“The media often would have us think that the American Black music influence is more powerful than the Caribbean Black music influence. The truth about it is this is simply not the case.”
– Mykael Riley of Steel Pulse, interviewed in The Story of Lovers Rock (2011)
Have you ever considered the odd place punk music holds in the “hierarchy” of popular music? Jazz and rock are not only borne out of Black American music, but the latter specifically made American pop music the standard by which the rest of the world is judged. It didn’t take too long after its ‘50s heyday for rock to not only become mainstream, but to receive a massive push-back from sub-genres like punk. Patriotic white performers like Elvis made rock “safe”; the anti-monarchist white British rage of punk made it dangerous again.
But even there, white privilege has its advantages: though some of punk’s origins can be traced to the Black American band Death, it’s inextricably linked to the like of The Sex Pistols and The Ramones – both Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. Punk may be the redheaded stepchild of musical royalty, but that child is still invited to every family reunion.
The same can’t be said for reggae. Borne from the same British-colonized Caribbean, the genre is often treated as poorly by the English press as the islanders themselves. It’s a dichotomy the islanders’ children knew all too well from growing up in the Great Britain of ‘60s and ‘70s. Most were first-generation, making their attempts to assimilate difficult for their parents to watch. The overt racism of white Brits didn’t help matters either.
But they found a safe space within their music. After inheriting reggae from their parents and fusing it with the pop sensibilities of their neighbors, they created the genre “lovers rock”, after the Augustus Pablo song of the same name.
But you may already know that. As part of film-maker Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, he produced the film Lovers Rock dramatizing the genre’s heyday. I have yet to see it (it’s only available in the US via Amazon, and I try to avoid them as much as possible), but film-maker Menelik Shabazz’s 2011 documentary retells the story from those who lived through it. With McQueen’s film having renewed interest in the genre, Shabazz’s documentary is being revived for this years African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF), which has moved online this year because… y’know.
Shabazz’s talking-head docu paints a picture of teenage Black Britons who found – nay, created – the perfect soundtrack for their fluttering teenage hearts. In fact, the importance of emotion is one of the more surprising elements of the genre, despite the word “love” being in the name. Nearly every lovers rock song is a slow groove meant to danced to by a couple so close they can feel one another’s heartbeat. Yet, sex had less to do with the music’s lovers than the idea of being young and experiencing your first lovers’ embrace – at least, that’s what the women interviewed got out of it.
In-between the talking heads and music clips are quasi-re-enactments by Black British comedians – now adults – who detail the importance of a lovers rock setting to go with the music: it has to be dark and it has to be warm (a particular brand of space heater was used). One of the funniest moments of the film is a woman recalling a lovely dance she had with a boy, only for the lights to come on and for the boy to be revealed as… let’s say “unattractive”.
More importantly, both the genre and the parties provided refuge for the teens who were frequently the target of brutal attacks by skin-heads and racial profiling by British cops enforcing “Sus laws” (which we Black folk in the States would later recognize as Stop-and-Frisk). With the rise of the Thatcher Era came a normalization of that racism, making the need for safe spaces all the more important.
I’m trying my best not to just say everything, despite the fact that I’m reviewing a film recounting decades-old events. I will say that my description doesn’t do much justice to hearing the folks who lived it recount the happiness lovers rock brought them at its height. Nor have I truly illustrated the disappointment they felt when the genre was appropriated by white musicians (as Black art always is) such as UB40 and The Police with little-to-no mention of its origins. Proper lovers rock musicians couldn’t even get airplay, but even the ones who did rarely saw any money from radio stations refusing to pay royalties.
It’s these stories and the folks who tell them which make The Story of Lovers Rock worth the watch. Conventionally made in almost every way and very “made for TV” in its video-shot look, Shabazz succeeds in knowing the importance of having multiple interview cameras at once and how to let the interview footage flow into the archival footage. You’d think that would be easy, but I’ve seen far too many docs get it wrong.
What’s more, the “re-enactments” (which, I’ll admit, is a misnomer on my part) by the comedians add a sincere “you had to be there” context as they help keep the film from becoming too dry. I haven’t been able to find too much info on Shabazz, so I don’t know his age. Yet, the best thing I can say about The Story of Lovers Rock is it comes off as the work of someone recalling a great time of their youth that may never come again.
As the film came to an end, I was once again reminded of Hype!, the 1996 documentary about Seattle grunge scene of the early’90s. Like that film, this one is story from the point-of-view of a so-called “lower class” population who created a trend the mainstream ignored until they stole it and swallowed it whole. And in both films, the joy of watching comes most from the reminiscing of those who remember the music simply as a means of escaping their daily lives, not as some money-grubbing venture. One can’t help but draw certain parallels between lovers rock and grime, the current Black British genre dismissed as uncouth, as if Stormzy and Skepta didn’t have genuine talent at their disposal.
Whether or not I get to see McQueen’s film (which I’d love to, as I’m a fan of his work), The Story of Lovers Rock is a fine time capsule of an influential genre created by an oft-disregarded population. It certainly tells one more about the name than the Sade album of the same name (not that the album is bad). Though the film is conventionally made, it does its job at telling a story no one else could until recently.
The Story of Lovers Rock streams worldwide beginning the 5th of February 2021.
As part of the 2021 NY ADIFF, it’s scheduled to run from the 12th to the 15th of February 2021 via the festival’s official site.
The film runs 1 hour and 37 minutes.
To stream the film starting 5 February, please visit ArtMattan Films’ official site here.
For information on this and other films in the 2021 ADIFF, please visit the festival’s official site here.