Posted on May 5, 2008

Love Music Hate Racism Carnival, Victoria Park, London

Simon Price, Independent (London), May 4, 2008

I’ve been mugged three times in London. Now, looking at it objectively, spread over 20 years of living in one of the world’s most crowded cities, that’s not a bad tally. The trouble is this: every time, the perpetrators were young, male and black. On the third and most serious occasion, I was clubbed on the head with a metal bar, dragged into an alley, and held with a knife to my neck by one guy while his accomplice raided £500 from my bank account.

What do I “do” with that? The progressive thing to do is, if not write it off as a statistical blip, at least place it in the context of wider sociological factors. But one’s intellectual and visceral responses are two different things, and as a committed anti-racist I was shocked to find myself flinching every time a young black male (particularly if dressed in a particular fashion) passed me in the street. Maybe I shouldn’t have thrown that victim counselling leaflet in the bin.

This is precisely why Love Music Hate Racism needs to exist. Will Self, answering a question about Martin Amis at a recent talk, opined that “everyone is a little bit racist”, and if even someone as scrupulously egalitarian as myself can experience such feelings, then it doesn’t take a genius to work out how the combined effects of anecdotal incidents like mine, tabloid hysteria about gang warfare, and irresponsible politicians using words like “swamped” might drive large sections of the white working class into the all too eager arms of the BNP.

Not that an indie rock-dominated all-dayer, given that genre’s bourgeois-skewed demographic, addresses the white working class as directly as it might, but it’s a start. The timing is significant: not merely is it the 13th anniversary of the Rock Against Racism concert, but it was also a week in which hundreds of thousands of Londoners voted for a mayoral candidate who apparently feels it’s appropriate to describe Africans as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”.

On a grey and intermittently drizzly day which starts with an Anti-Nazi League rally, Victoria Park hosts an afternoon which suffers from poor organisation (there’s no schedule of bands in the programme) and heavy-handed security, with a constant edge of violence (sporadic fights). However, it still manages to provide some spine-tingling moments.

One of them isn’t musical at all: the great Tony Benn, now so old that his granddaughter is standing for Parliament, tells a crowd a quarter of his age that they have “the technology and know-how to solve the problems of the human race”; that “race-hate is one of the greatest offences that can be committed”; and that “the BNP turns us against ourselves”, ending with the words “Thank you for coming. You’re a very important generation.&nsp;. . “.

The original Rock Against Racism generation is represented by a handful of survivors (Tom Robinson and Don Letts among them). Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, who sang “White Riot” with the Clash in 1978 (a brave statement at a time when his own band had a significant skinhead following), saunters on as a guest of Babyshambles’ Drew McConnell, and does it again. Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, who opened the original RAR carnival, may look like a kindly old hippie nowadays, but she makes the hairs on your arms stand up with a paint-blistering “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”.

The day’s desired cultural crossover is, in practice, largely a one-way tide. There aren’t many black faces watching The View, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly or The Paddingtons (and frankly, who can blame them), although there are plenty of white kids digging Wiley, Heartless Crew and Roll Deep (who have penned their own LMHR anthem in “Racist People”), and indeed Asian pop as represented by Jay Sean and Nihal.

Patrick Wolf covers X-Ray Spex’s “Identity”, and reclaims the Union Jack from the racists by wearing a suit entirely made from them. (Union Jacks, that is, not racists.) The 36-year-old voice of Asbo youth Richard Archer (how did he get away with that perception for so long?) and his band Hard-Fi lift damp spirits with “Hard to Beat”. It’s the headliners, though, who encapsulate the day’s message.

Damon Albarn’s The Good, the Bad & the Queen are already filled with echoes of the late Seventies, both in a Derrida-esque “hauntological” sense and, in the presence of Paul Simonon, a literal one. The bassist, who headlined this park first time around as a member of the Clash, acknowledges: “It’s good to be back.” The highlight comes when a visibly gleeful Damon is joined on stage by the gap-toothed grin of Jerry Dammers who, as the mastermind behind the Two Tone label and, with his band The Specials, an instigator of the ska revival, gave my generation its first lessons in anti-racist politics.

“Ghost Town” was a deeply pessimistic song when it soundtracked the riot-ruptured summer of 1981, but a quarter of a century later, still backed by the trombone of Jamaican veteran Rico Rodriguez, it feels like a strangely perfect finale, striking the correct note of combined celebration and apprehension.