Syd Shelton, Rock Against Racism, Autograph ABP, London

From 1976 – 1981 a movement organised by musicians and political activists, Rock Against Racism, set about fighting racism through music – initiating performances from reggae and punk artists on the same stage, under the slogan ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’, and inviting broad multicultural audiences. Meanwhile, the National Front were gaining support and violent racism was on the rise.  Rock Against Racism at Autograph ABP, London, showcases British photographer Syd Shelton’s documentation of these pivotal events.

Shelton’s photographs capture the cultural complexity of Britain at this time, where divisions were powerful, and yet confused or blurred via music: skinheads dancing to Jamaican ska, punks looking to reggae music and black kids embracing punk. This exhibition of photographs not only depicts the beginnings of youth multiculturalism in the audiences of Tom Robinson, The Specials, The Clash and Elvis Costello, but also those at RAR gigs across the country – most notably, RAR Carnival 1 at Victoria Park, London in 1978. These shots are displayed side by side with images of the Anti National Front Demonstration that took place in Lewisham in 1977, and images taken on the British streets during this turbulent time to, as the photographer explains he intended to: “hopefully, contribute to social change.”

RAR held some 500 performances and 7 festivals across the UK during a time that whiteness was deemed by some as superior and blackness as alien, through the work of its black and white musicians, designers, writers, actors, performers and supporters it offered a clearer, converse perspective as documented by Shelton.

Rock Against Racism, until 5 December, Autograph ABP, Rivington Pl, London EC2A 3BA.

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1. RAR Carnival Against the Nazis, Leeds, 1981, Copyright Syd Shelton.