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Wearing T-shirts, Ed Sheeran, Is Not Enough In Days Like These

25/05/2017 12:33
Marc Piasecki via Getty Images

In 1976, Eric Clapton stood on stage at the Birmingham Odeon and asked all the foreigners in the audience to put up their hands. Having identified 'the wogs' and 'the Pakis' he asked them to go back home, to their own country. Clapton's outburst continued throughout the evening as he backed the rhetoric of Enoch Powell's' 1968 'Rivers of Blood' speech which spoke of the dangers of Britain becoming 'a 'black colony within ten years.'

The cultural response was immediate. One letter, written by activist Red Saunders, called for, 'a rank and file movement against the racist poison in rock music.' And with it Rock Against Racism (RAR) was born. Rock stars of the day were called to account: David Bowie was castigated for describing Adolf Hitler as 'the first rock and roll superstar.' Whilst Rod Stewart was plastered across RAR literature having told the International Times in 1970 'I think Enoch is the man. I'm all for him. This country is overcrowded. The immigrants should be sent home.'

Bowie categorically withdrew his comments and apologised repeatedly for his misplaced fascination with fascism. Eric Clapton, on the other hand, did not. Two years later, his right wing views resurfaced and made the headlines in the popular and influential music paper Melody Maker. And even as recent as the 2000's, on the South Bank Show, Clapton left viewers with a stale taste in their mouth after Melvyn Bragg asked him directly about his outburst that had led to the formation of Rock Against Racism. It was a prime time television opportunity to make sense of, apologise and retract his comments-neither were forthcoming.

In recent years, Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) have taken on the challenge to confront racism and bigotry. The organisations name comes from Rock Against Racism's founding statement ''We want rebel music, street music. Music that breaks down people's fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is. Rock Against Racism. LOVE MUSIC HATE RACISM'. In 2017, a T-shirt campaign was launched by LMHR attracting the attention of many of today's most successful pop stars, including Stormzy, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran. Images of the musicians wearing garments adorned with the slogan LOVE MUSIC HATE RACISM' went viral. On Twitter alone, Ed Sheeran has 18.4 million followers. And yet in May of this year, Sheeran was to be heard on BBC Radio 4 extolling the virtues of Eric Clapton.

The relative merits of Ed Sheeran's music is immaterial to his decision to join an anti-racist movement. But the irony of endorsing Eric Clapton, a musician bestowed the title 'God' by his fans, whilst not making reference to his racist expressions that gave rise to Rock Against Racism is bewildering. Perhaps, Sheeran is unaware of the roots of LOVE MUSIC HATE RACISM. If so, it begs the question whether artists should have a rudimentary knowledge of the causes they are backing. Or perhaps, by Sheeran choosing 'Layla' as one of his Desert Island Discs - a hit before Clapton's foul mouthed tirade - Sheeran was recalling a period in the rock guitarists more innocent days. Taking this point to its logical conclusion fans of the Beatles can relax and still enjoy Clapton's awe-inspiring guitar playing on 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' or the transatlantic number one hit 'I Shot the Sheriff,' both records released before Clapton's coming out.

Recently, I spoke to the author Sharon Duggal who wrote about the racism of the late Seventies in The Handsworth Times, she explained that there are still black communities in the Midlands who to this day will not play Clapton records, despite the light he shone over reggae music by covering a Bob Marley classic in 1974. There is also an interesting parallel in the Jewish community regarding the classical composer Richard Wagner who was not only anti-Semitic but whose music was adopted by the Nazi Party in the 1930's. In considering both Wagner and Clapton, where lies the moral responsibility for the continued and widespread availability of their music. Red Saunders' hand written response to Eric Clapton's outburst wrote of 'the money men who ripped off rock culture with their cheque books and plastic crap.' He concluded, 'Who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you!' A decade later, the songwriter Billy Bragg who formed Red Wedge - a left-wing cultural movement to radicalise a youth generation- with Paul Weller and Annajoy David, aligned his campaigning and social observations in the lyrics of his second chart hit. To paraphrase, 'Wearing T-shirts is not enough in days like these.'

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Daniel Rachel is the author of Walls Come Tumbling Down: the music and politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge - winner of the Penderyn Music Book of the Year. The paperback is available now on Picador

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