scene. They had some of their own bands, like the Dentists, but mostly they tried to attach themselves to punk.”

Mick says that the NF tried to present themselves as a party for young rebels, and were helped by the way some early punks had used the swastika symbol to shock people.

“Bands like Adam and the Ants, Joy Division and Sham 69 had quite a lot of young NF followers, and gigs could be a bit of battleground.

“Although fights between fascists and anti-fascists would break out quite regularly, there were a lot of people who didn’t see a contradiction between supporting the NF and loving bands that were themselves anti-racist.

“There was quite a lot of confusion. For example, everyone wore badges back then, and it wasn’t uncommon for kids to wear a Socialist Worker badge saying ‘Stuff the Jubilee’ – an attack on the Queen – and an NF badge as well.

“With RAR, we were trying to polarise things. We wanted to force people to take sides, and we wanted to win young people away from the NF by exposing what they were really about.

“They weren’t a party for rebels – they were a party that wanted to smash rebels.

“We knew that music could help us break many of the teenagers that the NF were attracting from racism, so we started running a RAR club in the Chapeltown area of the city, which is known as the centre of the black community.

“We wanted to break down barriers and put punk bands on with a local reggae sound system called Maverick.

“In the three years before the carnival we would fill the club with between 200 and 500 people every week, and some of them were influenced by the NF.

“We’d always let in a certain number of kids we knew who were around the Nazis, but not so many that they could smash the place up. They came for up and coming bands like Stiff Little Fingers, The Fall and the Au Pairs, but they stayed for the speeches and the reggae.”


Over a few years, RAR helped create a new anti-racist culture that grew out of punk and the emerging Two Tone Records scene.

In Leeds, large gangs of Rude Boys and Rude Girls – heavily influenced by multiracial bands like The Specials, The Selecter, and The Beat – decided to join the fight to drive the NF out of the city centre.

“Now that we had the numbers, we decided to smash up the Nazis’ stalls and paper sales,” says Mick.

“In Leeds, the Rude Boy thing was very young, racially mixed and completely hostile to the NF. They had been around the RAR club scene and were now helping to build for the carnival that we were planning.

“We really believed in the punk and RAR motto of do-it-yourself, so a group of about 20 of us – including five, like myself, who were still teenagers – decided that we were going to put on a massive carnival.

“We’d never done anything that big before, we had no money, but we had loads of credibility and support – and we put everyone to work.

“Every night gangs of kids would head out in our van and cover the city in posters, and during the day we’d be leafleting schools and colleges.

“I remember when we phoned up The Specials and they agreed to headline. That was just before they released their last single, Ghost Town. By the time of the carnival, they’d been number one in the charts and we knew that thousands would be coming to hear them.

“On the day itself, I was backstage dealing with the chaos of the money and the bands. But I did get a chance to look out during one of the sets and it was incredible. A sea of black and white working class teenagers as far as the eye could see – and we’d put them there.”

By then, the NF was on the retreat. Their demoralised supporters took refuge in the city’s football ground, where it took many years of struggle to drive them out.

Looking back, Mick says that the effect of the campaigning cannot be underestimated – even 30 years later:

“Sometimes when I walk through Leeds I bump into people who were around then. Today, most of them are totally against racism, but I remember that, for a time, they had been with the NF.

“A lot of teenagers in the 1970s and early 1980s could have gone either way. I’m convinced that it was RAR and the ANL that made the difference.”

Go to the LMHR Northern Carnival in Barnsley on Saturday 1 May 2010
With UB40, Chipmunk, Reverend and the Makers, Roll Deep, Mumzy Stranger

The crowd at the Stoke Love Music Hate Racism festival in May 2009
The crowd at the Stoke Love Music Hate Racism festival in May 2009

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