A clarion call for the movement

September 17, 2010

Martin Smith is one of Britain's leading anti-fascist campaigners, and is a national officer of Unite Against Fascism. He is also the author of John Coltrane: Jazz, Racism and Resistance and the national coordinator for Love Music Hate Racism, a music-oriented campaign against racism and the far-right.

On September 7--two days after this interview--Martin appeared before a London court to face charges of assaulting a police officer at a protest against the far-right British National Party in October of 2009. Despite no evidence and few witnesses, he was found guilty, sentenced to 80 hours of community service and ordered to pay a total of $700 in fees.

Here, Martin speaks with Alexander Billet about his case, the struggle against fascism in Britain and the role that music plays in fighting for a better world.

WHAT IS Love Music Hate Racism?

LOVE MUSIC Hate Racism (LMHR) started about 10 years ago because what we're seeing across England and Europe is a rise of racist and fascist parties. And they've certainly made an attempt to appeal to bored young people--people who've got no sense of identity.

We thought it was important to try and reach young people in a way that political movements can't always do. There's a kind of lager in Britain called Carlsberg, and they say it "reaches the parts other beers can't reach." We feel that LMHR is a kind of version of that; it reaches people who other anti-racist movements can't reach. What we try to do really is use culture--music, poetry, all kinds of art--to reach young people culturally with a strong anti-racist and anti-fascist message.

I suppose the other part of it is we try to mix genres. We kind of call ourselves the grandchildren of Rock Against Racism in the '70s, which mixed punk and reggae. What we do is mix everything; we don't do gigs that just have rock or indie or punk or hip-hop. If you go to one of our gigs, it'll have all different kinds of music all at the same time.

ReggiiMental performs with Matt Henshaw at a Love Music Hate Racism show
ReggiiMental performs with Matt Henshaw at a Love Music Hate Racism show (Paul Bednall)

Lots of promoters find it nerve-wracking, but we found it's really possible to mix different genres, and people really like it. We're partly responsible--I won't say completely--for the crossing between grime and indie music. So we're seeing young Black kids hanging around with young indie kids, and it's shaped British independent music a lot.

WHAT SPECIFICALLY are some of the attempts by the far right to reach out to young people?

THE BRITISH National Party--a fascist party in Britain--produced a CD of various folk, Oi! and ska music. Lots of the bands are not identified, and they were giving them out to school kids at the school gates.

We're seeing overall an attempt to reach out to kids who are looking for a bit more raw in their music, so they used music to do that. Plus, in Britain we have a long tradition of music being used for right-wing politics--you know, some the Oi! bands in the late '70s and early '80s started to really reach into this.

Also, you've got people like Morrissey, who's made several quite outrageous comments and seems to be flirting with this kind of stuff. And for the first time ever, we seem to have house and dance music DJs making outrageous comments against Muslims in particular.

So you've got new genres developing with some racism involved in it--I won't exaggerate it, but there are the beginnings of it. And obviously with Morrissey, that could go in different directions.

So they're real problems we have to deal with just in terms of the cultural front.

MORRISSEY HAS also had a relationship with LMHR in the past. Back in 2008, he gave several thousand pounds to the group to help out with one of your carnivals. With his recent comments, though--calling the Chinese a "subspecies"--do you think there will be any kind of relationship in the future?

NO, I think it's gone now.

I'm a lot older than many of your readers will be. I was around the punk scene in the late '70s in Britain and was part of Rock Against Racism. At that time in Britain, we had a much more serious problem with very big bands--punk bands--flirting with fascism. The Sex Pistols wore swastika armbands--well, certainly Sid Vicious did and so did Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees.

We have a famous case of Elvis Costello saying about Ray Charles, "Can you get that nigger offstage?" when he was performing. You had David Bowie coming back to England after a tour of Germany wearing a Nazi uniform and going through Victoria Station like Hitler. You had British Movement skinheads hanging around bands like Sham 69 or Madness--gigs were being disrupted.

Some of the bands had quite a dubious record on this: Bowie certainly was flirting with fascism, Madness defended their road crew who were fascists, Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 had lots of hardcore fascist fans following him around.

We had a policy, though, which was try to engage with these artists, win them away from racism and certainly get them to distance themselves from the people associated with fascism. We were accused at the time of being soft, but we never thought that. We thought you had to win the hearts and minds of the artists.

You shouldn't just say, "If you make a racist comment, you are forever doomed." I think it was really successful because of the people I've mentioned, all have subsequently completely and utterly dissociated themselves from fascism and racism. In fact, many of them have become quite left-wing artists in their own right. David Bowie has both given money to the Anti-Nazi League and completely condemned his views from the '70s. Madness are very friendly to Love Music Hate Racism. Elvis Costello, too.

We were very nervous about Morrissey from the beginning when we launched LMHR because of some of the songs he's sung, like "Bengali in Platforms," hanging around the Madness gig wearing a Union Jack flag and all that. Now, when he made the comments about immigration [in the NME in 2008], he made quite a strong case that he didn't say them, and he wanted to make a statement against racism and come out in support of an anti-racist cause.

I would have been more suspicious, but before that, he was starting to hang around LMHR concerts. He came to one of our very first gigs with the Libertines. He was there, he signed T-shirts, and he really wanted to support us. He was already beginning to hang around with anti-racist bands, and we thought, "Come on, let's give the man a chance." He sponsored the carnival, gave us $44,000, and he also wanted us to put stalls up at his gigs to make a strong anti-racist statement. We thought that was worth doing.

But this time...you know, everyone's entitled to be wrong or change their mind once. I think the problem we've got with Morrissey is that he's done it several times.

I don't believe it's a mistake. I think it's conscious, and I think he's gone too far. In our organization, some of the bands have already met and talked about it, and we don't want to be associated with him. We feel it's not helpful to anybody.

Of course, he could come out and make a clear denunciation, saying he didn't say it--he hasn't done that so far. And he hasn't contacted us to say he wants to distance himself from his statements. I think really he has to grow up at minimum.

These are much more serious statements than he's made before. "Subhuman" is crude racism, to put it mildly. If someone like Adolf Hitler said that, you'd talk about biological racism, which everyone knows is genocidal. So I feel he's really crossed the Rubicon on it really.

THE DIVERSITY of genres and bands that have been associated with LMHR is really stunning. Just looking on the Web site, you see a riot grrrl gig followed a couple of nights later by an anti-racist symphony. Do you see that wide spectrum as an advantage in putting forward the concept of a multicultural society in opposition to the fascists?

I DO. I think there's a lot to be said for mixing genres. You know, what punk and reggae did when they first started to fuse together--we called it "punky reggae nights"--is it brought Black and white kids together in a way that nothing else did before.

If you were Black or of West Indian origin in Britain, you would go to Black-only clubs. If you were white, you generally hung around white punk rock bands. What fusing it together did was it brought me in touch with bands I would have never known about otherwise--bands like Steel Pulse, Misty In Roots. Not so much Bob Marley, because he was popular by then, but [Peter] Tosh, Abyssinians, the whole Trojan sound system. Suddenly, it opened up this completely different cultural world.

I feel it's really important that we try and do the same thing now. You know, I often find that musical genres are really defined not by people but by companies who want to market their products. Actually, what you really find is lots of things that connect these musics together. And therefore, the more we break the walls down, the more people can just experiment and enjoy all forms of music. I think it actually opens people's minds.

I think it did help break barriers down. I won't say it changed the world, but it certainly broke down barriers, and it made the discussion about racism much more open and fluid.

In Britain today, there's a lot to be said for breaking down genres and mixing it up together. We have a lot of subgenres in British music now that are fusions of different kinds. Grime is definitely a fusion of hip-hop and drum 'n' bass. A lot of indie stuff mixes house music with their own sound.

We really are seeing people using music as a melting pot, and just chucking it all in. And that means you get much more multiracial audiences, which again makes it easier to deal with anti-racist questions.

The Roma question is very big in Europe right now--anti-Roma racism. But when you have Gogol Bordello or you see lots of klezmer bands that are very popular in the festivals right now, it does help make the basic argument about Roma people being part of our lives. It breaks down stereotypes.

The way they try to portray Roma in the press is that they're all thieves or they just live in squat camps and take your jobs. What the Roma music scene proves is that these are people who have their own culture and music. And I do think it helps break down the most basic racial stereotypes that some people are trying to push right now across Europe.

WHO ARE some of the artists that are backing LMHR right now?

WELL IF you look at our past two concerts--the big ones--we had Pete Doherty from the Libertines, who's massive in Britain. We had Kelly Rowland from Destiny's Child on the same bill. We had Lowkey, one of the great rappers in Britain. We had Reverend and the Makers, we had a young British black soul singer, and one of the great jazz musicians in Britain, Courtney Pine.

So you literally have everything from pop, indie, hip-hop, jazz and soul. You look at the Barnsley carnival that we had recently, and you have Chipmunk, one of the new grime artists, alongside Reverend and the Makers, alongside Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, alongside local Barnsley artists. We had 32 stages around the city playing everything from trad-jazz to death metal to country and everything in between. So we had something for everybody, and thousands and thousands of people came out; the whole town was taken over.

So yeah, we really mix it right up and have had some great bands play for us. The Kaiser Chiefs have played LMHR gigs. So has Damon Albarn from Blur. Jerry Dammers from the Specials and other old-school artists like Mick Jones from the Clash, right through to the youngest hip-hop artists like Kano, Roll Deep and everything in between.

WITH THE current climate being what it is--with the ongoing economic crisis--do you think there's a potential for kids today to be influenced and radicalized by the project of Love Music Hate Racism?

YEAH, I do. Personally, I think there's a polarization taking place in Europe right now. You've got both movements to the left and to the right. It's very similar to the '70s; in fact, I think it's much deeper than the '70s. And to be honest with you, among the young, there is generally a very wide acceptance of anti-racism.

However, there are a couple of problems. One is Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism, which is much deeper than, say, if it was about Black kids. There's much more racism just accepted about Muslim kids in Britain--you know, "terrorists," "they don't want to mix," that kind of stuff. And so we have a real problem with migration in Britain and Islamophobia. So those two things aside, other elements of racism you see much, much less.

LMHR doesn't just do gigs. We do lots of school projects. We take over a school for a week or a day and we do anti-racism all the way through. So we go through everything from history to geography to gigs in the music department--everything. And what you find is that the thirst for Love Music Hate Racism among young people is ginormous.

When you go to our gigs, the Barnsley carnival was sold out, 8,000 for the main stage, and I would think that the main age was 16 to 18. When we did our concert in Victoria Park two years ago, we had 110,000 people there, and again, the vast majority were young people. So there's a real thirst among young people for anti-racism.

I'm going to speak at the Bestival festival in the Isle of Wight, which is a huge festival. A hundred thousand people will be there--it's like another Glastonbury! Now, I'll be on the main stage introducing The xx, and I'll bet you any amount of money that when I shout "love music," the first thing the crowd will should back will be "hate racism."

So we get massive support, even from bands who are not necessarily playing for us. They'll let us put up stalls at their gigs, or let us come and speak before they go on at festivals.

HOW DO you think the far right is going to be defeated, and how does music dovetail with that?

I'LL START with the first question. In terms of how we're going to defeat the far right in Britain, I really do believe, ultimately, there has to be an ideological, political and physical defeat of them. I don't separate the things out--I don't believe it's one or another. I don't believe one on its own can actually do it.

It seems to me that we have to have an ideological struggle against the far right--winning people to the idea of being anti-racist. Not just for multiculturalism; I'm for multiculturalism, but I believe that alone is not enough. There's a difference between being for multiculturalism--which is just tolerance of people's culture--and being active, firm advocates of anti-racism.

I think politically that we have to offer an alternative to the hatred of the right. You can't just be "anti" something; you have to be for something. And it seems to me that the right is growing both out the racism that is being promoted by many rulers of the world and also conditions--mass unemployment, poverty--that mean people are looking for scapegoats.

So I think that they're growing from this--both the growing racism and the economic crisis. We have to offer a political alternative to that. That's why I'm a socialist. I make no apology for that. I believe we have to have a different way of running the world.

And the third thing I think we need is to physically oppose them. Because if you leave these people to run around the streets, go to schools, attack communities, they will get stronger, and our side will get weaker. I stand in a long tradition in Britain of physically opposing these people when they take to the streets.

In 1936, we had a group called the British Union of Fascists, led by [Oswald] Mosley, organize a huge demonstration through East London--which at that time was a very Jewish area. They wanted to intimidate the community. A hundred thousand people went in the streets and broke the back of Mosley's organization.

In the 1970s, the National Front, another fascist organization, tried to march through South London in a place called Lewisham--which is a very big Afro-Caribbean community. All the local community came out. We put 60,000 on the streets, and the NF didn't pass. They were driven off the streets.

Again, in the early '90s, when the British National Party won their first-ever elections in Britain, we broke them at a place called Brick Lane in East London, which is where the main Bengali community in Britain is. White anti-racists and the Bengali community in the thousands turned up there and drove them out.

I think we need to do the same again. So I think we need a physical, political and economic solution to the far right.

Culturally, I don't believe that music changes the world. There's a famous quote from Sam Cooke: he wrote this wonderful civil rights song called "A Change Is Gonna Come," and he was asked, "Did that song inspire the civil rights movement?" I can't remember the exact words, but he said, "No, without the Birmingham civil rights protests, my song would mean nothing. But I do believe I can be a clarion call for the movement."

I have no illusions that music can change the world--I don't believe it can. But I think it can articulate and bring people together like very little else. I think that's the power of music and culture--it can articulate anti-racism or hatred of racism or the desire for a more equal world better than any speeches can. In Love Music Hate Racism, we can be an added tool in the fight against racism and fascism.

WHAT WOULD you say to artists or music fans here in the U.S. who are longing for music to play a bigger role in activism and struggle?

I'D SAY do it yourself. The whole punk ethic was called "DIY," or "do it yourself." And what was great about punk was that it was a grassroots movement that developed without any support from the music labels, or any support from the mainstream. We created our own fanzines, our own bands, our own clothes, our own culture, our own clubs, and we took spaces and we made them our own.

Part of making it our own was also the struggle against fascism. So what we would say to anyone is, don't just hope that your great rock bands will do it, start it yourselves.

Rock Against Racism started with a local group called the Carol Grimes Band playing, and Misty In Roots. They were tiny bands, but it snowballed in support. And what I would say to everyone is put a gig on in your local area--at your local youth club, your union hall, your college or school--and have a message that says it will be a gig against racism.

I think we can create a grassroots movement with the support of these young bands. And what you'll find is that as these bands become more popular, then we can draw bigger crowds in. We can't rely on the record labels to do anything, because I don't believe they do. They don't like LMHR. They let their bands play, but they get no profits out of it. All our bands play for nothing--it's a great ethos because they're not doing it for wealth, they're doing it for the message.

And I really believe in that. None of us get paid for what we do; we do it completely because we believe in it.

So I would say to any American kid or adult: don't just sit back and get angry. Get organized. I was very pleased to see what Rage Against the Machine are doing around [the passage of Arizona's anti-immigrant SB 1070] with the Sound Strike. It's fantastic! But I think we could do that in every city!

We don't have to wait for the Rage Against the Machines. Every band, every poet, every rapper, every dancehall kid can do this. And it would make a massive difference if we had this in hundreds of cities across America. That's what we're trying to do here in Britain. We just don't wait for the next Libertines to come along; we want to start with our bands when they're still very young.

LAST WORDS. I want to give you a chance to talk about the legal charges and possible jail time you're facing.

THE KEY thing to understanding Britain is that for the first time, one and a half years ago, we elected to the European Parliament two fascist MEPs. That's the first time in British history that two fascists have been elected that way. We've had councillors, but never with that size of a vote. They got 1 million votes in that election, which is a huge number remembering Britain is only a fifth of the size of America--I suppose it would be like a fascist becoming a senator.

We've never had fascists appear on TV in Britain before. After that victory, they invited Nick Griffin, who's the leader of the fascists in Britain, to appear on the most prestigious TV program called Question Time.

There was a huge outpouring of anger against that, and Unite Against Fascism and Love Music Hate Racism made a decision to call a protest outside of the studio where that debate was being filmed. Three or four thousand people showed up, surrounded the BBC. And we held a really very big picket, some young students broke through the gates and occupied the studio for 10 minutes before the police got them out; it was a very militant protest supported by lots of different unions and musicians.

I was one of the organizers of that demonstration, and I basically just did a series of TV interviews the whole time. The police arrested me in front of everybody, and dragged me through the crowd--I believe to provoke a riot. They didn't get that, but they charged me with assault of a police officer.

So I will be going to court on Tuesday, charged with assault of a PC, which is six months in prison. The officer is bringing no other witnesses with him, no other police officers corroborate his evidence. There's 10,000 hours of CCTV footage and none of it shows me doing anything at all to him. Most people in this country believe it's a setup.

We believe that anti-racists and anti-fascists are being criminalized, and it's not the first time. If you think about your own country's history: how many people went to prison in Birmingham in 1963? Four thousand? Five thousand?

All I'm guilty of is being an anti-fascist. So we've called a protest outside the court on Tuesday, and support of it has been fantastic. Four national unions in Britain are backing my case. Jerry Dammers from the Specials will be coming to speak there--I'm very proud of that; the Specials go right the way back to my punk days! Drew McConnell from Babyshambles will be coming and singing a song. The King Blues will be there, and also Lowkey.

And I suppose my line is that if I'm going to go down, I'm going to go down singing! That's the way I'm going to be on Tuesday.

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