Syd Shelton’s images capture a pivotal moment in British politics and culture, fashion and music. Rock Against Racism (1976 to 1981) was a groundbreaking movement formed by musicians and political activists to fight racism through music. Legendary performers photographed by Shelton include The Clash, Sham 69, Misty in Roots, Aswad, Pete Townshend of The Who, X Ray Spex, Elvis Costello, Tom Robinson, and The Specials. Shelton says, ‘I hope the exhibition shows that you can change things and you can actually take a stand, even in the most difficult of situations’.
Rock Against Racism grew out of the xenophobia of the UK in the late 1970s, when right-wing politician Enoch Powell stirred up racial hatred, fascist political party The National Front was gaining support, and racism was rife in institutions such as the police. The spark for Rock Against Racism came in response to Eric Clapton’s rant at a concert in Birmingham in 1976, when he urged his audience to ‘get the foreigners out’ and ‘keep Britain white’. Under the slogan ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’, Rock Against Racism staged marches, festivals, and over 500 concerts throughout the UK. They brought together artists and audiences of different race, mixing musical styles and youth tribes – rudeboy and skinhead, punk and reggae, two-tone and ska.
Shelton – an activist, photographer and graphic designer – produced images reflecting what he calls this ‘great mish-mash’. He captured the energy of The Clash playing ‘White Riot’, with the entire audience dancing; punk fans invading the stage at the Militant Entertainment tour; Aswad and Pete Townshend playing at the Southall Kids are Innocent gig, and Misty in Roots singing shoulder-to-shoulder with Tom Robinson.
Historic events featured in the exhibition include the 1978 march from Trafalgar Square to Hackney, where 100,000 crowded into Victoria Park for the first Rock Against Racism Carnival, and the Carnival Against the Nazis in Potternewton Park, Leeds in 1981. Shelton captured the wider picture of protest, photographing demonstrations against racism in Lewisham, London's Brick Lane, and Northern Ireland, and documenting the social and cultural conditions that informed the politics of the movement across England and Ireland. In the five years that Rock Against Racism operated, the National Front went from a serious electoral threat to political oblivion. As well as photographs, the exhibition features memorabilia including the Rock Against Racism fanzine Temporary Hoarding and vintage posters, all in the distinctive punk style that Shelton helped to create.
Shelton says, ‘I don’t mean to suggest the fight is over – that would be ridiculous to say when you look at the current situation in Calais – but music had changed. It had become more multi-racial and that was fantastic’.
Image Credit: Syd Shelton