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Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism

Highlights from Shelton's popular exhibition at Autograph

Back in 2015, Autograph held the first major exhibition of Syd Shelton’s photographs capturing one of the most intriguing and contradictory periods in British post war history. 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 collective of musicians and political activists to fight racism and fascism 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 National Front – a far-right fascist political party – were gaining support, RAR marked the rising resistance to violent and institutionalised racism.

RAR did not have an official photographer and Shelton has produced the largest collection of images of the movement. He captured the history-making Carnival at Victoria Park, London in 1978, and demonstrations in opposition to the National Front such as the Battle of Lewisham in 1977 and the Southall Riots of 1979. In total, RAR organised five carnivals and more than 500 gigs across Britain.

Shelton photographed performers such as The Clash, Elvis Costello, Misty in Roots, Tom Robinson, Au Pairs and The Specials and their audiences, as well as taking contextual social and cultural images that informed the politics of the movement across England and Ireland.

Here we revisit some highlights from the exhibition, capturing the energy of RAR and the creative alliances of black and white musicians, designers, writers, actors, performers and supporters towards a common goal. First published by Autograph to coincide with the exhibition, a second edition of the book Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism is now available to purchase here.

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Rock Against Racism exhibition installation at Autograph, London 2015

Co-curated by Mark Sealy and Carol Tulloch.
Photograph: Zoe Maxwell.

Jubilee Street, Stepney, London 1977

Matumbi, Bethnal Green, London 1979

Bagga (Bevin Fagan) in the foreground with fellow Matumbi bandmates who played one of RAR's first major gigs at the Royal College of Art.

Tulse Hill Comprehensive School, Brixton, London 1977

Lewisham, London 13 August 1977

Demonstrators taking part in what has become known as the Battle of Lewisham, protesting against the presence of members of the fascist National Front. Some 5,000 local people and anti-racist activists occupied New Cross Road. A quarter of the Metropolitan police (5,000 officers), together with their entire mounted division, were deployed as escort to the National Front demonstration.

Clifton Rise, Lewisham, London 13 August 1977

Civil liberties activist Darcus Howe addresses demonstrators from the roof of a public toilet block.

New Cross Road, Lewisham, London 1977

Police charge anti-racist demonstrators. Long after the National Front had been bussed out of the area, riot shields were used against protesters for the first time in mainland Britain. Later in the day demonstrators fight back using bricks and flares.

Lewisham, London 1977

Lewisham youth show off the braid ripped from a flag of the National Front 'Honour Guard'.

Tom Robinson Band, Rock Against Racism / Anti-Nazi League Carnival, Victoria Park, London 1978

100,000 young people marched seven miles from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in the East End. Singer songwriter Billy Bragg described the festival as "the moment when my generation took sides".

Paul Simonon, The Clash, Rock Against Racism / Anti-Nazi League Carnival, Victoria Park, London 1978

The Carnival line-up also included punk poet Patrick Fitzgerald, X-Ray Spex, and Steel Pulse.

Misty in Roots, Dominion Theatre, Southall, London 1979

A gig following the violent police reaction to anti-National Front demonstrators in Southall on 23 April 1979 which resulted in the death of Blair Peach and over 750 arrests. The body of Blair Peach lay in state at the theatre for six weeks following the fatal attack by the Special Patrol Group of the police.

Southall Carnival against the Nazis 1978

Fans dance to Misty in Roots.

Hackney, London 1980

The Beat, Coventry 1981

Militant Entertainment Tour, West Runton Pavilion, Norfolk 1979

Red Saunders (right) Rock Against Racism co-founder and Militant Entertainment Tour Master of Ceremonies.

Militant Entertainment Tour, West Runton Pavilion, Norfolk 1979

Militant Entertainment Tour, West Runton Pavilion, Norfolk 1979

A stage invasion during a set by The Ruts. Other bands on the lineup included Gang of Four and Misty in Roots.

Skully Roots (Jeff Walwyn), Majestic Sounds Militant Entertainment Tour, Leeds 1979

The Specials, RAR / Anti-Nazi League Carnival, Leeds 1981

Taken at the last carnival RAR hosted and the last gig The Specials played before they split-up.

The Specials Fans, RAR / Anti-Nazi League Carnival, Leeds, 1981

Barry Forde Band jamming with the Leyton Buzzards, Militant Entertainment Tour, Leeds, 1979

Skinheads, Petticoat Lane, London 1979

Hackney, London 1979

Rock Against Racism exhibition installation at Autograph, London 2015

Co-curated by Mark Sealy and Carol Tulloch.
Photograph: Zoe Maxwell.

about the artist

Syd Shelton

Syd Shelton is a photographer and graphic designer. He studied fine art at Wakefield College of Art. In the early 1970s he began his photography practice following a move to Australia where he worked as a freelance photojournalist for newspapers such as Nation Review, Tribune, and Digger. In 1975 he had his first solo photographic exhibition at the Sydney Film-makers Cooperative. Shelton returned to London in 1976 and established the design and photography partnership Hot Pink Heart/Red Wedge Graphics which evolved into his current company Graphicsi.

Shelton become one of the key activists in the Rock Against Racism movement (RAR). He was a photographer and one of the designers of the RAR magazine Temporary Hoarding (1976 to 1981). In 2015 the book Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism was published by Autograph to accompany the touring exhibition of the same name. A new edition of the book was published by Rare Bird Books in 2022. You can follow the artist on Instagram here.

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Rock Against Racism, Smash It! Rock Against Fascism, Smash It!

Read Autograph's interview with the photographer Syd Shelton in which he recalls how members of the UK’s punk and reggae music scenes united to confront racist ideology in the late 1970s

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Banner image: Syd Shelton, The Specials Fans [detail], RAR / Anti-Nazi League Carnival, Leeds, 1981. Image copyright and courtesy the artist.

Images on page: 1 + 20) Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism exhibition installation at Autograph, London 2015. Co-curated by Mark Sealy and Carol Tulloch. Photograph: Zoe Maxwell. 2 - 19) All images copyright and courtesy Syd Shelton.