During the mid- to late 1970s, Britain endured an upsurge of neo-fascist organizing and racial attacks. In response, a strong anti-racist movement grew up among Britain's ethnic minority communities, leading to radical new forms of organizing. Nascent British youth subcultures of the period such as punk were sucked into the vortex of racism. This article examines the organization Rock Against Racism (RAR), which was formed to combat this trend. In its five-year history, RAR drew on the forms of mongrel culture developing among certain sectors of urban British youth to stage groundbreaking performances in which reggae and punk subcultures cross-pollinated. Despite its links to established organizations of the far Left, RAR succeeded in uniting aesthetics and politics in a radical new way by drawing on rather than preaching to youth subcultures of the day. As a result, it produced an important model of autonomous organizing that continues to resonate today.
In his classic study of post-1945 youth subcultures, Dick Hebdige suggests that Black British popular culture served as a template for defiant white working class subcultural practices and styles (29). The kind of affiliatory cultural politics that Hebdige describes is best exemplified in the little-studied Rock Against Racism (RAR) campaign of the late 1970s. As Paul Gilroy stresses in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, his seminal analysis of British culture and nationalism, unlike much of the Left at the time, RAR took the politics of youth cultural style and identity seriously.1 Surprisingly, neither Gilroy himself nor subsequent cultural historians have extended his brief discussion of RAR; as a result, our understanding of this movement, its cultural moment and its contradictions remains relatively undeveloped. This is particularly unfortunate since, unlike previous initiatives by members of Britain’s radical community, RAR played an important role in developing the often-latent political content of British youth culture into one of the most potent social movements of the period. In 1978 alone, for instance, RAR organized 300 local gigs and five carnivals in Britain, including two enormous London events that each drew audiences of nearly 100,000. Supporters of RAR claim that the movement played a pivotal role in defeating the neo-fascist threat in Britain during the late 1970s by quashing the electoral and political appeal of the National Front. Although there has been debate about the ethics and efficacy of the campaign, there can be little doubt that RAR provoked a rich and unprecedented fusion of aesthetics and politics.
The anti-racist festivals organized by RAR responded to an exclusionary ethnic nationalism evident among supporters of the neo-fascist National Front, official discourses emanating from the Labour and Tory mainstream, and British culture more broadly. Drawing on cultural forms of the Black diaspora such as reggae and carnival and juxtaposing them with the renegade punk subculture, RAR sought to catalyze anti-racist cultural and political solidarity among Black, Asian, and white youths. RAR thus offers a particularly powerful example of what Vijay Prashad calls polyculturalism, a term which challenges hegemonic multiculturalism, with its model of neatly bounded, discrete cultures (xi). In contrast to prevailing notions of multiculturalism, the term “polyculturalism” underlines the permeability and dynamism of contemporary cultural formations. As a result of RAR’s work, proponents of RAR argue, a generation of white youths have been exposed to and came to admire Black culture, to hate racism, and to view Britain as a mongrel rather than an ethnically pure nation.
Polycultural transformation does not, however, just happen. Rather, the forms of quotidian identification and exchange experienced by white, Asian, and Black communities need to be forged consciously into traditions of political solidarity. Unlike in the multicultural model, which is predicated on the ahistorical interaction of supposedly isolated cultures, the polycultural carnivals organized by RAR stressed the interwoven character of British popular cultures in order to build a grass-roots anti-racist movement.2 By taking the quotidian bonds and identifications shared by urban youth cultures of the period seriously, RAR opened up a new terrain of politics predicated on engaging with the spontaneous energies of subcultural creativity rather than trying to ram preconceived politically correct...