Rock Against Racism

The Clash and Steel Pulse outside National Front Leader's House in 1977 via Metro

In the late 1970's racist attacks were prominent in the UK, particularly against West Indian and Asian immigrants. In response to racist comments by various musicians, a group of punk musicians banded together to start the Rock Against Racism campaign to unite black and white fans in their common love for music and in an attempt to discourage youth from embracing racist rhetoric. 

Racism & Violence in the Late 1970s

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s racism and anti-immigrant sentiment were at an all time high as reflected by Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' which condemned the rates of immigration. A poll suggested that 74% of the British population agreed with sentiments of Powell's speech which is often attributed for the rise in racially motivated violence. 

In the late 1970s there was a wave of racial violence in Britain which coincided with an increase in police aggression. At the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riots broke out as a result of arbitrary harassment and arrests of young black attendees. Around this time, the National Front, a far right political party, were gaining momentum and significant numbers of seats in parliament. 

Around this time, many punks and skinheads were adopting neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideologies. This was not just ideological. Racist skinheads and punks were both verbally and physically abusing people of colour during the 1970s. In one such incident, a Bangladeshi textile worker named Altab Ali was murdered in East London in 1978.  

Many have interpreted this image as Bowie doing the Nazi salute via Medium

However, racism was not limited to extremists and neo-Nazi groups, popular musicians were also expressing far right views. In an interview with Playboy, David Bowie expressed that he believes "very strongly in facism" and claimed that "Adolf Hitler was one of the first rockstars". It was Eric Clapton's racist rant in 1976 that really stirred up anger. Whilst onstage at the Odeon in Birmingham he said,

“Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands … So where are you? Well wherever you all are, I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country … I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man! I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white … The black wogs and coons and Arabs and f*cking Jamaicans don’t belong here, we don’t want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man … This is Great Britain, a white country, what is happening to us, for f*ck’s sake? … Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!”

Understandably, Clapton was met with backlash from other musicians.  Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Jo Wreford, Pete Bruno wrote a letter to the music publication NME expressing their condemnation of Clapton's remarks. They highlighted Clapton's hypocrisy since much of his music was inspired by the blues and genres originating in Black culture and his first hit was a cover of Bob Marley's I Shot the Sheriff. At the end of the letter was a call to help form a new movement known as Rock Against Racism to which they received hundreds of letters in response to support the movement. 

Fans at Rock Against Racism Gig by Syd Sheldon via the Guardian
Rock Against Racism Concerts

At the same time as the formation of RAR, was the establishment of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in 1977. Together RAR and ANL were able to form a movement against fascism and racism in Britain. They started putting on concerts and carnivals across the country featuring bands playing reggae, soul, rock n roll, jazz, punk and funk. The gigs were headlined by some of the biggest acts including The Clash, Tom Robinson, Carol Grimes,Steel Pulse, The Buzzcocks, Graham Parker and Aswad and they attracted up to 100,000 people. Marches were also organised. During one London march, 80,000 protesters took to the streets chanting “Black and white unite and fight, smash the National Front.” Alongside the gigs and carnivals, RAR also had a zine called Temporary Hoarder. By 1978, RAR had organised 300 local gigs and 5 carnivals. Together, RAR and ANL were encouraging people to unite against racism in Britain. 

Aswad at the Rainbow 1979 by Syd Sheldon via the Guardian

Meanwhile bands were releasing music in support. The most notorious is White Riot by the Clash which OpenCulture suggest was written by Joe Strummer in a call to action against the police and the far right. Later in 1982, the Clash also released Know Your Rights condemning police brutality.

By 1979, the number of votes for the National Front had significantly decreased and it is argued that RAR and ANL had done a significant amount to discredit the views of the National Front and reduce their popularity. 

 Further Reading

When Punk & Reggae Fans Launched the “Rock Against Racism” Movement and Pushed Back Against Britain’s Racist Right (1976)

Racist Skinheads

Altab Ali

Playboy Interview with David Bowie


The Year Rock Found the Power to Unite

Syd Shelton, Rock Against Racism

David Renton, Never Again: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League


  1. Hey Amy,
    Another great post!
    Has David Bowie ever commented on the picture of him? Was it just a badly timed photo?
    What happened to the movement?

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