ROCK AGAINST RACISM – LOVE MUSIC, HATE RACISM: Syd Sheldon’s Photo-Documentary History Lesson
“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.” Syd Sheldon
Last night, after watching Mona Chalabi’s ‘Is Britain Racist’ I had to wonder how far we’d come since the rise and demise of the National Front (NF) in the Seventies and early Eighties. The ground rules might have shifted with Islam painted as the enemy within but the relentless issue of immigration guarantees a racist undertow in Britain that is persistently fuelled by fear and topped up by the media, the arrival of UKIP and a complicit Tory government.
It’s therefore timely that ABP has announced the first major exhibition of Syd Shelton’s photographs which capture in Black & White one of the most volatile periods in British post war history. As a Hackney resident, I recall the NF standing at the top of Ridley Road market, where the Mosleyites stood before them, selling their papers. Hoxton was home to the NF and not a safe place if you were Asian or Afro-Caribbean. In 1976 Notting Hill carnival exploded as the youth took on police. They’d had enough of the harassment and ‘SUS’ laws. Punk had created a moral panic across the nation as banning orders prevented them from playing. Out of that came Rock Against Racism (RAR) and between ’76 and ’81, the movement 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 fascism and racism through music. They didn’t have an official photographer and it was down to Syd Shelton to produce the largest collection of images on the movement.
“Photography for me has always been an autobiographical tool, a sort of staccato visual diary….I also used my photography during that period as a graphic argument, enabling me to be a subjective witness of the period which could, hopefully, contribute to social change ….”
Under the slogan ‘Love Music Hate Racism’, RAR showcased reggae and punk bands on the same stage. It attracted massive cross cultural audiences like their pivotal festival in Hackney’s Victoria Park. At a time when the NF were gaining support, RAR provide a wave of resistance to street level violence and institutionalised racism.Syd Shelton’s photograph expose the ferocity of cultural difference being hammered out on Britain’s streets throughout the late 1970s. For my part I was involved with the Communist Party and the Young Communist League. I was also writing about reggae and in my lunchtime buying punk 7’s and fanzines at Rock On’s stall, in a market behind Charing Cross Rd. I believe it was me that suggested a joint YCL/RAR gig with The Cimarons and Sham 69 – who had at a time had a serious violent skinhead following – at North London Poly in Highbury Barn. On a poster it seemed like a wikid combination but it was obviously risky. That really sunk in on the night and as the venue filled up I realised that we only had a few south London dockers on standby should it kick off. As it went, it didn’t kick off and Bob Lentell, who was looking after the bands, said after, “It was all down to the Cimarons.” All born and raised in Jamaica,all Rasta… “they were totally fearless”.
It was a confrontational era and it didn’t pay to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. One march though Hoxton to Bethnal Green provided one such lesson. It was small, a few hundred people, a lot of whom seem to slating anyone in the area as racist. Not good. As we passed the Birdcage pub at the top of East Road the punters all came out to greet us with Nazi salutes and I was thinking this is going to get worse. And it did. By the time we’d reached to the top of Brick Lane we were flanked by Police and a small army of skinheads. A hard core gathering older NF members hurled threats and abuse from outside the Blade & Bone pub and it was clear that we had to get off this march before it finished. During one moment of confusion we ducked out and circled round to Bethnal Green tube only to catch the mounted police leading a charge against the skinheads who would have been intent on giving any stragglers a good kicking.
There were a lot of battles and few more fierce that The Battle for New Cross in Lewisham in ’77. The NF took a battering that day and Syd’s photo below shows well known Race Today activist Darcus Howe and Mangrove veteran addressing the crowd.
That said, it was the music that brought us all together. The weekly music papers like the NME (which sold around a quarter of a million copies a week) backed the movement which had its own zine Temporary Hoarding. Syd Shelton’s photographs of The Clash, Elvis Costello, Misty in Roots, Tom Robinson, Au Pairs and The Specials as well as the audiences at RAR gigs and carnivals across England say it all. He captured the energy and the unity generated.
It was about making a stand, making our voices heard, building a movement. They were volatile times. It still surprises me that so few people know realise that every major city in Britain was set alight in 1981. Three decades have elapsed sine then, I’m not represented by someone like David Cameron or Boris Johnson. On viewing Syd’s images I was wondering where Cameron and our current London Mayor were on the day of RAR in Victoria Park? I turns out Cameron was 12 and Johnson 14. Both would have been boarding at Eton. Boris was most likely crushing some little kid at rugger and dreaming of water cannons. While Sex Pistols venomously warned of “No Future…” these two teenage Tories had their future nicely mapped out. Oxford University… the Bullingdon Club… and a political path grounded in Thatcherism.
So, in 2015 when all forms of protest are on the verge of being illegal there are lessons to be learned. All our major cities have huge potential. I feel proud that I live in Hackney, a borough that thrives on its diversity. I have followed the way of the Corbynistas and the current anti-austerity movement and they would do well to reflect on the alliances that made RAR the force that it was. RAR tapped into the music, into the furious creativity that is our culture! The agenda for change is huge. Our response needs to modern, we need to use new technology, but it’s not just about a Like or a Share or a Retweet it’s about converting that combination of anger and optimism into activism. High on my list is climate change, so I’m putting the word out about The Climate March in London on 29th November. A luta continua!
Image above: Leeds – Northern Carnival A=gainst Racism – The Specials rocked it!
Rock Against Racism: The Exhibition is showing at Rivington Place, London EC2A 3BA from 2 October – 5 December 2015. Admission: Free.
Rock Against Racism: The Book is published on 1 October 2015 via Autograph ABP.