October 08, 2007

The day I realised music could change the world

Back in the late 70s, I was working in an office, a place of casual racism and homophobia. I never spoke out against it because I felt I was in a minority and didn't want the grief. On the streets, the National Front were marching through immigrant neighbourhoods, stirring up trouble and trying to divide communities.

I may well have carried on turning a blind eye were it not for the Clash. When their name was added to the bill of the first Rock Against Racism carnival in April 1978, I knew I had to be there. When I arrived at the rally, in east London, I was amazed to see 100,000 young people just like me - one for every vote the National Front had won in the council elections the year before.

I came away with a strong sense that this was where my generation was going to make its stand. Just as youth in the 50s had marched against the bomb and the longhairs of the 60s had opposed the Vietnam war, we were going to define ourselves in opposition to discrimination in all its forms.

Rock Against Racism was a watershed in the development of multiculturalism in this country and from its celebratory concerts sprang Two Tone, Red Wedge and the world music scene. We fought the narrow-mindedness of the National Front by widening our cultural horizons.

Now, new bands are lining up with Love Music, Hate Racism to take on the resurgent BNP. That heady mix of pop and politics will inspire another generation of songwriters to take on the issues of the day while their detractors carp as they carped of old. But does music make any difference?

Well, it was the music of the Clash that got me to the Rock Against Racism carnival. However, it wasn't the songs they played that day, or the speeches that were made from the stage that changed my world. It was being in that audience. I went to work the next day determined to speak up against the racists, confident in the knowledge that I was not alone.

Billy Bragg

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