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“And it’s only when we have a conversation like this, where it gets named, that erasure becomes disruptive, and without intervention it continues as a norm, as a replication of a power structure that we live in.”

The idea for this conversation came out of a conversation with Sonia Boyce  about the absence of women’s voices in sound and sound system culture,  which tend to be portrayed as male domains. In bringing this group of Black  female artists, sound system practitioners and scholars together to talk  about that question, I was conscious of how my presence as a man might  affect the space. With this mind, I simply introduced the session, pressed  ‘record’, and let the conversation take its natural course about Black women’s absence/presence in sound, sound system culture and lovers rock. I  learnt much from listening. The following is an abbreviated transcript of the  conversation. — Michael McMillan. 

Sonia Boyce (SB): I’ve been an artist showing work for 30 years, and also  teaching in art school, and am currently a professor of Black art and design at University of the Arts London. I’ve been doing a project called The  Devotional series since 1999, charting a history of women of colour in the  music industry; lots of singers are in this roll call that I’ve been gathering  through collective memory with people giving me information about performers. I have an archive, which one day will become a museum. Some  of that work was shown in a group exhibition of women artists who use sound and sonic art called Sounds like her, which started at the New Art  Exchange, Nottingham. That exhibition and the publication that came out of  that is where the conversation with Michael McMillan and myself began, talking about the question of women’s voices, and the systemic amnesia  around women who make noise.  

Carol Leeming (CL): I’ve been an artist for about a thousand years. Initially,  I started as a community worker and then moved into being a singer, song writer, musician, mainly making house music, so I was very much wedded  to electronic music. I also play keyboards and percussion, and later became  a published poet, playwright and filmmaker, performer, actor. I’m currently a  part-time lecturer at De Montfort University in the performing arts including  digital art, music, dance. I’ve also curated exhibitions around fashion and did a companion exhibition along with Carol Tulloch’s Black British Style when that  toured from the Victoria & Albert Museum to here in Leicester. Very much a  multi-disciplinary artiste, I’ve done a lot of collaborative work, and actually like  working collaboratively – Jill of all trades, but pretty good at all of them.  

Denise Noble (DN): I’m a scholar and educational activist. I began my  teaching career at a community level in a Black-run access course and then  became a full-time academic teaching media studies, sociology, cultural  studies in the UK, and African American and African Studies in the USA. In  2016, I returned to the UK to teach on the first undergraduate Black Studies programme in the UK. My work centres on race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class, and nation in the cultural politics of Black freedom, race and racism in Britain and the African diaspora. As part of this work, I have written about  the sexual and racial politics of reggae dancehall culture.  

Sonia’s reference to systemic amnesia is interesting in relation to the  piece I have written for this issue – in terms of what Gail Lewis calls the ‘absent/present’ Black women in many contexts, which I think we can see in sound system culture. I’m interested in that theme of women being extremely present, but also absent in the social consciousness of sound system culture. 

Yassmin Foster (YF): I am a researcher, movement director, sound (system) woman and lecturer in dance practices. I work across arts, heritage  and culture, and was encouraged by Sonia to do my PhD, which I’m do ing at Goldsmiths College, under the current research title ‘The Kinetic  Architectural Experience of Black People Through Lovers Rock in 1970s  Britain’. I’ve been a sound system woman since 2011 with my two sisters  for Legs Eleven. I am the selector and operator; one sister is a MC and  another a DJ. We inherited our father’s sound system Joe 90 Hi Power of  the early 1980s.  

Lisa Palmer (LP): I would describe myself as an academic, but I’m also *interested in the archive. I’m currently the Deputy Director for the Stephen  Lawrence Research Centre. My background before I moved into higher  education was as a community public librarian; I worked at Birmingham  Central Library as a Content Development Officer, looking after their website. It also allowed me to explore archival material held in the library that  documented the history of African Caribbean communities, particularly the  work of the photographer, artist and archivist, Vanley Burke. I’ve written  about Vanley’s work as part of thinking about Handsworth as a discursive field, and to understand what it means to produce knowledge about Black communities in Birmingham.  

I’ve written about lovers rock music based on my PhD thesis, looking  at the politics of black love using bell hooks’ idea of loving blackness, and  putting a different spin on her work from a Caribbean diasporic perspective.  It also touches on Sonia’s point about erasure, and questioning the idea that  lovers rock was apolitical in terms of bringing in the sexual politics of lovers  rock that has been left unexplored. I’ve been trying to write a book for the longest of time. 

CL: Seeing the actor/singer Lorna Gee over the weekend brought everything  back. I actually started off in Papa Shifta Hi Power sound system in Leicester.  I was encouraged by dancehall DJ Sister Nancy and through a friend of mine, who was already a singer on Papa Shifta, we began singing over dubplates. I also became an MC and was toasting on the mic. So, I have a  lot to say about being two women with a group of men in a touring sound  system. I was aware that Sista Culcha was a pioneer, and we brought her sound system to play at the Ajani Women’s Centre in Leicester that I was involved in back in the 1980s. This was her/historic because she played at the  local blues and blew everyone’s mind, which is etched in my mind forever.  

A lot of my friends thought that lovers rock was very apolitical and wishy-washy, whereas I loved Jean Adebambo and Jackie Kay. Often there  was sexism and misogyny when we came across a big Rasta dub sound  system, whereas the sound system I was involved in was quite hi-tech and inclusive of women. It was trying to be progressive with the latest technology. There tends to be a clash between different sound system cultures. Even now that division remains in terms of we notice a lot of women don’t  go to the heavy dub sessions as much as a sound system playing New York  style or lovers rock. There are delineations here around women participating  both as consumers and producers. And if we’re talking about operators,  selectors, MCs or the financial powerhouse, the person driving the sound  system, women are still thin on the ground.  

DN: Carol, what has been your experience as a woman involved in a sound system?  

CL: When we played out around the Midlands or further afield, guys would just stand and stare literally with their mouths open and they would say,  ‘Which one of ah dem men deh is yuh man in deh sound?’ They just thought we were the girlfriend of a sound man. ‘Well actually, I’m here to sing and  chant the mic’. I would stand with the guys in a circle because that’s the  culture, and we would pass the mic around. We used to slaughter the other sounds because we had a great selector and a great selection of music. The  guy who owned the sound system broke barriers as well, because he was  white. He wasn’t on the sound, but he owned it, and paid a lot for Studio One dubplates. He would be standing there like, ‘This is my sound’ with all  Black people playing it, and these women singing and chanting on the mic.  

I still go to Jah Shaka and some of the big sound systems, and I’m aware of women pulling themselves into the wall, and never going into the  middle of the dancefloor to ‘shak out’ like the men do. There’s a contestation of space; never mind the selection of music, which is often man singing  about man t’ing. So I still think there is a lot of sexism, and a gendered  demarcating of space and lines about what we’re supposed to do and not. Of course, if I like the music, I’m in the middle of the dancefloor going crazy. I don’t care who is looking. But I’m aware that the sisters peel back, and I’m saddened by that and the fact that now women in the dancehall still feel  this way. And I am saddened that I’ve yet to come across mic chanters or selectors and operators who are women. 

DN: Maybe there’s a generational difference between your and Yassmin’s experiences? 

YF: Between the ages of six and eleven years old, I would watch adults  perform what felt like a very ritualistic way of moving in the dance space; holding up the walls as if the building was going to fall down. My research  explores this circular method of how Black people populate and create the dance space, one that includes a sound system. The crowd want to be im mersed with the people and the sound as much as possible and are integral  to the event. Where you stand in relation to the speaker boxes and how well  they are balanced (equalised) matters. You should be able to stand next to a  speaker box without feeling any discomfort. A heavier bassline can always be experienced at a Jah Shaka or Aba Shanti dance, and there are many  choices in the sound world for the type of sound experience you want to  have. As a sound system it is important to consider this in the configuration  of your set up; especially in how you as the operator need to hear the music  and the overall musical experience that you are aiming to achieve. In my experience people will even shift the speaker box to make room for their cup and jacket, which also needs to be factored in when setting up. 

I remember one experience related to Sonia’s work, Lovers’ Rock. I had  a sixteenth birthday party, and my dad had just painted the walls in the front room white. The walls incurred black scuff marks from where people had  been rubbing against them, slow dancing. My friends took pictures of it, and strangely my dad was not upset or surprised that it happened. . 

I witnessed sound system clashes at a young age, seeing dubplates fly across the room, hearing ‘sound ah go dead’ was normal rhetoric, although  not fully understanding what was going on. Listening to some of those dub plates now, which I have on 10-inch, they sound awful, yet I’m realising that  I embody that history. Being invited to play by people like Michael McMillan,  and meeting women in sound system like Sista Culcha, Ranking Merva and Nzinga Soundz, I can see our role as Legs Eleven in the trajectory of that  narrative. And this has enabled me to create my own her/story. 

We took part in the Sound System Outernational Conference in 2016, and saw sound system pioneers being given the space to speak about their  practice, which they didn’t have back in the day. As a younger sound people, e’re asking different questions, such as payment that covers real costs. And as Legs Eleven we don’t share same aspirations as those pioneers,  because we want to create a space where women are in control of the  music, and if we want to hear girl tune or bad man tune it’s up to us. With  freedom in that space comes responsibility, which is a bigger conversation we need to have. 

SB: Yassmin’s reference to the ‘wallpaper’ is a piece I made in the mid-1990s  whilst doing a residency at Manchester University that used embossing with a slightly raised text. And going through the gallery, you might not see anything on the wall because the wallpaper was white. The piece was  called Lovers’ Rock, and I used the song Hurt So Good by Susan Cadogan. The song came out in the 1970s and again in the 1980s, and I hadn’t heard it since then. I used to sing it with all my school friends at the bus stop. And because I hadn’t heard it for ages, I don’t know what triggered my memory of it, but I started singing it to myself and realised I remembered the entirety of the song. 

This was the beginning of the journey to be thinking about women and  music, because I wasn’t seeing those cultural references anywhere else. Making this wallpaper raised the question of seeing it against the wall almost as a sensual thing. You won’t see it unless you noticed that something was there. The idea was that you would walk around the space and there  was verse, chorus, versus, chorus going around the room, and you would start to sing along in your own head. 

It also started me thinking about the music I had grown up with, and grown into. And it was very difficult to grasp anything outside of my own  personal experience that acknowledged that this was culturally important. This was my first entry into thinking about that kind of music, but also  the memory of performance. What I found interesting in developing The  Devotional project, which came much later, was that Susan Cadogan’s Hurt  So Good always features in most of the reggae anthologies, and she’s one  of the few women either on CDs or LPs. I find it curious that it’s always that  song. There’s a much broader, wider range of women practitioners, but it  always falls onto that one particular track. It’s the kind of song in that female  tradition of ‘my man did me wrong’, and for me, there’s a lot of sadomasochism in that song while sounding sweet at the same time. 

Also, whenever I’m watching documentaries about hip hop, they never  feature the centrality of sound system culture, such as the toasting, chanting and singing over records, which is where rap comes from. For me, that  whole cultural scene of the ‘challenge’ on the mic, but also speaking directly  to the audience in call and response, is a diasporic experience that emerged  out of the 1970s. 

LP: I agree with Sonia’s point about Susan Cadogan’s song Hurt So Good  being sadomasochistic in many ways. There’s this fine line between pleas ure and pain, and we’re always sitting in between that space whenever we’re listening to that song. Through my book, I am looking at the fascinating genealogy of Hurt So Good: the way Millie Jackson originally performed  the song in comparison with how Susan Cadogan performed it on Top of the Pops. Millie Jackson’s performance, in dominant patriarchal terms, is an ‘aggressive’ form of sexuality, whereas Susan Cadogan’s performance is very ‘demure’ in that sense. Then of course, you have Jimmy Somerville’s  performance of the song in the 1980s. The pleasure of the song takes on  different meanings through each performance. And that balance you men tioned, between pleasure and pain, is the way we think about lovers rock  music in navigating what it means to be involved and practice forms of  particular patriarchal heteronormative types of love, and the structure of  how loving relationships are played out. There’s the pleasure and pain, and  also the violence that can happen in those situations, which reflects an  interesting but dubious tension, which is part of the lovers rock experience. 

DN: There seem to be some central themes from what I’m hearing. Carol, you used the phrase ‘contestation of space’; the way that women would  occupy the space of the dancehall and spoke about rubbing off the wallpaper. There’s a focus on space and how people inhabit space, and an idea I’m trying to think through – how women make themselves present. This contestation of space points to something for me that Lisa was talking about, the way lovers rock puts the sexual politics of the dancehall out there, but  not overtly articulating it. We can look back and talk about lovers rock as a romantic experience, but there is also its contradiction. 

My work has been really interested in how the sound system is a prime location of Black gender and sexual politics that doesn’t really get discussed. We can’t discuss those issues anywhere else, so they get played out in the  sound system space. It circulates as a set of dialogues and discourses, but  because of the culture, we find it difficult to take it out of that space, so that Black men and women can have a real conversation about it. My work on dancehall culture was part of a broader project in my book, about Black  women and freedom, and how in dancehall, there are these contestations over power and regulation. There are rules about how we should conduct ourselves, and I’d like to hear more about what people feel about the gender  and sexual politics in the space of sound system culture.  

CL: On a personal level, when I started in music, I avoided going into reggae music. I went into soul, funk and jazz, specifically because of the experiences of friends and colleagues having sexual harassment in reggae. I want to add another dimension into this sexual politics. To add to Lisa’s point about Hurt So Good, the way Millie Jackson does it is very different to Susan Cadogan’s performance of it. If we look at reggae sonically and acoustically,  lovers rock has particularly privileged high voices, and still today, we do not  get female singers with deep gravelly voices in lovers rock. It’s a kind of  infantilising of women by having a prescribed vocal range for the female voice, and if you don’t have that range, then it’s not lovers rock.  

With the recurring theme of prescribed behaviour, picking up on Denise’s point, the high female voices, and what you do with your body in that space, as Yassmin highlighted, this was challenged by the likes of Sista Culcha, Lorna Gee and Sister Nancy. They broke from that in reggae, but  there hasn’t been a massive legacy from that. So my question is – What is the legacy of that? Is there a legacy? If we think about film, we talk about the male gaze, then we have to think about male ears. The studio is another contested space. I trained to be a sound engineer, not because I wanted to be a sound engineer. It was that being in a studio with all this equipment, I needed to have meaningful conversations with men about the sound I  wanted to hear. I’ve been in situations, like a lot of Black women, where my sound and voice has been manipulated by a male hearing culture. As  women, we are excluded from that space if we cannot engage with that level of knowledge, and understand the means of production, otherwise  men will shape and form us as they wish to present us. We present an  image, but it’s in sound.  

LP: A key issue is how lovers rock gets documented, and how it appears in the reggae anthologies, as Sonia pointed out. We get pleasure from listening to lovers rock, but there is also a tension with the structure of sexual politics that infantilises the female voice and women’s performance. There were also very young girls entering the lovers rock scene. As we know, [the  members of the group] 15 16 17 were actually fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen years old, and Louisa Marks supposedly recorded some of her tracks when  she was fourteen. We have teenage girls entering a production pipeline of  singers. There’s a narrative about the development of lovers rock mainly through the male producer, who becomes the pivotal person through which  the story is told. What has come up as a question in my research is, how  much autonomy did those young women actually have? They’re written out  of the narrative; and when they’re written in with iconic figures like Janet  Kay and Carroll Thompson, and quite rightly so, they’re written as proxies for  the producers, with the exception of Carroll Thompson I should say. This is  on the back of lovers rock being seen as this female form of music.  

SB: Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson have a huge market in Japan, and part  of me wonders whether that wider international market for lovers rock has  sustained their careers, because they can still draw big audiences to their  concerts. I also wonder whether that has had any impact on the longevity of  their careers, where for so many of the women who have been performers  within lovers rock and sound system culture, it’s really difficult to know what sustainability might have looked like.  

DN: That goes back to Carol’s point about legacy, because as Lisa suggests,  women in lovers rock don’t seem to have had very long careers; they’ve be come expendable in a sense. The lovers rock revival concerts now are very  interesting, and how the audiences remain very gendered, and because  the key players in that return, like Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson, seem  to have managed to maintain their careers largely by themselves, outside  of the UK. This begs the question why couldn’t other female artists sustain  their careers inside the UK? 

Taking up Carol’s point about women breaking the mould of a Black  respectability politics that governed lovers rock, I remember us having  long skirts down to our calves. We didn’t dress in a very sexual way at all,  and there might have been a Rasta aesthetic in there as well. Of course,  there was sexuality in lovers rock with couple dancing, but there was also  a containment of women’s sexuality. Meanwhile, other female artists have  broken through, which relates to legacy, because they introduced a form  of empowerment that spoke to the real power that many Black women do  have in Caribbean communities. The nature of that empowerment changed  in moving towards ‘ragga’ and ‘bashment’, with a more explicit form of  eroticism and hypersexualisation in the dancehall that seemed for a while to  be a space of empowerment for women. However, since the early days of ragga, that empowerment has been upsurped by the masculine domination  in reggae dancehall. It feels as though some women’s attempt to break from Black respectability politics, and claim space on their own terms and  celebrate their own eroticism, has become assimilated or re-absorbed into a male conversation. 

CL: Returning to the sexual politics of the past in the dancehall that you brought up, Denise, we were buttoned up with our Farrah Fawcett straightened hair aesthetic, which again reflected what was going on in wider society around dress at that time, just as today there is the strip club and  

hypersexualisation and augmented female form going on in dancehall. In second wave feminist terms, we’re talking about things going back  instead of forward. In lovers rock, we were contained and there were  proscribed things we didn’t do, and then we come to where we are now with Dancehall Queen and Passa Passa, where men are dominating the  space again. For me, the legacy I was asking about was women leading  or running sound systems as operators, toasters, DJs – because I find that  reggae music is sometimes impervious to that. We find women DJs and sound operators in other music genres, but there’s still something quite  rigid within the reggae industry, whether in the Caribbean or here, because  it curtails what women are doing in the music. Given the progress in the music industry, as limited as it is, with a lot of sexism still – where there are  women producers and owners of labels, why does reggae remain so rigid?  

LP: In your own practice, Carol and Yassmin, have you ever been invited  to participate in the clashing culture with another sound, or been part of a  lineup with the big household named sounds, because there seems to be a policing of those boundaries? In Birmingham, there’s a sound called Female Connection: two women who broadcast on a local private radio station, but  they also have their own system.  

CL: I was involved in sound clashes, not with the big sounds like Sir Coxsone, but with sounds like Maccabee and Sir Clifton, and some of the Midlands big sound systems. Me and my friend, Wendy, had to steel ourselves and  psychologically prepare ourselves to go out there, because there’s this  gladiatorial aspect to the clash. It’s very competitive, very male, with points  being scored. We would sing over a dubplate and kill off the other sound,  because they didn’t have singers as good as us. Wendy and I had licks and riddim, and being inspired by Sister Nancy, we wanted the mic. We’d stand in the circle and, at first, they’d ignore us and never pass the mic to us. So, we had to assert ourselves into this ring to get the mic. And when they  saw that we could actually put some lyrics together, then it’s ‘Oh yes, this  makes our sound sound better than the other sound’. But we had a lot of  accusations. ‘What kinda women deh?’ ‘Are they lesbians?’ ‘Wha dem ah  do pon de sound?’ We had a lot of negativity about being women on the  sound, but we just blanked that sort of thing out and literally fought for the  space. 

YF: We’ve never been invited for a clash, but we’ve always put it out there that we are ready for a clash. We learnt from our father what 7-inch to play  after the 7-inch that came before, how to play it, where to cut it, when to  wheel it. It’s not just about putting a record on a turntable. We get kudos if we don’t have a record middle and we use our finger, if we drop one 7-inch  on top another 7-inch, and how quick we do it, how effective can you be. Can you ‘round robin’? This is something we developed. If one of my sisters  says, ‘I’ll be back in a minute’, who’s gonna jump in? Who’s gonna take the  mic? It’s not about having one role, but knowing what everyone is doing –  knowing how the cogs of the wheel work together. 

Going back to the clash, I’ve realised over the past five to ten years that  we don’t need a sound system for a clash, because you can just walk with a box of records, a laptop, or a USB stick. So, what kind of clash are we talking  about? In the last five years, we’ve discovered many more all-female sound systems like Caya from Luton, obviously Nzinga Soundz, Rusty Rebel, even Rasta Queen, who is a lovers rock champion. A sound clash is now just tune for tune. You could get Bounty Killer or somebody to cut a ‘special’ for you,  but the crowd no longer wants to hear specials or dubplates. They want to hear records that they know with lyrics that they know. 

There’s a return to the art of playing music: balancing the amplified  sound and knowing how to play it, knowing how to cut out, knowing when to drop in, knowing that if we’re going to play a CD, it will be completely different to a 12-inch and completely different to a 7-inch. Knowing how to  mix between those different technologies, especially if we have someone  else playing on our ‘set’, and they’re coming with Serato music software or a laptop, we have to know which phono to plug in or out. That, for me, is sound system; but what I’m seeing is women with a case of records, which is also empowering.  

DN: Yassmin, your father taught you about sound system technology, and  maybe other men are just not sharing this knowledge with women? When  you pose the question, what is a clash, I see it as a very macho performance  between men. The dancehall also regulates Black masculinity and reinforces  certain kinds of Black male performativity, and because that doesn’t happen  in isolation from women, inevitably it also regulates Black women’s performativity. So, I’m wondering to what extent are men not passing on the technical skills to women, but also whether they’re holding onto that space of clashing as this male gladitorial arena that they don’t want women in?

CL: Just responding to Yassmin, Papa Shifta, the sound I was on, was seen  as the new generation, because we were very technical in the sense that we had a lot of power, well EQ’d, well calibrated. And we had women in the crew, but we had a very diverse selector: we would mix up jazz with reggae. We would come really left field. The technical aspect is important, because there will always be men who want to focus on how loud or heavy the sound is. But for us, it was also the pre-amps, and how we could make the clear distinction between the tops, mids and the bottom so that it was crystal clear, and make sure the mic sounded criss.  

As women on the mic, me and Wendy, talked about what we wanted  to talk about, not what the men were talking about. We heard about the  struggles Sister Nancy went through, and the attacks and the negativity  she drew simply by being a Jamaican MC. Also, sound systems today are incredibly technical, with Japanese sounds bringing this high level of technicality, but in some ways it’s still very much strongly a male space. 

DN: And dancing has become a gladiatorial arena for women.  

CL: And it’s how much you limber; how much you skin out. I was talking to  L’Antoinette Stines about the whole dancehall, Passa Passa ‘daggering’ and  how it has become a form of gymnastics. But where is the ‘rub-a-dub’? Is couple dancing on the wane? Is it happening in other music genres and club  culture, or is it only happening with a revival-night generation? Are younger  people rub-a-dubbing together? 

DN: Apparently not.

CL: There’s a polarisation nowadays between the generations, whereas in  my time, we really hoped someone would ask us for a rub-a-dub and we  were gonna wear away the wallpaper. But today there’s a polarisation be tween men and women, and they take their space.  

DN: Apparently, young people don’t ‘do’ couple dancing. What they tend to  do, it seems, is a more commodified version, almost strip club type of dancing; not face to face, but women rubbing their backsides on a man’s crotch.  What is that telling us about Black love and Black intimacies, particularly in the UK? 

SB: I’ve been thinking during our conversation about the melancholic side  in a dance, as a female and waiting to be picked. It’s probably that sense of anxiety, and confidence in some ways, that led me to go out to a lot of jazz funk and other kinds of dance spaces, where I could dance in a completely different way. For me, being in that reggae culture was having to wait to be  picked, and I could not stand it.  

CL: I hated it. Give me a turnaround dance any day, where the woman asks  the man to dance.  

YF: I remember seeing women who hadn’t been asked to dance holding  whatever they were drinking to their forehead in this kinda – cyber-dance with themselves – because there’s no one there. Sometimes, women don’t  want to be asked for a dance, because they want dance by and with themselves. I went to a dance at the West Indian Cultural Centre in 2018, and  I remember my elbow being touched, and thinking ‘Oh no!’ I don’t want that. Knowing that there were plenty of women in the room and someone,  somewhere would have accepted that dance. It’s really interesting how I received that ask and the fear that shot through my body. Which was probably because I was with my sisters (Legs Eleven), and my mum who is Rasta. You must be crazy! I know I was made from lovers rock, but I also know that women who may have danced lovers rock in the past may not now. I want to pick up what Carol said about balancing, and thinking about  sounding in the space. Also picking up on what Sonia said about who is  holding the mic, and if it’s a male voice it begins to become a male space, where men will curate the space to suit their needs. And likewise with a female holding the mic – so with lovers rock female voices may create a  more acceptable and comfortable space for women to be in. Also Sonia mentioned about how chatting or emceeing on the mic is not recognized as coming from Jamaica. Edna Manley College in Jamaica had planned a conference for 2020 which was looking at that question, but  obviously it was cancelled because of the pandemic. For instance, Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) is Jamaican born, one of the godfathers of hip hop, and without Jamaica you don’t have hip hop.  

And picking up Carol’s point about L’Antoinette Stines and the gymnastic capabilities of Jamaican female dancers – Why don’t we have a Jamaican gymnastics team? Jamaica needs a gymnastics team! – the infantilisation of the woman also happens in gymnastics, with the younger body more sought after and acceptable for a gymnast. So there’s the idea of the younger female body as a sign for or measure of success.  

I went to the Giants of Lovers Rock concert last year. Did anyone go? The show lasted three hours and in the first half included ten Black British  artists including the queen of lovers rock Janet Kay, Carroll Thompson and Victor Romero Evans. In the second half, there were American soul artists doing their best to sing covers of lovers rock songs by artists who  had passed away, like Sugar Minott and Jean Adebambo – poorly. And this was them reading the lyrics from a piece of paper. Yeah! I think it should have ended with Janet Kay, but instead they went on with artists Melissa Morgan and Jean Carne, who are good soul artists, but they’re not lovers  rock artists. The audience left with a bad taste in their mouths. It made me realise that the phrasing in lovers rock is slightly different to the phrasing in other reggae genres. For example, when they sang a cover of Deborah  Glasgow’s Knight in Shining Armour, the phrasing was off and the backing  singers and the audience were trying to help the lead singer because they  knew it didn’t sound right. 

CL: Picking up on the infantilisation of women’s bodies in the narratives of reggae songs, is the little girl story, where this man is looking for or desiring the little girl. So with my feminist lens burning in, there’s an issue about the actual lyrics in lovers rock and reggae love songs.  

SB: Definitely. After the moment I said that I had sung Hurt So Good in its  entirety to myself, I went into the studio and wrote it down, and I was really shocked at the lyrics. I hadn’t actually understood the lyrics until I wrote it down. 

CL: Millie Jackson’s version takes on a whole different meaning, but with  Susan Cadogan’s version and men who I know like that song, it becomes  this little voice saying it hurt so good, and a different experience.

SB: There is something for me in the way that the sound of lovers rock  hides the content.  

CL: Lovers rock songs are like fairy tales, which are quite ugly though they  seem quite nice. Angela Carter was good at excavating how fairy tales are  horrible, especially for women. If we excavate some lovers rock songs, even  some roots dub songs, we find a female vocal sung high, with the aspirational image of the Empress or Queen longing to go back to Africa. Across  reggae, we need to look at the narratives of songs and how women’s voices  are used sonically.  

SB: But there is also that ‘cul nat’ (cultural nationalist) perspective. I hope I don’t offend anyone here, because I do understand why, but I’ve always had problems with the Kings and Queens imagery and that whole narrative about an idealised monarchy. 

CL: Going right back to the 1920s and 1930s, because of the pernicious  experience of racism, Black people tried to elevate themselves by appropriating royal and aristocratic titles like Duke Ellington, Count Basie or Sir Coxsone. Meanwhile, the codes in Rasta culture are such that women can’t  play drums at Nyabinghi, or they have to wear a long skirt to be modest, or they can’t skank in the middle of the dancehall like the men do.  

SB: I started going to hear Jah Shaka sound when I was eleven, and it was fine for women to run and jump up, and that’s one of the reasons that I loved going. But over time it became more restricted.

CL: You’re talking about the rockers era, when women could do absolutely anything and jump up and go crazy. But you try and do that now at Aba Shanti or Jah Shaka and they would be look at those women strangely. 

DN: There’s an interesting distinction between the dub Rasta sound and  the multi-techno sound. I’ve been to a few Jah Shaka dances, and I like the  dub music. But I’ve just felt quite alienated in those spaces, particularly  with white people jumping around like jack-in-the-boxes! The vibe is off.  It reminds me of the reggae nights at Sussex University which Michael  McMillan might remember, with white students jumping around in a similar fashion. There’s the jazz aesthetic of improvisation in playing around with  sound as in dub. And in a party or a dance, the dub is part of the music. But I can’t connect to the privileging of dub in another space because it seems  to be responding to a different aesthetic, and therein lies a challenge to  myself, I suppose.  

LP: It’s interesting that the women who perform lovers rock found a sustainable career moving into soul, and the obvious example of that is Caron Wheeler, who became the iconic voice and face of Soul II Soul next to Jazzie B. She was able to perform her own music, record her own solo  album, and moving to the US, has had a relatively successful career as an  artist in her own right. 

That connection between soul and lovers rock tends to be done poorly as you described, Yassmin. There’s also the phrasing as you suggest, where you can hear a lovers rock element in the production of tracks by Lauryn Hill  and Missy Elliot. Lovers rock is a Black British art form, but Susan Cadogan was Jamaican, and how does she sit within that genealogy? Lovers rock becomes a Black British form by it drawing on different transnational diasporic music traditions like soul, jazz, reggae, pop.

SB: Lily Allen sings lovers rock, but it’s never called lovers rock. That’s the  genre she’s been ploughing, even though the narrative about what she sings  shifts, for me, she sings directly in that language. I think the question about  the triangular diasporic journeys are very difficult to delineate here, or there. 

CL: There are precedents, though. If you look at the Caribbean as an area,  there have always been romantic love songs coming out of the region. The  Caribbean has a two-way process with radio, people and travel exchanging  music. And with Black American music coming to the Caribbean, whether its country and western, rhythm and blues, the blues or jazz, that has been  going on from the 1920s and 1930s. I think of British lovers rock as part  of a continuum of romantic reggae songs. You can delineate British lovers rock, but there’s always the antecedent of romantic songs coming from  Jamaica, whether that’s Gregory Isaacs or Dennis Brown, and further back  that informs British lovers rock because it has roots elsewhere.  

LP: When we look at lovers rock, and how its documented in the reggae anthologies, it begins to catagorise itself as a very British tradition and that’s what I’m questioning.  

CL: I’m glad you’re questioning it, because in general, whether we’re talking  about books written about hip hop or house or any Black music by predominantly white writers, they never unpack the roots of Black music. They don’t look at threads in the triangular diaspora. We musicians know the threads are there, and we draw on the threads all the time.  

SB: I wanted to drop something in, prompted by something Carol was saying about the sound system she was part of. I’m thinking specifically of ‘blues’, ‘shebeens’ and house parties, that in the middle of the night there would be some track by someone like Barbara Streisand. 

CL: There was a sound in Leicester called Mr Blues from the Windrush  generation, and we would know when he was getting ready to sign off, because he would drop Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares for Me or Mr  Bojangles. 

LP: During my first trip to Jamaica in the early 1990s, I was at my auntie’s  house and I heard them dropping some Rod Stewart.  

YF: Or Michael Bolton.  

DN: Jim Reeves! There are some scholars who have written about the  transnational and diasporic circulation of Black musical influences, but  you’re right Carol, there’s a tendency in journalistic writing about reggae to overlook that. I remember having to correct a colleague in a department of  African American and African Studies when I was working in the US. They  were an African American historian writing a book about hip hop artists, and didn’t know that Busta Rhymes had Jamaican roots.  

I’m also interested in the way that Afrobeat has taken up a big space  within Black popular culture here, and again that’s not new. Importantly, it  connects to the British West African experience, which is also embedded in the Black British experience. It’s always part of a long history of Black music  from the Caribbean, Africa, the US, whether it’s calypso, high life, Afrobeat, jazz, South African jazz – in constant dialogue with each other all the time.  

CL: Sonia mentioned the shebeen which is from South Africa as a drinking  place, with the music of Miriam Makeba, for instance. It was also originally  an Irish word. There are always diasporic links in the culture.  

DN: There’s the politics of these narratives that gets recruited into national  projects. So reggae, having been disowned by middle class Jamaicans for  a long time, then became recruited into a Jamaican national narrative, just  as lovers rock has been recruited into a Black British narrative, while hip hop  has been recruited into an African American national narrative. There’s a political agenda around the nation that tries to capture some forms of music and try to claim ownership of them and control how we understand them. 

CL: And women’s voices are muted in all of this, in the writing and dissemination, as well as the means of production and transmission.  

DN: Grime and Afrobeat are still very masculine in their representation. The same kind of pattern seems to be reproduced despite the importance of women in those spaces.  

YF: Going back to hip hop, which started as funk, soul and break beats. But again it’s a very male-dominated production process. Burna Boy may  be Afrobeats, but his early work sounds like the reggae dancehall of Vybz Kartel. There’s something about that sonic formula which makes people want to dance or move; a global sound the world knows; used by Ed Sheeran,  Rihanna or Drake; everyone knows the formula. They just bombard it with their own narrative without acknowledging the source.  

CL: One of the ways that global music is constructed today includes the Vocoder on the vocals. It is prevalent in Afrobeat and Caribbean music – across all popular music now. That formula is homogenous, to position yourself within a global market. 

DN: I know what you mean, but a bit of me wants to question that. I think reggae gets recruited into that formula, but it also resists it. Reggae sound system culture is always evading being captured by the global market as much as it wants to use global markets. If you think about the way hip hop, soul, R & B have been assimilated into the mainstream of global popular music, there are moments when it seems that the same thing is happening  with reggae, and then it dodges it. 

YF: It depends what you mean by reggae.

CL: UB40 are classed as reggae. 

DN: Yes, you get that, but reggae as a grassroots cultural formation resists  complete incorporation all the time. So you have UB40, but they are doing UB40 reggae. They are not doing… 

CL: Reggae reggae. 

YF: They are not doing roots and culture reggae! 

CL: They are not doing Morgan Heritage. 

DN: Or even bashment [another name for dancehall]. The politics of reggae is always critiquing and going against a range of hegemonies, even as it  creates its own forms of hegemony. 

CL: What I would posit is that bashment and these other musics are always innovating, for example when they make that punctuated beat, which  is used by everyone from Britney Spears. They are always borrowing and appropriating, because the music is always innovating. Our superpower is about rhythm. When artists are looking for the latest rhythm, they know it will be coming from Africa or the Caribbean, but then the sources don’t get the status they deserve.  

SB: I’m agreeing to a certain extent and I want to drop a personal experience in here. I was in mainland China in 2003, and I was in a taxi listening to mainland Chinese reggae. How does one keep something national, whilst recognising the networks simultaneously? It’s difficult to be hard and fast about this. For example, the explosion of reggaeton (Puerto Rican reguetón).  And how much do we claim the progression of that history in the UK, and  why don’t we?  

YF: The Black Music Research Unit headed by Mykaell Riley does amazing  work on bass culture from reggae through to jungle and grime. We’re trying to be creative, but also defend that creativity and at the same time have a legacy and an archive. 

But what I can be sure of is rhythm. I want to talk about polyrhythms, polycentrism, syncopation, because those conversations are rarely explored in white dance spaces, and that’s why you get people jumping up  and down. What I feel as a movement person, a lover of dance, is that not being attentive to musical structures drains my energy in a dance. If I was in a room with people that looked like me, I believe that I would be energized, because there’s something about the retention of sound and the embodied power of music largely intrinsic in Black people. When I see someone who doesn’t look like me, they seem to be expelling, as if they’re getting rid of energy. For me that isn’t what it’s about. It’s about retaining, so when we leave the dance we’re full up of the sound and energy of the people that  we’re with. The dancehall has become a deeply colonised space where I  can go to watch ‘poppy show’.  

CL: I really like that. But I still want to still privilege women in this discussion about sound system culture, because there is still that erasure. How do we  tackle that? Why is it the way it is?  

LP: I think it goes back to the point you made earlier, Carol, about how sound system culture reflects the politics in society. So, in a sense, this is  replicated with Black women in music such as lovers rock. The politics of  erasure for Black women in social and public life is a norm in different spaces, and at different times, which may seem unrelated, yet we see a pattern of expectation that Black women should be erased. And it’s only when we have a conversation like this, where it gets named, that erasure becomes disruptive, and without intervention it continues as a norm, as a replication  of a power structure that we live in.  

And it’s not that Black women themselves are simply colluding with their erasure, but oftentimes we’re just tired and exhausted trying to juggle  so many things at the same time. We just kiss we teeth, and say ‘I can’t  take all of this stuff, I have to pick and choose my battles’. That’s the reality we’re trying to juggle on a day to day basis. That’s one way I think the  erasure continues because it’s an onslaught.  

DN: And because it’s so normalised, if you try to challenge the status quo, we then appear to be carping all the time. Mykaell Riley has been doing  wonderful work, but I went to an exhibition he did some years back and  I was disappointed. There were large scale images representing sound  system culture in the UK and reggae globally. I wondered where were the  women? And in the corner of this huge hall was a tiny row featuring placards about women in sound systems. For me, it felt like an after-thought. I was very disappointed. One of the tweets about the project featured the  top ten reggae hits, and not one woman was in there!  

LP: I found that when I attended some of those sound system conferences, they tended to replicate a colonial structure of knowledge production, where Black women are sidelined as knowledge producers. Yet Black women make music, produce music, perform, participate in sound system culture, but that presence is not taken seriously as an important aspect of the culture.  

And I understand the disappointment you had, Denise, about that exhibition about women appearing to be an afterthought, because even if some  thought is given to having women as part of a conversation, the structure in  which that is set up is often that women are invited into that conversation  rather than being organically part of it without an invitation. We don’t need  an invitation into the very thing we’ve been creating; it’s a part of who we are. It’s not about having a women’s section, because that fails to see that women are intrinsic to sound system culture. To do this means recognising  that sound system culture is an explicitly male space, which produces a way in which the space works. We expect to see a male-led sound system at a dance, we expect to see a male selector. We’re not at the stage yet of  enough disruption of the gendered and sexual politics that organises these spaces.  

DN: I wonder how much what happens in society impacts the erasure of Black women in sound system culture, which also reflects what happens in Black politics and the way the community is overrepresented by the figure of Black masculinity. I don’t think that sound system culture is any different. When people imagine Blackness, they first imagine Black men.  

LP: Building on that point, Denise, I don’t know if anyone saw the images of the Emancipation Day march in Brixton over the weekend via social media?  It was a formation of para-military style like the Black Panther Party with  the berets and dressed in black, in a marching protest style. I suppose it was representing a Black nation ready to defend against the onslaught of  white supremacy, but in fact it was very performative of a symbolic protest that harped back to an imagined version of what Black masculinity was  supposed to look like in the 1960s. And if we could get back to the Black  masculinity of the 1960s, then we could solve some of the problems we  have today. I thought, nah.  

CL: I found that image also troubling, and I want to take up Denise’s point. If we take house music, it isn’t represented as Black music in the UK, but as white music driven by white DJs, when in fact the roots of house music is  Black American. And then in US, we have to search for the women involved  in the songwriting and producing of Black house music.  

If we look at the Black Power or the Black Lives Matter movements, the  initiators and drivers are Black women. Black women in the Black Panther movement were erased and subsumed, but they were the ones turning  up for Saturday morning school runs with the kids, they were doing all the admin, they were the infrastructure as well as protesting. But they don’t  feature like the men in the movement, apart from maybe Angela Davis.  

DN: There’s a retrospective reclaiming of the gender right-on-ness of Black  men in the Black Power movement, claiming, ‘We were thinking about gender all along’, as if to say, ‘We were talking about gender all along’, and then suddenly talking about Black women. It’s a clever revision of history that makes visible women’s activism in the movement now, which many of the  men were not prepared to make visible in the past.  

CL: Olive Morris [Black British feminist activist] was put on Google Doodle,  but there’s still a lot of people who don’t know who Olive Morris was.  

YF: The exhibition that you referred to, Denise, was at the University of  Westminster in Baker Street. The only recognisable image of females was  three women photographed at a dance in a community centre, dressed in  the long skirts of the era and dancing. The only blessing for me is that Sista Culcha was in the that image. There was definitely an under-representation of women, I absolutely agree. Also as Legs Eleven, we were part of  the small exhibition on women in sound system which was first shown at Stratford Library where Lisa gave a talk on lovers rock, but the talk was  held when the library was closed, so we couldn’t view it. We were asked  at very short notice to take part and for the shoot were instructed to wear  black tops and bring a piece of equipment, which for any sound system is  no small feat. However, we brought an original Barracuda pre-amp. Sista Culcha mentioned this pre-amp at Michael McMillan’s panel on Sistas in  Sound System Culture, because she had always wanted one. We felt liberated by the experience, but also feeling like we were an afterthought,  when we saw the final photo and where it was placed in the exhibition. The initial agreement was to receive a copy; however, this did not happen. This experience demanded that we consider our intellectual property, even  when working with people that look like us. So it’s not everyone else who is not valuing us, or perpetuating our invisibility, we are also doing it to  ourselves, as part of a patriarchal system. Some of us try to control what  is represented by monopolising others, and unfortunately that is we will  remember the experience.  

There is also the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd’s killing, but not after Breonna Taylor’s. So I would agree  that Black men seem to be the promoted and accepted representation of Blackness. Where is our value placed as Black women? What are we valued  for? In my experience we’re valued for the ability to empathise and speak up  for others. We’re valued for bringing situations into line, but who is speaking  up for us? Then going back to Beyonce’s ‘Black is King’ – Black is King? So Black is not Queen? Or, Black is not ‘King and Queen’, Black is King. The King on the chess board: he is King, he never changes and will remain King.  Whereas Queen does all the work to make sure that King stays King! So, yes, something needs to be done. Absolutely.

DN: It’s not any Black man, right?!? It’s a very heteronormative patriarchal construction that represents Blackness; so not gay men, not trans men. It’s a very particular and narrow construction of Black masculinity. We have a suturing together of certain ideas of ‘authenticity’ around heterosexual  masculinity and Blackness that work to authenticate each other. At times it  is hard to unfuse them. And women trying to break into that [construction  of Blackness] are often seen as out of place and interrupting a conversation  that we haven’t been invited into yet. 

CL: At the core of the strands of discussion we have raised seems to be  the topic of erasure and how Black women are repeatedly erased. What is  also interesting is when and how they are given a high profile, why and in what way?  

SB: Part of me is wondering how far have we moved on, particularly in the  context of the Civil Rights and the Black Power movements in the US, and  the imagery that continues to dominate? How far have we moved from the  writings of someone like Michelle Wallace, who posits that when we’re  talking about race, we’re talking about Black men, and when we’re talking  about gender we’re talking about white women? Where does the Black  female fit within that dichotomy? Have we evolved beyond that dichotomy,  because Michelle Wallace’s book was written thirty odd years ago? 

LP: I think there has been some moving on in understanding that genealogy of understanding that history. We can look at that conversation and  how it has been historically developed with shifts and changes in different  contexts from the UK to the US to Africa. The points that were being raised then have shaped the discourse of Black feminism, and even on social me dia ideas about Black feminism have popular circulation, even if they’re not always thought through enough, they are still there shaping the discourse. Black Lives Matter is a discourse shaped and influenced by Black feminist thinking and practice. 

The question is how much change has been replicated, how far are we  advanced from the consequences of the violence you were talking about,  Sonia? We haven’t moved far enough from the issue that we’re naming as it  impacts our lives. It hasn’t stopped the erasure, and as Yassmin mentioned,  it hasn’t given us enough of a platform to rally around Breonna Taylor’s life or  Sarah Reid’s life or Sandra Bland’s life. We’re still second guessing whether  that’s even relevant. 

In social media recently, there was a debate about the shooting of the  female hip hop artist, Megan Thee Stallion, by another rapper. Black feminists on social media have argued that nobody is taking what has happened  to her seriously. In fact, it was quite the opposite, as she became the butt  of a joke, rather than focusing on the violence done to her. It was pointed  out that if this had happened to a male artist in the same position, the reaction would be quite different with an outpouring of outrage and sympathy.  Megan Thee Stallion has tweeted that this is her life, of violent attacks;  she’d not long lost her mother, and she spoke of being violently attacked  but it was treated was as something for which she could be ridiculed. So, the situation is uneven. A body of early Black feminist writing is having an  impact on the way we might discuss these issues, and at same time there’s  a limitation to where that takes us.

CL: I did a memorial event for the writer Ntozake Shange. And one of  the speakers, Leighan Renaud from Leicester University, said that when  Ntozake Shange was putting out her production of for colored girls who  have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, Shange received vitriol  and boycotts from the Black community and Black men, because talking  about violence against Black women by Black men was a betrayal and dispersion of the struggle. Even LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], a leading figure  in the Black Arts movement, said that the poet Sonia Sanchez was in, but  Ntozake Shange was out, which reflects how certain Black men and Black people want to police, marginalise and attack Black women physically or verbally.  

DN: The notion that to talk about violence against Black women is to dilute the struggle takes us back to the sexism and patriarchy within Black  communities. We also have to acknowledge that power and authority are gendered masculine and white, and I wonder whether for Black men there  is a way in which claiming power and authority for the Black community is  seen as having to be done through the male figure politically. When Black women claim a perspective within those politics, they get seen as diluting this masculine idea of what politics is. It’s the old idea that Black men must become free first, and then once they are free and empowered they’ll give it to Black women. 

CL: That is not going to work with today’s women’s ‘woke’ generation. That used to be the thinking. But we know today the opposite is true.  

DN: And that won’t work for many Black women now, because as Lisa was saying, the history of Black feminism and Black womanism, and the reality of Black women’s lives means that Black women are not going to go along with that anymore. And yet there seems to be a deep attachment by some Black women as well as many Black men, to the belief that Black  empowerment means empowering the Black man first.  

YF: Carol, ‘woke’ has now been hijacked. Woke is now gone. Alexandra  Burke, the X Factor contestant spoke out about racism and prejudice in  the music industry, and nothing has happened about that, yet Wiley makes  headline news. There is a similarity in what both artists have said about the industry, but we only hear the man’s voice, not the women’s, again. Black women’s voices are silenced unless it becomes useful to someone else’s  agenda.  

DN: From a white colonial gaze, the kinds of power and freedom that Black  women have, just because we have had to just get on with things, are not  seen as a legitimate use of power, done by women. If it is illegitimate for women to have power and authority; then for a Black woman, who is not  seen as a ‘proper’ woman in the white colonial ideal of womanhood, it is  even more illegitimate.  

YF: I would like to hear what Sonia thinks about this. 

SB: There are many things that set themselves up as paradoxes. Historically,  the Black female in popular media, who is sassy and strident, vascillates between male and female. There are questions about what constitutes the  Black female. It’s really interesting in relation to lovers rock how the sound of the voice is really high, almost hyper-female, and the lower range of voices are not feminine enough. There’s something going on there in terms of rightfully claiming Black femaleness, not only in the field of music, but in the  wider cultural political realm. The paradox of the Black woman becoming  masculine, will take some time to unpick, but meanwhile it sits there, taking Black women’s place and contribution towards pushing the boundaries of music. In some ways, I’m thinking about how far we’ve move beyond  the argument Michelle Wallace sets up that race is masculine, gender is feminine.  

DN: It’s about breaking down that dichotomy between masculine and  feminine.  

SB: And going back to the demeanour, the clothes, the waiting to be asked,  if I think about the mid-to-late 1970s, and early 1980s, we all dressed like  how Princess Diana became; really constrained, despite what was actually  going on in those dances and spaces.  

DN: You had to be ‘a lady on the street, and a freak between the sheets!’  

SB: Against the wall, and between the sheets. For me, going to funk, disco, punk spaces and wearing something completely different, we didn’t have to be male or female in these other spaces. There was space to play with the  possibility of being all of those things.  

Coming back to the politics of gender, race and sexuality in the context  of sound system and lovers rock – and I’m not trying to deny the liberatory moment of expressing sexuality, being in a collective space and the revelry that can come with that space, but it being so codified – we could not go  into those spaces looking ambiguous.  

LP: What do you think, Sonia, about the role of Christianity and the church,  and faith practices that were very prevalent at the time? We had Rastafari  and the Pentecostal church. My dad was a Rasta, and my grandmother was a Pentecostal ‘Prayer Warrior’, and between those two faith traditions, there was a very strong conservative presentation. Even though, as you say, there was a liberatory discourse coming from Rastafari. There’s been some work around how Rastafari offers a space for Black liberation but is also wedded to Victorian ideas about respectability, gender and sexuality. There were aspects of that culture impacting on lovers rock music, such as Christianity and Gospel, the church, and the culture of going to church that  feeds into the fashion of that period.  

SB: I would add that whether we’re talking about Rastafarianism or Pentecostal Christianity, and in a way we’re been skirting around this, it’s  the Madonna or the whore. In some ways, these are very old feminist discussions where one has to navigate another dichotomy.  

CL: I’m thinking about Black women’s sexuality and our sexual expression  being curtailed historically. My mother never went to church, but she made  sure we did, and it was implicit that we didn’t sit with our legs open. These rules and codifications are then carried forward into dancehall spaces, and  the Black woman who doesn’t follow these codes is either the bad gal  whore or the good girl Madonna. This was a dilemma that I found for myself and the many of the women I grew up with. Personally, I rejected that later on, because I wanted to express my sexuality in different ways. What is  it like for women in the Caribbean or Africa now, never mind back then, because the control still takes place within the domain of music and music culture? 

DN: I agree with you, but part of the context is to do with the history, particularly in the Americas, especially under slavery and colonialism, when Black women’s bodies could be claimed and exploited by anybody. Part of the Black politics of respectability has been about asserting that Black women had a right not to be used and abused by any and everybody, and at the same time saying that Black men are going to keep Black women for themselves to  protect them from exploitation. In other words, Black men can do what they want, but nobody else can. I remember the case in Birmingham where Black girls were being sexually abused by Asian men. The whole rhetoric was not  about what was wrong with rape, but that it was these Asian men who did it. 

In post war Britain, there was a preoccupation for my mother’s generation, to claim a certain kind of respectability against white British racist stereotypes about Black families generally, and Black women in particular – as anomalous women, bad mothers, bad wives or not wives at all – even worse! In a sense, lovers rock plays into that racialised British gender politics. 


The power of this conversation lies in bringing together Black British women of different generations as participants, practitioners, artists and scholars of  sound system culture. The intermingling of social analysis, cultural history, and the women’s personal experiences of being in the dance, whether as  ravers or sound system operators, offers an evocative, nuanced, and insightful celebration of sound system culture. At the same time, this conversation  also raises important critical questions regarding the place of Black women and Black gender and sexual politics, not only in our collective memories  and discussions of sound system culture, but also in the way we come  to understand the history and development of Black British identities.That  it took a man to bring this public conversation between women together  merits thinking about. It also merits appreciation of the way that this project  contributes to disrupting the absenting of Black women’s empowered presence and knowledgeable voices in Black British narration of reggae sound system culture.  

— Denise Noble 

Edited transcription by Michael McMillan, in collaboration with Sonia Boyce,  Yassmin Foster, Carol Leeming, Denise Noble and Lisa Palmer, of Zoom  conversation in December 2020.  

Sonia Boyce 

Sonia Boyce (OBE, RA) came to prominence as a key visual artist in the  burgeoning Black-British art scene of the early 1980s. In 2016, Boyce was  elected a Royal Academician, and in 2019, she received an OBE for Services  to Art in the Queen’s New Year Honours List. She is currently a Professor at  University of the Arts London, as the inaugural Chair in Black Art & Design.  In February 2020, Boyce was announced by the British Council as the next  artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale 2022.

Yassmin V. Foster 

Yassmin V. Foster is a scholar, artist, academic and sound (system) woman  based in London, UK. She is a proponent of work that challenges the sup position that movement and dance created by black people are unworthy of  scholarly investigation and validity. Yassmin is a Stuart Hall PhD Scholar at  Goldsmiths University, she holds a BA (Hons) Anthropology and Media and  MA Choreomundus – International Master in Dance Knowledge, Practice  and Heritage. She has worked extensively in the arts, culture and education and has presented her research across the UK, and in the US. Her current  research investigates ‘The Kinetic Architectural Experience of Black People Through Lovers’ Rock in Britain, 1970 – 1980’. She champions interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and multi art-form collaborative journeys, whilst advocating for dance as intangible cultural heritage.  

Carol Leeming 

Carol Leeming was awarded MBE as a poet, playwright, and for her contribution to Leicester arts and culture. Carol is hailed as a polymath, a UK  Cultural Olympian of 2012 and a multi-award winning, multi-disciplinary artist  in literature, performing arts and digital media. Carol is a part-time lecturer at De Montfort University. Other roles include singer-songwriter, musician, composer, actor, director, curator, visual artist, and publisher. Carol’s literary work features in The Cambridge Companion to British Black & Asian  Literature 1945-2010. Carol has been published in articles and anthologies including ‘Women, Black Arts, and Brixton in the 1980s: A Conversation’, in  Contemporary Women’s Writing (Oxford).

Denise Noble 

Dr Denise Noble is a cultural sociologist and author of several scholarly publications, including her book Decolonizing and Feminizing Freedom: a  Caribbean Genealogy (2016) which explores Caribbean Black British women’s cultures of freedom as forms of resistance to the coloniality of liberal  freedom. Denise’s work focuses on the entanglements of race, gender and  sexuality in Black political thought and Black cultural politics. In a 35-year academic career, Denise has taught Black Studies, Cultural Studies and  Sociology in both the UK and the USA.  

Lisa Palmer 

Dr Lisa Amanda Palmer is an Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the  Stephen Lawrence Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester.  She was the former Course Director for the Black Studies undergraduate  programme and Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Birmingham City University. Her writing covers a broad spectrum of fields including the gendered politics of lovers rock music, the production of community archives and the misogynoir faced by Black women in British public life. She is co-author of Blackness in Britain (2016) and is currently writing a book on Black women  in the UK’s lovers rock reggae scene.

© Sonia Boyce, Yassmin Foster, Carol Leeming, Denise Noble, and Lisa Palme