The Rock Against Racism movement was founded in England in the late 1970s by a group of musicians and political activists. At that time there had been an increase in racial violence and xenophobia which was fuelled by the rise of the National Front, a neo-Nazi political party. But the immediate spur for the formation of the movement was a speech given by Eric Clapton, a famous rock guitarist and performer, at a concert in Birmingham in August 1976. At the concert Clapton had announced his support for Enoch Powell, a controversial British MP who was strongly opposed to immigration and whose speeches had stirred up racist feelings and attacks against black Britons. Ironically, Clapton had recently had a world-wide No. 1 hit with the song ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, first written and recorded by Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley.
In a show of multicultural solidarity, musicians from all across the country came together for Rock Against Racism concerts and events. Mass popular protests were organised under the slogan: “Reggae, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, funk, punk – OUR MUSIC”. A notable Rock Against Racism event from this time was the “Carnival against the Nazis” rally held in April 1978. Over 100,000 people marched from Trafalgar Square through London’s East End – the heart of National Front territory – to a concert in Victoria Park, Hackney.
One of the most influential of the Rock Against Racism musicians was Jerry Dammers. Dammers’ band was The Specials, also known as Special AKA, a ska band comprising black and white musicians. In 1979 Dammers established a new record label called 2 Tone Records to release the band’s songs and albums, and he also signed up many other popular bands and musicians.
For the new label Dammers created a distinctive logo which featured a drawing of a young man named “Walt Jabsco” who was dressed in typical “rude boy” style: black suit, white shirt, black tie, pork pie hat, white socks, and black shoes. Also featured on record sleeves and covers was a black-and-white chequered design, with the two tones tightly woven together and equally distributed. The logo and design were symbols of racial unity, and they captured perfectly the multi-racial mix of the musicians on stage and the fans dancing together in the crowd.
Freeing Nelson Mandela
In 1983 The Specials released a song called ‘Racist Friend’ with the uncompromising lyric: “If you have a racist friend / now is the time for that friendship to end.” Dammers later explained why he wrote the song: “It is not enough to just be anti-racist yourself. You have to be a positive anti-racist. You have to make a stand against it, because otherwise nothing ever changes.” (Marshall 1990: 84)
But it was the band’s next single which was to prove even more instrumental in the fight against racism and political oppression. Dammers wrote a song about a man who had been imprisoned for his political beliefs and activism against apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela. A recording of the song was released in March 1984, and soon the whole world was chanting “Free Nelson Mandela.”
At the time Nelson Mandela had been in gaol for over twenty years – since August 5, 1962 – for leading his people in the struggle against racism and political oppression. Mandela was a hero of African liberation and his imprisonment symbolised the discrimination and deprivation experienced by millions of black people in South Africa. Dammers’ song brought the “Free Mandela” campaign to the attention of a world-wide audience, and it helped to raise awareness of the plight of the thousands of other political prisoners incarcerated in Namibia and South Africa. The record was banned by the South African government, but it was adopted by the members of the African National Congress at their rallies and demonstrations.
In 1986 Dammers and Dali Tambo, the son of African National Congress president Oliver Tambo, formed an organisation called Artists Against Apartheid. They invited a diverse range of artists and performers to take part in a Freedom Festival on Clapham Common in London. Over 100,000 people from all sections of British society joined in the march before the concert, and at the height of the afternoon there were 250,000 people gathered together on the great green parkland to listen to musicians expressing their solidarity with the people of Namibia and South Africa through their words and music, and to hear speakers from the African National Congress, the South-West Africa People’s Organisation, and the British Anti-Apartheid Movement.
Subsequently, on June 11 1988, The Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert was held at Wembley Stadium in London. The concert featured presentations and performances from international stars such as Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, Dire Straits, Whoopi Goldberg, Tracy Chapman and The Eurythmics. It was watched not only by a capacity audience of 72,000 at the stadium, but also on television, by almost one billion people in over 60 countries. The climax of the concert was a performance by Jerry Dammers of his song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, accompanied by the band Simple Minds.
Two years later this event was repeated at Wembley Stadium with Nelson Mandela able to attend the concert in person. The activism of Jerry Dammers and the Rock Against Racism and Artists Against Apartheid musicians and organisers in Great Britain had played a part in securing Mandela’s release from Victor Verster Prison in February 1990. Over the next few years the apartheid system in South Africa was gradually dismantled, and Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa on May 9 1994.
In 2001 Nelson Mandela was again the guest of honour at a concert held in London’s historic Trafalgar Square to mark South Africa Freedom Day. In his speech, Mandela pledged his support to the current South African president, Thabo Mbeki, and spoke of the difficulties still facing South Africa, and of the need for political activists and organisations to speak up on behalf of the victims of civil rights injustices all around the world. He also expressed his gratitude towards the anti-apartheid campaigners of ten years before who had worked long and hard to bring justice and freedom for African peoples. Rock Against Racism, many of whose members are still active today, was just one of these groups.
- Rock Against Racism
- George Marshall, The Two Tone Story. Bristol: Pyramid Press, 1990.
- Nelson Mandela chronology
- 2001 South Africa Freedom Day concert in London
Theme: International racism and anti-racism – Stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination