[One of my favorite cultural works of the last year was Small Axe, filmmaker Steve McQueen’s anthology film series about the West Indian community in England from the 1960s through the 1980s. I’m not an EnglandStudier, but I think there are plenty of ways to apply the five wonderful films to AmericanStudying. So this week I’ll highlight a handful, leading up to a Guest Post on McQueen’s prior films!]
On the danger of cultural appropriation and how to make sure we remain more inclusive instead.
By far my favorite of the five Small Axe films, and quite possibly my favorite movie I watched over the last year, is Lovers Rock, McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland’s tribute to the West London reggae house party scene set over the course of one exhilarating 1980 night. While the film’s title refers in part to the blossoming romance between Franklyn (Micheal Ward) and Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) at its center, it also alludes (as I learned while researching this post, a phrase that I’m sure will apply equally to every subsequent post in the week’s series) to a popular musical genre and movement in 1970s London. Indeed, that last hyperlinked article goes so far as to call Lover’s Rock “reggae’s Motown,” an argument that this English musical moment was as profoundly influential in terms of its cultural and historical contexts as was that hugely significant Detroit musical scene in America. Yet that same article’s telling subtitle adds both that Lover’s Rock “influenced The Police” and yet that it “was sidelined in its native Britain.”
Those two phrases might seem contradictory, but I would argue that the opposite could also be true—that the appropriation of a genre by white artists can lead, and all too often has led, precisely to the sidelining of the genre’s original, foundational voices and communities. I think we’ve seen a very similar trend play out when it comes to reggae in the United States, with some of the genre’s biggest hits being covers by white artists (like Eric Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” and UB40’s cover of Tony Tribe’s reggae version of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine” [yes, the song was originally Diamond’s, but UB40 specifically said they only knew Tribe’s reggae version when they covered it]). Moreover, reggae-inspired white groups like UB40 or Sublime have been the most prominent or at least best-selling artists within the genre overall. Of course all those songs and artists are examples of the cross-cultural and creolized trends I highlighted in yesterday’s post (and that extend to the worlds of rock and pop music more broadly in American history to be sure), and aren’t in and of themselves a bad thing. But when it comes to the relative obscurity of original reggae artists in comparison, particularly artists of color, I think the word “sidelined” would still be all too apt; Bob Marley might be an exception, but if so he’s the exception that proves the rule.
So how do we push back on and reverse that unfortunate trend? The obvious answer, and not a bad one at all, would be to listen to and share widely many more of those original songs and artists, including all those in lists like this one. But one of the best things about the film Lovers Rock is the way that it highlights the multilayered cultural and social meanings of a genre like reggae, the spaces and communities—from an individual house to the neighborhood of West London to multi-generational trans-Atlantic families—that are part of every song, every artist, and most especially every communal performance and party. So better remembering reggae, in 1980 London and 2021 America alike, also means engaging much more fully with all those cultural and communal layers, with all the ways that lovers rock.
Next Axe application tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on Caribbean American connections?