Between 1976 and 1981, the movement Rock Against Racism (RAR) confronted racist ideology in the streets, parks and town halls of Britain. RAR was formed by a collection of musicians and political activists to fight fascism and racism through music. Under the slogan ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’, it showcased reggae and punk bands on the same stage, attracting large multicultural audiences. At a time when the fascist attitudes of the National Front were gaining support, RAR marked the rising resistance to violent and institutionalised racism. Rock Against runs at Rivington Place.
Syd Shelton’s photographs document the volatility of a country divided across race, class and gender. They expose the ferocity of cultural difference being hammered out on Britain’s streets through the late 1970s, at a time when racist skinheads danced to Jamaican Ska, Punks embraced reggae and Black kids reached out to Punk. Shelton photographed performers such as The Clash, Elvis Costello, Misty in Roots, Tom Robinson, Au Pairs and The Specials as well as the audiences at RAR gigs and carnivals across England.
He captured the history-making RAR Carnival 1 at Victoria Park, London in 1978, and demonstrations such as the Anti National Front Demonstration in Lewisham in 1977. Shelton also took contextual social and cultural images that informed the politics of the movement across England and Ireland.
As Shelton says: ‘In collaboration with UK reggae and punk bands, RAR members took on the orthodoxy through five carnivals and some 500 gigs throughout Britain. In those five years, the National Front went from a serious electoral threat into political oblivion.’ Rock Against Racism revisits the energy of RAR, the creative entanglement of black and white musicians, designers, writers, actors, performers and supporters who
produced effective counter-narratives to whiteness as superior and blackness as alienated. Shelton’s photographs remind us that RAR was a particular treatise on belonging in Britain.
London from 2 October until 5 December, 2015 and admission is free.
Rivington Place, London, EC2A 3BA