Crosses: A Response to ‘Lovers Rock’ by Chris McNicolls

First, crosses. Crosses everywhere. Big and small. This film seems rife with
what appears to be the ultimate Christian symbol. But crosses are ancient
ciphers, they don’t only represent the crucifixion and they don’t only belong
to Christianity. Crosses, crossroads, and crossings, are deeply embedded
in Afro-Atlantic cultures and rituals. (e.g., Robert Johnson, the legendary
blues guitarist is said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroad in
return for his otherworldly skill and technique). The various crosses in the
film not only hold the Christian significance of hope and salvation but also
raise questions of oppression and captivity. (As Martha begins her journey
by bus [out of Babylon?] she observes through a window an old black man
carrying a large white cross on his shoulder, a deliberately emblematic
image that seems to stand Kipling on his head “Take up the white man’s
burden”). These various crosses also function as symbolic passages:
passages of belonging and identity, crossings between worlds,
intersections between past and present (the presence of the past), body
and soul, matter and form, the living and the dead. These various crosses
suggest an alternate cosmology along with alternative spheres and forms
of existence. This, we see in the film’s bold exploration of music and dance.
Second, music and dance. Music and dance are fundamental to this film,
and they seem to be scripted into the film in such a way as to highlight a
kind of movement of return, a kind of passage and return to a more original
time and place, a more heightened spiritual realm that remains
nonetheless deeply rooted in the bodily-material sphere (I’m here reminded
of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal [1939], a work that
evokes a nostalgia for an imaginary homeland of the spirit). Thus, within
the film’s unflinching carnality we also witness a sublime ascent, a crossing
over that takes place through an abstractive movement away from very
recognizable forms, first in the popular song-form (verse/chorus/bridge),
e.g., (“Kung Fu Fighting” (Carl Douglas) “He’s The Greatest Dancer” (Sister
Sledge), “After Tonight” (Junior English), “Mr. Brown” (Gregory Isaacs),
“Silly Games” (Janet Kay), etc. These are all songs with recognizable lyrics
and strong, recognizable melodies accompanied by recognizable body
movements and dance-floor moves (kung fu postures, disco poses , slow
grinds, etc.). But these soon give way to a second, more stripped back,

instrumental, percussive and rhythmically driven minimalist dub aesthetic.
In this deepening of the Afro-British aesthetic, the music is stripped bare of
words and melody and is held in place in the lower register solely by drum
and bass. (“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”).
Guitar and horns and keys are interjected percussively and rhythmically,
and like the dancing that now accompanies it, they appear distorted,
floating in sonic, otherworldly fashion. (This is made to happen through
delay, feedback, and reverb, etc.) And so with “Minstrel Pablo” (Augustus
Pablo), we begin the ascension, the crossing over from the material to the
spiritual, the worldly to the ascetic. Couples give way to individuals dancing
by themselves but within a collective. And the dancing is fierce,
transcendent, the mood majestic and eternal. The song now on heavy
rotation is “Kunta Kinte Dub” by The Revolutionaries. (Remember
“Roots”?) To maintain this ecstatic moment, the record is rewound three
times. By the time the music and the dancing crescendo, arms are lifted
and there is a repeated, collectively euphoric shout of “Jah Ras Tafari.”
(The lifting of the arm in this manner is an old Kongo gesture, a way of
touching the most elevated moment of the sun to gather up the energy and
force of the divine. Yet, this ancient Kongo gesture of the dancers is equally
deeply intertwined with the Christian-Hebraic tradition: “Sing unto God, sing
praises to his name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his
name JAH, and rejoice before him.” [Psalm 68: 4]).
We’ve just been to “church,” an electronically, sound-system driven version
of a “binghi” (an all-night drumming session) and have witnessed a
collective, spiritual transformation.
As the young protagonist Martha boards the bus to return home, who does
she see? That old man again, and he is reassembling that big old white
cross to lift once more on his shoulder. We’re reentering Babylon, but not
quite the same way as when we left.

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