For those who came of age in the first blush of punk rock, before it was codified into a “sound,” the movement known as “Rock Against Racism”
was a clarion call of the new aesthetic. Even as it coalesced into a series of concerts in London's East End, it sprang from a broader social movement that challenged and inspired bands to inject more political awareness into their sound. Nonetheless, it certainly was triggered by a musical event: Eric Clapton, during a 1976 show in Birmingham, launched into an anti-immigrant rant and endorsed U.K. ultra-nationalist Enoch Powell
. It was the death knell, in a way, for any claim that classic rock had on the music's original rebellious spirit. Taking up the mantle, and filled with disgust at the entitlement that Clapton expressed, was a new guard of punks and activists.
In my teenage years, as all this was going down, Rock Against Racism was more abstract, but I knew it fomented some great compilation albums, featuring the likes of the Mekons, Elvis Costello, X-Ray Spex, the Specials, or, maybe my favorite at the time, the Stiff Little Fingers. It grew into a conceptual concert series that spanned multiple years and multiple genres, as the first wave of rebellion splintered into a thousand different styles.
For many years afterward, RAR seemed an artifact of its time, as politically subversive music ebbed away and the splintering of genres continued apace into the new century. But with the current climate of rabid nationalism and bigotry, epitomized by the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other American “alt right” groups, emboldened by a bullying loudmouth who fulfills their most garish fantasies of authoritarianism, Rock Against Racism is relevant again.
Cue the indie Memphis rock scene, who will gather at the Hi Tone this Saturday to bring Rock Against Racism into the 21st Century. Making use of both stages at the venue, the gathering will bring together The Subteens, Pezz, The Gloryholes, Negro Terror, Arizona Akin & The Hoodrat Hyenas, who will donate all door proceeds to Bridges USA
Negro Terror at Our Scene United
The nonprofit's mission states: “In greater Memphis, young people’s day-to-day interactions and relationships are racially, ethnically, socially, economically and/or religiously segregated. These are huge divides that block collaboration, trust-building, mutual understanding and empathy. Our intensive training teaches not only respect for diversity and inclusion, but it also builds skills for the 21st Century like creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, effective citizenship and social responsibility.”
Such a radically inclusive vision is sorely needed today, according to co-organizer and Subteen member Mark Akin. “I work about a block from immigration court and have for the last seven years," he says. And all of a sudden, in the last three or four months, every day there are families of brown people, all dressed up and looking slightly anxious, making their way to immigration court, mostly Hispanic and Middle Eastern. The Subteens has never been a political band, ever. It's just never really been our thing. But it seems like now, you almost have to pick a side. Anybody that disagrees with what the current administration is doing has to stand up and say 'I disagree.' The luxury days are over now. The luxury of keeping your mouth shut and your head down doesn't exist anymore. Those of us with a conscience have a responsibility to do something. And this is something we can do. To donate the money to Bridges is a very useful endeavor.”
Pezz has long been on the more political side of the local hardcore scene. Negro Terror packs a political punch simply by virtue of being one of the few African American hardcore bands on the scene. Others, like the Subteens, simply want to rock and roll. But all are committing themselves to a larger vision of justice and inclusiveness. The original activists behind Rock Against Racism would surely approve, though Eric Clapton might still take some convincing.