Lovers Rock

A Guide to Lovers Rock: Reggae’s Romantic Side

Lovers Rock offers a politics of pleasure, as well as a deep love and appreciation of Black music, culture, and style from all over the Earth.

Born out of exile, the Black diaspora, and an international hunger for Jamaican music, Lovers Rock is a softer, more romantic, stylish, feminized take on reggae. It reinvigorated Jamaican music’s original love affair with American soul music while offering an essential voice for Caribbean musicians living outside the islands of their birth. Lovers Rock is the sound of the Pan-African diaspora, which still influences artists of every medium today.

While sometimes criticized for its apolitical nature and suave urban sophistication, Lovers Rock was positioned as a counterpoint towards the more militant and male-coded roots and Rastafarian reggae. Although initially conceived as feminine, its focus on love, romance, relationships, and emotions offers a deeper picture of the interior life of Black musicians of any gender living in exile. Its softer, more mellow sound and focus on love and romance, paired with a sharp sense of style, made Lovers Rock one of the most popular and influential strains of Afro-Caribbean music and culture. Since its ascent in the late 1970s, Lovers Rock has become a genre, record label, dance style, fashion, and even a movie, with Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock from 2020 as part of his Small Axe series of short films. It deserves a re-appraisal.

Lovers Rock lays to waste the false dichotomy of emotions and revolutionary zeal while simultaneously broadening the gaze to include girls and women as well as artists born or living outside of Jamaica. In the process, Lovers Rock reminds us that such sharp lines never existed in the first place. 

The Roots

Love songs have been popular and essential in reggae since the beginning, often sung by men. Artists like Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, and Ken Boothe helped make Lovers Rock massively popular. Many cite the Barbados-born son of Jamaican immigrants Dennis Bovell as the true father of Lovers Rock. Bovell came from a rock background before starting the Lovers Rock label in 1977 with John Kpiaye and Dennis Harris of the DIP record company.

Their first single, Brown Sugar’s “I’m In Love With a Dreadlocks”, would become a template for the Lovers Rock sound, thanks to the sweet, youthful vocals of 15-year-old Carol Wheeler, who would go on to join the influential Soul II Soul. Its follow-up, Tim Chandell’s The Loving Moods of Tim Chandell, would be even more of a smash hit, selling over 50,000 copies. Lovers Rock – the genre and the label – had arrived.

The Golden Age

Lovers Rock’s reputation would truly be etched into stone with Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” from 1979, however, eventually peaking at #2 on the British charts. These numbers were enough to catch the attention of popular roots artists of the day. Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs became converts, delivering some of the finest examples of the genre. Brown even launched his own Lovers Rock label, DEB, which would go on to sign Isaacs. Brown’s “Money in My Pocket” reached #14 on the British charts in 1979.

Two years later, Sugar Minott would also achieve chart recognition with “Good Thing Going”, a cover of an obscure Jackson Five song that charted at #4 on the British charts, kickstarting the second Golden Age of Lovers Rock.

The 1980s produced several of Lovers Rock, largely thanks to the output of Fashion Records. Founded in 1980 by John MacGillivray and Chris Lane, Fashion Records was the label aspect of MacGillivray’s Dub Vendor record store. A dedicated four-track recording studio opened in 1982. 

Over the course of the decade, Fashion released numerous hit Lovers Rock records. Fashion’s Maxi Priest grew up listening to Lovers Rock artists like Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown before becoming one of the UK’s most successful reggae artists, thanks to his distinctive blend of reggae and R&B. Priest would later become only one of two British reggae artists to score a #1 single in the United States with “Close to You”. 

Lovers Rock saw its biggest hit in 1986 with “I Want to Wake Up With You”, a cover of a country song by Mac Davis by Rocksteady bassist Boris Gardener.

The Significance

Lovers Rock helped to fill a void of Jamaican music in the UK following the closure of several prominent reggae clubs. This shifted the locus of power, as Lovers Rock’s influence was predominantly spread through official venues to more informal channels like pirate radio and house parties. Considering the sales figures, it’s safe to suggest that Lovers Rock was a vital expression and reflection of life in the Black diaspora, especially in the UK.

During its rise, many considered the popularity of Lovers Rock to symbolize the derailment of reggae’s political power in favor of eroticism and hedonism. As Dr. Lisa Amanda Palmer puts it in “‘Men Cry Too’: Black Masculinities and the Feminisation of Lovers Rock in the UK”, “That problem can be read as this: that songs about erotic or romantic love signified the co-option, derailment, and emasculation of the emancipatory political project for black liberation that is unfinished and incomplete. And that since love songs have no intrinsic political value, their abundant consumption, as well as disposability, was stifling diverse musical expression, restricting access to more politically engaged sounds and radical voices.” (Palmer 116)

Palmer goes on to unpack many of the problems with this false dichotomy that, when scrutinized, reveal themselves to be seeped in subtle misogyny and even white supremacy. In an earlier essay, Palmer further discusses the problems with dividing Jamaican music along gendered lines, as well as the revolutionary power of love and eroticism, especially for Black people. In “Ladies a your time now!’ Erotic politics, lovers’ rock and resistance in the UK”, when discussing the works of Black philosophers like bell hooks, Palmer rhapsodizes about the power of Black love.

“I would add that loving blackness also enables us to highlight and reinterpret cultural practices of love amongst distinct and different black communities that illuminate the ways diverse groups of black people have expressed love beyond the perceived limits, myths, and narratives mapped onto our existence. However, in the erotic arena of lovers’ rock, this love ethic is often complicated and sometimes compromised by gendered conceptualizations of love and rebellion that re-inscribe binary gendered discourses that discount love as a serious and valuable tool to the politics of black liberation (hooks 1992).” (Palmer 179)

Furthermore, diminishing the importance of Lovers Rock is a continuation of the devaluation of women’s work and the domestic sphere, more generally. Domestic labor, like hosting meetings and workshops, pamphleteering, mailing campaigns, or even commiserating, is vital to any truly revolutionary movement. Yet when it comes time to write history books, suddenly, it’s no longer important. This tendency can be seen in miniature in the supposed tension between Roots Reggae and Lovers Rock.

Finally, gendering Lovers Rock suggests that it was only for women. As we’ve already seen, many of reggae’s best and most influential male musicians have made exquisite love songs, if not Lovers Rock outright. Gregory Isaacs, Alton Ellis, Dennis Brown, and even Maxi Priest all delivered some of their best work in the genre. Gendering the strands of reggae music perpetuates toxic masculinity, which amplifies misogyny. Allowing men to listen to and make Lovers Rock allows them the opportunity to be full and complete human beings with a rich and complex emotional tapestry and inner life.

Depoliticizing Lovers Rock makes it seem as if love, sex, and politics are entirely separate and should never mix. When taken to its conclusion, that line of thinking implies that disenfranchised people shouldn’t have love or pleasure… at least until the world is just, that is. Lovers Rock suggests another way – a way of loving and dancing and kissing and sweating as well as fighting for what’s right. Lovers Rock offers a politics of pleasure, as well as a deep love and appreciation of Black music, culture, and style from all over the Earth.

Essential Lovers Rock Singles

Louisa Marks – “Caught You in a Lie”

Janet Kaye – “Silly Games”

Dennis Brown – “Money in My Pocket”

Sugar Minott – “Good Thing Going”

Brown Sugar – “Black Pride”

Johnny Clark – “Rock with Me Baby”

Boris Gardener – “I Want to Wake Up With You”

Maxi Priest – “Strollin’ On”

Essential Lovers Rock Albums

Tim Chandell – The Loving Moods of Tim Chandell

Alton Ellis – Love to Share

Janet Kaye – Silly Games

Love Joys – Lovers Rock

Susan Cadogan – Hurts So Good

Sandra Cross – 100% Lovers Rock 

Carroll Thompson – Hopelessly in Love

Gregory Isaacs – The Lonely Lover

Gregory Isaacs – Lovers Rock 

Louisa Marks – Breakout

Works Cited

Palmer, Lisa A. (2011). ‘Ladies a your time now!’ Erotic politics, lovers’ rock and resistance in the UK. African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal. 4. 177-192. 10.1080/17528631.2011.583454. 

Palmer, Lisa A. (2014). ‘Men Cry Too’: Black Masculinities and the Feminisation of Lovers Rock in the UK. In Black Popular Music In Britain Since 1945. essay.