Specials fans, Potternewton Park, Leeds 1981 but Syd Shelton

Syd Shelton:
Rock Against Racism

A pivotal moment in British politics and culture, fashion and music - a groundbreaking movement fighting racism through music.

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. 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.

Specials fans, Potternewton Park, Leeds 1981 but Syd Shelton
Specials fans, Potternewton Park, Leeds 1981 © Syd Shelton
Hackney, East London 1980 by Syd Shelton
Hackney, East London 1980 © Syd Shelton
Militant Entertainment Tour, West Runton Pavilion, Cromer, Norfolk 1979 by Syd Shelton
Militant Entertainment Tour, West Runton Pavilion, Cromer, Norfolk 1979 © Syd Shelton
Bengali youths lead a demonstration. Brick Lane, London 1978 by Syd Shelton
Bengali youths lead a demonstration. Brick Lane, London 1978 © Syd Shelton
Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism — Impressions Gallery
Paul Simonon, The Clash, Victoria Park, 30 April 1978 © Syd Shelton

Artist

  • Portrait of Syd Shelton

    Syd Shelton

    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.

Rock Against Racism at Impressions

Our visitors say...

“Eye opening and thought-provoking”.

“Went to Potternewton, it’s brought back a lot of memories. Absolutely fascinating, thank you.”

“A welcome exhibition at a time when we need to be standing up to racists more than ever.”

“An exhibition that shows ordinary people can make positive changes”.

Buy the book

Rock Against Racism by Syd Shelton
£30.00

Syd Shelton’s photographs and graphic designs for the Rock Against Racism movement of the late 1970s capture the dynamism and energy of a key moment in post war history when young black and white people came together to confront the growth of racist ideology in Britain.

Texts by Syd Shelton, Paul Gilroy, Adam Philips, Mark Sealy MBE and Carol Tulloch. Published by Autograph ABP 2015.

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Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism — Impressions Gallery
Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism — Impressions Gallery