This exhibition of Syd Shelton’s photographs of Rock Against Racism (RAR) is a wonderful glimpse into the young faces and places of that time.
RAR was set up in 1976 in response to rising racism and the Nazi National Front.
Guitarist Eric Clapton had proclaimed his support for the racist Tory MP Enoch Powell at a Birmingham concert.
The following week, he told Melody Maker magazine that Powell was “the only bloke who was telling the truth for the good of the country.”
David Bowie and other musicians were also flirting with fascism.
Bowie retracted under pressure, but Clapton never recanted.
This came at a time when the Nazi National Front (NF) was attacking black and LGBT people in public and infiltrating schools and football grounds. The NF was also coming third in some local council elections.
In response, a spontaneous protest letter appeared in Socialist Worker and the three weekly music newspapers.
It concluded, “We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison in music.
“We urge support for Rock Against Racism.”
Over 140 letters arrived within a week—RAR was in business.
The iconic RAR badge was designed and a ground-breaking fanzine, Temporary Hoarding, was produced.
Shelton’s shots bring out how RAR welded emergent black and white music in a joyous rejection of bigotry.
The photographs from Belfast and Leeds are perhaps most fascinating. But my favourite is a group shot of a great reggae band Matumbi.
RAR grew alongside the Anti-Nazi League’s mobilisations against the NF in Wood Green and Lewisham in London and elsewhere in 1977.
The two combined to pull off the glorious 100,000-march from Trafalgar Square to a carnival in Victoria Park, east London in May 1978.
Shelton’s photographs brilliantly capture this moment.
RAR went on set a template for many subsequent projects.