Thursday, October 09, 2008

Reggae and the National Front

Excellent post at Uncarved on UK reggae and the National Front, complete with a mix of the tracks he talks about. The racist NF, which peaked in the 197os, prompted the Rock Against Racism movement and mass protests across the country.

Last year I helped organise Lewisham '77, a series of events to commemorate the anti-fascist clashes when the NF tried to march through South East London in August 1977. Reggae featured in this story, indeed there was a disagreement about exactly what track was playing at a critical moment, when demonstrators were deciding whether to disperse or to physically confront the NF.

Red Saunders, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism, came on a walk we organised around the route of the protests. He has recalled: 'What I really remember is that there were all these Christians and Communists, telling us to go home. Most people stayed. But we were all just milling about, when this old black lady, too old to march, came out on her balcony. She put out her speakers, as loud as they could, playing Get up, stand up. That did it for me".'

However, Paul Gilory has a different recollection. In his seminal There Ain't No Black in The Union Jack, he mentions that Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves (famously covered by The Clash) 'had blared out from a speaker dangled from an upstairs window when anti-fascist demonstrators attacked the National Front march in Lewisham during August 1977'. Indeed at the Lewisham '77 conference he suggested that Saunders might have been guilty of romanticising events by suggesting that the more militant Get up, stand up was played.

As somebody too young to have been on the streets in 1977, I can't judge who was right - presumably both tracks could have been played. Anyway one way or another, reggae was the soundtrack of opposing the National Front in Lewisham 1977 - when we did our commemorative walk last year we started off in the New Cross Inn where we played Peter Tosh's Get Up Stand Up in the pub before setting off.

A short film about Lewisham '77:


Ben Gidley said...

The political difference between these two strongs is very striking. "Get Up Stand Up", while an inspiring song, can mean all things to all people. I imagine it's been used in adverts. It's a generally feel-good song, perfect for a broad-based Popular Front type mobilisation that Rock Against Racism/Anti-Nazi League/Unite Against Fascim represents.

"Police and Thieves", in contrast, is not explicitly political, but it expresses the reality of 1977 for Lewisham's black community, and especially its young black men, very well: a time when the community was being violently terrorised by both local white thugs, organised fascists and the police. The politics are harder to fit into the ANL message, and don't offer the sort of hope that Popular Fronts trade in.

By an extraordinary coincidence, Junior Murvin just came on my music player, completely by random, as I was writing this!

Transpontine said...

I would go further and suggest that 'Police and Thieves' disrupts the notion of a homogenous black community uniting against the police and racists, and acknowledges the reality that part of the problem is also gangsters within the black community - something that is sadly even more relevant today in the UK when black people being killed by other black people massively outnumbers those killed by cops or racists.