Why the UK’s 1970s Punk Scene Is Relevant in America in 2020

A conversation with documentarian Rubika Shah about “White Riot,” which premieres on Virtual Cinema today

Why the UK's 1970s Punk Scene Is Very Relevant in America in 2020
The Clash perform at the. Rock Against Racism Carnival concert in 1978.
Syd Shelton

As is happening in the United States in 2020, fascists and racists were gaining ground and coming out of the woodwork after starting to feel empowered in Britain in the late 1970s.

The National Front, a far-right political party, was aiding in the growth of racism, fascism and xenophobia with politician Enoch “Rivers of Blood” Powell leading the way. With the National Front attempting to recruit the nation’s youth — and having success — some of the country’s most famous rock musicians, including David Bowie, Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton, began making pro-Powell pronouncements.

“I think Enoch Powell’s right, I think we should send them all back,” Clapton famously told an arena full of fans in Birmingham in 1976. “Stop Britain from becoming a Black colony. Get the foreigners out.”

In response to that rant, photographer and activist Red Saunders penned a letter that was published in several popular music magazines criticizing the hypocrisy of Clapton ripping off Black musicians while also demeaning people of color and calling for music to be a force against racism.

Saunders’s letter got such a positive response that, along with other like-minded creatives, he went on to co-found Rock Against Racism (RAR), an organization that mounted hundreds of demonstrations and concerts against the National Front.

Merging the forces of punk, ska, reggae and new wave, the RAR movement gained steam in the UK and culminated in a 100,000-plus person march and an anti-fascist concert in Victoria Park in 1978 that featured acts like X-Ray Spex, Tom Robinson, Steel Pulse and The Clash.

White Riot clip – “White Riot” The Clash with Jimmy Pursey (RAR Carnival at Victoria Park) from Film Movement on Vimeo.

White Riot, a documentary from director Rubika Shah that premieres on Virtual Cinema today, chronicles the rise of RAR amidst anti-immigrant hysteria in a hostile environment by blending new interviews with archival footage.

“When I saw the footage of The Clash on stage at the Rock Against Racism Carnival, I was just blown away,” Shah tells InsideHook. “We think about those sorts of pop culture moments always being American. I just thought this was a huge cultural moment in the UK that hasn’t really been told. I wanted to make this film because this is actually a really positive story that comes out of something quite negative. The Clash made it really cool to be anti-racist. It was like a battleground out there and the National Front was actively targeting young, white, working-class boys. I think The Clash were able to speak to that kind of every man and were able to put across anti-racist ideas.”

Shah began the project five years ago and, as the world changed due to political events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump over the course of her work, she began to see parallels between the 1970s and 2020.

“It’s interesting. There’s a lot of sloganeering we found from the late ’70s that actually looks exactly like a lot of the slogans we saw during the Brexit campaign and various other political movements of the last five years,” she says. “Seeing how the Black Lives Matter protests around the world gained momentum and shined a spotlight on certain issues, I think that made White Riot feel more relevant. It feels a bit sad in a way that things haven’t really changed that much.”

But, hopefully, one of the lessons from the film is still applicable today.

“This film should show that you can go out there and start movements yourself,” Shah says.”In 1976, when they thought about Rock Against Racism, it was literally just a few gigs in a local area. By 1978, they had this huge concert that attracted hundreds of thousands of people from all over the UK. It just grew and grew through word-of-mouth activism and just people picking up the phone. It just shows how important that grassroots activism is and that anybody today could do this.”

We’re hoping Shah’s right. Here’s the trailer for her film.

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