Pioneering musician, filmmaker and DJ Don Letts made his name playing reggae to the emerging punk scene in London the mid-1970s.
Britain in the 1970s was a very different place to what it is today – and the way the music scene was divided on racial lines is just one example of how much more polarised things were.
“At that time black people were still struggling to find a place for themselves in British society,” says Don.
“Our parents’ generation – who had mostly arrived in the 1950s – had desperately tried to fit into white society by trying to ‘act white’.
“In the process they’d found nothing but rejection. Many young black people, including myself, decided that we weren’t going to follow that route.
“There was quite a lot of racial tension as I was growing up. We had Enoch Powell with his ‘rivers of blood’ speech and we had the National Front with their swastikas.
“In west London, where I lived, ‘KBW’ was painted in big letters on the walls all over the place – it stood for ‘Keep Britain White’. And on top of that, we had the police on our backs too.
“Being young and black in the early 1970s was like being part of a lost tribe. Many of us rejected the idea of trying to ‘fit in’ and became influenced by some of the radical figures in the US civil rights movement.
“We wanted to create something that reflected that pride in being black – and the British reggae scene developed out of this background.
“For most young people, music is a laboratory in which we invent ourselves. Creating our own music was one of the first steps towards us trying to find our own identity.
“It was a recognition that being black and British meant that we lived different lives to those back in Jamaica. Though we loved it, the music from there didn’t completely fit our circumstances.”
The process of trying to create a distinctive black and British identity gave rise to a somewhat short lived British reggae scene, with acts such as Aswad, Steel Pulse, Matumbi, and a hybrid of soul and reggae that was known as “lover’s rock”.
“The reggae sound system scene that I was around in the early-1970s was mainly black,” says Don. “But I don’t think too much should be read into that. No one set out to make reggae an exclusively black music, but we were kind of forced into these musical ghettos. The reggae scene wasn’t hostile to white people.”
Britain already had a tradition of white kids gravitating towards black music – a tradition established well before the 1970s. It started with a fascination with early R’n’B in the 1950s and 1960s, and continued with ska and rocksteady in the 1960s.
“The difference in the 1970s was that this music was no longer being imported from 3,000 miles away – the people next door were propelling it,” says Don. “In 1976 I took John Lydon [who would later be the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten] and Joe Strummer [who became the front man for The Clash] down to a reggae sound system night.
“They were some of the first white faces to seen in the club. The white rockers tended to be a little apprehensive at first, but they got quite a lot of respect just for going through the door of the club.
“And you could hear the influence of reggae on the early punk bands – in the heavy basslines, in the rebellious lyrics, and in the idea of songs as musical reportage.
“The feeling that black people were contributing something was a very important element in the making of an integrated music scene. What we got out of coming together with punk was exposure – and a chance to get paid!”
The idea of creating a hybrid music scene wasn’t always automatic, and sometimes there had to be arguments about it.
“I fought to get Bob Marley to recognise the significance of punk,” recalls Don. “He was quite reluctant initially, but eventually he got it. That’s when he recorded his tribute, Punky Reggae Party.”
The background of economic recession, mass unemployment and the threat posed by racist police and the fascist National Front were eloquently summed up by Johnny Rotten in two words – “No future”.
But according to Don, those pressures had the effect of giving black and white teenagers a common experience and common will to fight back:
“The rebellious nature of both reggae and punk provided the soundtrack for so many of the battles of that time. I suppose that is why people still want to talk, listen and dance to them today.”
Misty In Roots were part of the emerging reggae scene in the mid-1970s and played a major role in the anti-racist movement in Southall, west London. Founder member Poko remembers how their music became part of the struggle.
Southall was a mixed community of whites, African-Caribbeans and Asians that coexisted in peaceful way. Our band helped set up a community organisation called People Unite to help give cultural and political expression to that.
As the punk movement developed we found that many of them had a love for reggae. Some of them had been around the skinhead thing before punk and had already got into rocksteady and reggae.
So the RAR idea of putting all these different types of music together appealed to us. Misty always had something to say about the world.
At that time industry in Southall was being run down and factories were being closed – black people were always first to be laid-off.
We couldn’t help but reflect that in songs like “Food, Clothes And Shelter” and “Ghetto Of The City”.
But in 1979 things changed. The National Front (NF) decided to have an election meeting in the town hall, and the police resolved to protect them.
The police deliberately stoked-up trouble, and when it broke out they were ready. The police went around mercilessly beating people. They killed anti-Nazi protester Blair Peach and they raided the People Unite headquarters.
They smashed up everything inside and clubbed our manager Clarence Baker so badly that he too almost died. Our keyboard player and drummer were jailed after the raid and the whole thing almost finished our band. But we refused to be cowed.
For the people of Southall it was something that could never be forgotten. We had all been involved in an uprising, the police had bloodied us, and they were still there terrorising us long after the protest had finished.
But among the fear there was also a sense of unity. The whole thing raised the consciousness of the young Asians in particular. And there is still a connection to 1979 to this day.
Across Southall there are Asian-run reggae sound systems – a tradition that started not long after the uprising. A lot of Asian kids began to relate to the spirit of resistance that you find in reggae.
That spirit is still required to fight racism and injustice today, which is why we are playing the 30th anniversary RAR gig.
Carol Grimes is a jazz and blues singer who played at the very first Rock Against Racism gig. She told Socialist Worker how she got involved.
At the time of the first RAR gig I was living in Westbourne Grove in west London, very close to the famous Mangrove restaurant. The Mangrove was a gathering place for the Caribbean community and was perpetually under attack from the police.
I could see first hand the way the police treated black people was appalling. I saw them bullying my friend Frank Critchlow, who ran the Mangrove.
I was so angry about it all that I spoke out in an interview with a magazine. And that brought Red Saunders to my door. We were both angry about the way that some high profile musicians were supporting Enoch Powell, and worse.
To me and to many other people this was a chance to say, “This is what London is – it’s young, and it’s black and white together.”
At those early gigs we were putting black and white bands on together. So I was there singing blues, Aswad and Misty In Roots were doing reggae, the punks were doing their thing.
It made the idea of black, brown and white united something real – and that together we could tell the fascists to “fuck off”.
People who had gone along because they were into reggae came away thinking that punk had something to say. People who had come to hear my blues went away having being exposed to reggae.
The whole RAR thing did more than just challenge racism. It said that music didn’t have to be commercial in order to be successful.
But there are still battles to be fought. One of my daughter’s Bangladeshi friends came with her to one of my gigs the other week. He was wearing a T-shirt, with the words “I am not a terrorist”.
I wept because I thought why should this young man feel that he has something to apologise for? He’s as upset by the bomb attacks on London as anyone else. Why should he be made to feel that he is somehow responsible?
Kate Webb worked in the RAR office from 1977 and was, at 18 years old, the youngest elected member of RAR’s national committee.
My strongest memory of those times was the sense of urgency and crisis – and the collective way in which RAR sought to address it.
These tensions were reflected in the music of the time, which often had quite an apocalyptic imagination – I’m thinking of records like The Clash’s “London’s Burning” and the Tom Robinson Band’s “Winter of 79”.
Another thing that stays with me is RAR’s “do it yourself” attitude. Across the country, in places I’d never heard of, we’d get letters from people who were putting on gigs in community centres and church halls.
And, unlike some of the music-based campaigns that followed RAR, we said to people, ”Don’t just give us money, get out there and start changing the world yourself”.
* A collection of Hull RAR posters from 1979 to 1982 are available at » www.hullrockagainstracism.co.uk
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