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Impressions Gallery

exhibitions: past

Rock Against Racism

Syd Shelton

17th Jun - 03rd Sep 2016

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 evocative 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’.

Rock Against Racism is curated by Mark Sealy at Autograph ABP, in collaboration with guest curator Carol Tulloch.

Syd Shelton
(born Pontefract, Yorkshire 1947)  is a British photographer and graphic designer. He has worked in Europe, Australia and the United States. He co-edited and was art director of a series of photographic books: 24 Hours in Los Angeles (1984), the award winning Day in the Life of London (1984) and Ireland: A Week in the Life of a Nation (1986). His work was recently included in the exhibition Words, Sound and Power: Reggae Changed My Life at The British Music Experience: Britain’s Museum of Popular Music, O2 Arena, London (2012) and The Photographer’s Gallery exhibition The World in London.

Call for Rock Against Racism memories

Do you remember Rock Against Racism? As part of our exhibition, we are calling out for contributions to FLASHBACK, a collection of people’s stories, memories, photographs and memorabilia of the Rock Against Racism movement.

Click here to find out more and contribute your memories.

Exhibition resources

Click here to download an information sheet about the exhibition (PDF 132kb)
Click here to download our exhibition guide (PDF 2.5mb)

What the papers say

BBC Arts
BBC News
Creative Review
The Telegraph and Argus
The Bradford Review
Colours May Vary

Listen again

If you missed Syd Shelton and Carol Tulloch in coversation on Saturday 21 July, listen again via Soundcloud

You can also listen again to Feed Your Mind
, our informal lunchtime talk with Paul Furness, key figure in the Leeds Rock Against Racism group 
and founder of the Leeds RAR club. The event was broadcast live by BCB 106.6 fm and is now available to hear online by clicking here.


Specials fans, Potternewton Park, Leeds, 1981

Specials fans, Potternewton Park, Leeds, 1981

Syd Shelton

Click on thumbnail below to enlarge

Specials fans, Potternewton Park, Leeds, 1981 Militant Entertainment Tour, West Runton Pavilion, Cromer, Norfolk 1979 Paul Simonon, The Clash, Victoria Park 30 April 1978 Bengali youths lead a demonstration. Brick Lane, London 1978 Dambala and Misty in Roots with Tom Robinson, 1979 Hackney, East London, 1980