The series Small Axe by Steve McQueen recounts, in five distinct episodes, the stories of the Caribbean communities that settled in London between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. The innovative series portrays the emergence of a black England beyond the usual subaltern representations.
The series creates one of the first positive representations of the Black population on television, constituting an example of creativity in a sphere where such creative works are virtually absent. Along with the novelty of portraying for the first time a hidden reality, the series Small Axe crafts a unique space of imagination and belonging, allowing viewers to identify with the stories. This leads to a parallel discussion about place attachment, all the more important because belongingness is systematically undermined by chronic racism in British society.
The desire to belong to a post-imperial space is uniquely expressed in the poem “It Dread inna Inglan” by Linton Kwesi Johnson, a ubiquitous figure throughout the series, who also appears in the “Alex Wheatle” episode reading in voice-over the poem “New Cross Massakah”1 concerning the New Cross fire in 1981. 13 young black men were killed in an arson which the British authorities did not care to investigate.
Linton Kwesi Johnson gave voice and poetic form to the struggle of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora against discrimination and racism at the beginning of Thatcherism.2 The poem “It Dread inna Inglan” clearly expresses the determination of the African, Asian and Caribbean communities to remain in England and obtain British citizenship.
Maggi Tatcha on di go
Wid a racist show
But a she haffi go
An’ Black British
Stan firm inna Inglan
Inna disya time yah.
The “Lovers Rock” episode takes place at a party, called the “blues party”, considered at the time safe havens for the Caribbean communities racially excluded from British nightclubs. The episode distinguishes itself by the way it invents an original story and develops a memory project articulating imaginary and affective dimensions. Seemingly “plotless”, it is essentially mediated by music, not words, the traditional way of producing meaning. This shifts the established hierarchy between words and sounds, between reason and emotion. More than a mere artifice to embellish a scene, portray a character, or display the (good) taste of the director, music is really the thread running through the narrative. Among the words, gestures and choreographic improvising on the dance floor are Janet Kay’s “Silly Games”, Gregory Isaac’s “Mr. Brown” and Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting”.
The episode “Lovers Rock” differentiates itself by the way it gives dance scenes an unusual duration. Instead of stopping to film the life and experiences of Caribbean communities between oppression and resistance, the episode creates an “interstitial” space implicating not only affections, experiences and feelings, but also tensions and adversities. In other words, the party is far from being an idealised place wrapped in promises of escapism and devoid of power relations.
The main character, Martha (played by actress Amarah-Jae St Aubyn), is a young Christian who runs away from home to experience the profane world of a party. She finds affection, but also loneliness and abandonment. The tensions are choreographed on the dance floor, where moments of union, intimacy, courtship, rejection and violence unfold. There is also the documenting of sexual division on the dance floor and of how musical genres condition such division. Exemplifying the lovers rock musical genre3, Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” illustrates the joy and communion on the dance floor, with men and women dancing together and singing a cappella, while The Revolutionaries’ “Kunta Kinte Dub” is an exclusively masculine and physical experience.
Gender differences are enacted performatively depending on the musical genres and the characteristics. Popularly known as the romantic subgenre of reggae, lovers rock is essentially composed of melodic ballads – interpreted mainly by young women but produced almost exclusively by men – accompanied by choreographies that favour eroticism.4 Instead of chasing after an ideal of authenticity, lovers rock embraces pop music cultures, hence different from other subgenres, namely Roots Reggae or Dub, and distanced from the “authentic” Rastafari lifestyle.
Lovers rock helped to change perceptions of black music in the British media. Despite its transnational origin, it is considered a distinctly British genre, the first post-colonial music genre to emerge in the UK, before other internationally known genres such as Brit Funk, Acid House, Jungle, UK garage, Dubstep, Grime, or UK drill came about.
As Bob Marley says in the song “Trenchtown rock”: “one good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”. Even without clear political messages, serving essentially to entertain and amuse, lovers rock created a sort of “painless” politics composed of melodic songs and romantic longings reflective of everyday life. A principle of hope despite difficulties, racial tensions and discrimination.
- 1. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/jan/17/remembering-a-tragedy-cu…
- 2. Linton Kwesi Johnson (born 24 August 1952, Chapelton, Jamaica) became the second living poet and the only black poet to be published in the Penguin Classics Series. https://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/28806/linton-kwesi-johnson.html
- 3. In July 1979, Janet Kay performed “Silly Games” for Top of the Pops and was the first British reggae singer to reach the top of the UK sales charts. London-based Soul Jazz Records has edited several compilations in different musical styles. In 2012, Soul Jazz Records edited the compilation “Harmony, Melody & Style. Lovers Rock in the UK 1975-1992”, which brings together various interpreters and producers of the lovers rock genre in Britain. https://soundsoftheuniverse.com/sjr/product/harmony-melody-style-lovers-…
- 4. Melodic and romantic love songs have long been part of Jamaican musical traditions. Alton Ellis, John Holt, Ken Boothe, Marcia Griffiths, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, among others, have performed such love songs. Although lovers rock is said to be a British musical genre, its origins are part of a longer history of the black diaspora. For a detailed analysis of lovers rock and gender politics, see Lisa Amanda Palmer (2014). “Men Cry Too: Black Masculinities and the Feminisation of Lovers Rock in the UK”. In Jon Stratton; Nabeel Zuberi (eds.). Black popular music in Britain since 1945. Burlington: Ashgate, pp. 115-129.