A collection of anti-racist activist and photographer Syd Shelton’s work from Rock Against Racism is currently on display at the Autograph ABP gallery in London. Is this exhibition, and book, a nostalgic trip to the bad old days of 1970s racial conflict or does it have something to offer a new generation fighting the changing face of racism in the 21st century? Colin Revolting believes it is both.
Syd Shelton’s photographs, starkly black and white, portray the sharp contrasts and conflicts in the 1970s Britain. National Front marchers and anti-racist crowds, the police and the youth on the street, the punks and Rastas, Sikh pensioners and black and white kids, the bands and the audiences.
At the time, mainstream British culture was riddled with blatant racism – from sitcoms to school classrooms, football stadiums to police canteens, TV news studios to the Houses of Parliament. And as capitalism entered into its first crisis since the second world war and cutbacks and unemployment spread, racism took a sharper and more violent form. The National Front paraded down many High Streets waving flags and beating drums. Racists rampaged through immigrant areas like Brick Lane, Southall and Wood Green.
Racism and right wing politics then raised its head in the music world in the steamy summer of 1976. Following David Bowie declaring that Britain needed a dictator, ‘Blues God’ Eric Clapton openly spoke out on stage in Birmingham in praise of racist MP Enoch Powell.
I think Enoch’s right … we should send them all back. Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!
Seizing the moment a couple of revolutionaries, who were also music fans, shot off a letter to the music press.
Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist… We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music… we urge support for Rock against Racism. P.S. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!
The letter became a lightning conductor for music loving anti-racists across the country… and thus a movement was born. They didn’t wait for any political party to approve their idea or seek approval of left wing dignitaries or celebrities. This is echoed today with campaigns such as London2Calais convoy, Sisters Uncut and Kent Anti-Racism Network and other grassroots initiatives.
Over the following year the small group of activists started putting on gigs in London and soon others around the country created similar events in such places as Brighton, Leeds and Glasgow.
The photographs illustrate the context in which this movement was born, grew and helped to create social change. They portray the racists, both ‘respectable’ and crop headed, as their parades were pushed off the street and the openly violent side of their supporters came to the fore. Shelton took street portraits of some of the skinhead mob who charged down Brick Lane smashing windows in imitation of their forebears’ Kristallnacht. And the photos show the brilliant response of the Bengali youth leading a demonstration of some 7,000 people carrying placards proudly declaring “Self-defence is No Offence”.
As well as the photographs, the book includes many reproductions of pages Shelton designed from RAR’s magazine Temporary Hoarding including interviews with Johnny Rotten and the mother of a Irish Republican prisoner.
Until this exhibition and book, Temporary Hoarding has been the main source for the various accounts of RAR. However the lived experience of RAR for the many thousands involved in organising and going to the gigs and carnivals was somewhat forgotten. These photographs, the interview with Shelton and the essay by RAR participant Paul Gilroy help to correct this and bring those experience to life. The images capture the excitement of attending gigs which were often special events – organised with the energy and enthusiasm of people who’d never done anything quite like it before.
Sometimes what made the gigs ‘special events’ was the unnerving feeling that there was a good chance racists and fascists would arrive and would have to be dealt with. This could involve anything from barring them at the door, to arguing with them to remove their racist badges and T-shirts. What also made these gigs special was because the bands sometimes wrote songs specially or chose songs to cover for the occasion. The gigs would often finish with black and white musicians performing together on stage. The music was new and the sense of fusion was happening right in front of you. Reggae was not as new as Punk, but it was often new to the many white ears there to listen…
Paul Gilroy, who wrote for Temporary Hoarding at the time, and is now Professor of American and English Literature, contributes a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay to the book. He writes:
…the insubordinate spirit of emergent Punk-dom had discovered common cause with the rising generation of young, black people who had learned by a different route that they too had no future in England’s pathological dreams of greatness restored. Power took fright.
One aspect that the black and white photographs cannot capture is the vibrant colours of the badges, stickers, placards and even the neon sign that toured with RAR’s nationwide Militant Entertainment tour that staged gigs in all the towns where the NF looked like making headway in the 1979 election. As Gilroy puts it, there was “an unprecedented connection between the spirit of political dissent and the novel ways in which it was being communicated and rendered.”
There’s an illuminating interview in the book with Syd Shelton who, as well as being a photographer, was a key RAR activist/designer, all about his experiences of the period and his approach to photography, which he sums up as observing “like an urban fox”. On RAR Shelton concludes, ‘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.’
This free exhibition and 188-page book is a history of successful activism and a wonderful inspiration to everyone agitating and propagandising with imagination and spirit today. As RAR’s David Widgery put it, “the great thing about RAR was it’s a way of having a revolution without stopping the party.”
2 OCTOBER – 5 DECEMBER 2015
Autograph ABP gallery
London EC2A 3BA
Telephone +44 (0)20 7729 9200