Tuesday, February 04, 2014

John Goto - Lovers Rock: Lewisham portraits from 1977

In 1977, John Goto was teaching evening classes at Lewisham Youth Centre. He took a series of portrait photographs of people dressed up ready for the dance hall at the Centre which 36 years later have seen the light of a day in a remarkable book - Lover's Rock.

1977 was a heavy year in a heavy period for young black people in South London. It was the time of the Lewisham 21 Defence Committee, set up to support youth accused of street robberies arrested by police in a series of raids.  The time too, in August of that year, of the racist National Front marching from New Cross to Lewisham and a riotous counter-demonstration. But it was also a period of cultural and musical ferment, and the time of lovers' rock. In a recent interview, Goto explains:

'I chose this title because it refers to a musical form that’s specific to South London where it originated. Lovers’ Rock was the first British Afro-Caribbean musical form to grow out of this country. It took reggae and developed a new genre from it. The general argument was that reggae had moved into a roots reggae phase, which was Rastafarian-based. It was very political and it was heavy. The argument is that for young people who had grown up in Britain, this didn’t really strike the chord that it might, because they had different cultural roots… [Lovers' Rock] was a much more melodic kind of music, softer, and much more inclined towards women. There are arguments about this; the standard line is that it was apolitical in relation to roots reggae’s political radicalism. This was supposedly music for the women – the way that you danced to Lovers’ Rock involved very close dancing. The counter-argument is that it was political – these overt displays of sexuality in themselves were a kind of radical statement by women of that time. So there are conflicting views about its social significance. My portraits were taken on dance nights in a youth centre where as a young artist I was teaching evening classes. The type of music that was being played at these events was probably a mixture – I don’t remember exactly – of Lovers’ Rock and roots reggae…'

© John Goto 

As Paul Gilroy writes in his 'There is Love in the Heart of the City', his text to accompany the photographs: '1977 was the year that the two sevens clashed. That summer, as the seventh day of the seventh month approached, London’s hatches were being battened down for more than a mere reprise of the previous year’s rioting.Gregory Isaacs’ heavy, Upsetter-produced anthem ‘Mr. Cop’ sat at number one in the Reggae chart just above Denis Alcapone’s exhortatory toast ‘Brixton Hall’. (...) Denis’ echo-laden, opening lyric, ‘I am standing ten feet tall in a Brixton hall, with my back against the wall, but I ain’t gonna fall yaaaaaah’, captured all the edgy violence of the profound moment of realignment that is registered so beautifully in John Goto’s extraordinary portraits of young South Londoners readied for a night out... After 35 years, Goto’s portraits have acquired special gravity. They are powerful and important for the explicit challenge they present to the rules of racial interpretation'.

© John Goto 

You can buy the book, published by Autograph ABP, here, and check out many of the portraits at John Goto's site.

The legendary Lover's Rock label was based in Dennis Harris's studio at 13 Upper Brockley Road, SE4.

Black Pride by Brown Sugar (Lover's Rock, 1977)




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