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Reggae Culture as Local Knowledge: Mapping the Beats on South East London Streets

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Narratives from Beyond the UK Reggae Bassline


The chapter focuses on the importance of finding, writing and telling the history of reggae music in the UK and focuses on the New Cross area in South East London where Goldsmiths, University of London, is based and where both authors have studied, taught and lived for much of their lives. This part of London played a significant role in the development of reggae in Britain and is home to important sound systems like Jah Shaka and Saxon Studio. It is where Lover’s Rock records were first made, and many female Londoners sung an ‘ethic of loving blackness’ into being in politically harsh and hateful times. The chapter reflects critically on a decade of experience of taking groups of people for ‘reggae walks’ through this postcolonial landscape and discusses how these community forms of knowledge were collated in an on-line open access map called the ‘Reggae Map of New Cross’. We argue these experiments with telling reggae’s story differently offer more open and inclusive forms of learning, for reggae is simultaneously a form of ‘local knowledge’ and an ‘outernational perspective’ that is both embedding in a place but never confined or rooted to it.

Photos Courtesy Olivia Thompson

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  1. 1.

    See Linton Kwesi Johnson, ‘Jamaican Rebel Music’, Race & Class, 17: 4 (1976), 397–412; Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (London: Hutchinson, 1987); Les Back, ‘“Coughing Up Fire”: Sound Systems in South-East London’, New Formations, 5 (1988), 141–52; Anna Arnone, Sound Reasoning (Brighton: Arandora Press, 2017); Lloyd Bradley, Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King (London: Penguin Books, 2000).

  2. 2.

    The term ‘Bass Culture’ (1980) was first used as the title of an album by the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, released on Island Recordsl.

  3. 3.

    Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993); William ‘Lez’ Henry, What the Deejay Said: A Critique from the Street (London: Nu-Beyond, 2006) for an explanation of the usage of this term as opposed to ‘Afrocentric’.

  4. 4.

    Lisa Amanda Palmer, ‘“LADIES A YOUR TIME NOW!”: Erotic Politics, Lovers’ Rock and Resistance in the UK’, African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 4: 2 (2011), 177–92.

  5. 5.

    Unless otherwise stated, taking a lead from Lisa Palmer, ‘lovers’ rock’ will be used to speak to ‘an integral component of the reggae music landscape of that period’. See Lisa Amanda Palmer, ‘“Men Cry Too”: Black Masculinities and the Feminisation of Lovers Rock in the UK’, for a detailed analysis of the genre and its historical, social, cultural and political worth to contemporary studies of the black presence in post Windrush British scholarship.

  6. 6.

    Lisa Amanda Palmer, ‘The Politics of Loving Blackness in the UK’ (PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 2010), p. 266.

  7. 7.

    June 22, 1948, the passengers aboard the ship HMT Empire Windrush who had made the 8000-mile journey from Jamaica, Trinidad and other ports of call, disembarked at Tilbury Docks in Essex. This is where the name of the current political scandal involving ‘The Windrush Generation’ is derived from, which is an aspect of the UK Government’s ‘Hostile Environment’. For an insightful account on the experiences of Caribbean migrants in Britain see Jack Webb, Roderick Westmaas, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and William Tantam (eds), Memory, Migration and (De)colonisation in the Caribbean and Beyond (London: University of London Press, 2020). Downloadable Pdf:

  8. 8.

    To access the map online type into a search engine: ‘Reggae Map New Cross, Les Back and Lez Henry’.

  9. 9.


  10. 10.

    Mykael Riley featured in The Story of Lovers’ Rock (dir. Menelik Shabazz, 2011).

  11. 11.

    Maggie O’Neill and John Perivolaris, ‘A Sense of Belonging: Walking with Thaer through Migration, Memories and Space’, Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture, 5: 2–3 (2014), 327–38.

  12. 12.

    Henry, What the Deejay Said, passim.

  13. 13.

    Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 93.

  14. 14.

    Ibid., p. 115.

  15. 15.

    Adam Reed, ‘City of Details: Interpreting the Personality of London’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 8 (2002), 127–41.

  16. 16.

    Gail Lewis, ‘From Deepest Kilburn’, in Liz Heron (ed.), Truth, Dare, Promise: Girls Growing Up in the Fifties (London: Virago, 1985), pp. 213–36.

  17. 17.

    Lezlee Lyrix, Ghettotone Sound System 1983, cited in Henry (2006, p. 15).

  18. 18.

    Shauneen Pete, ‘Meschachakanis, A Coyote Narrative: Decolonising Higher Education’, in Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nişancioğlu (eds), Decolonising the University (London: Pluto Press, 2018), p. 177.

  19. 19.

    See Henry, What the Deejay Said for an in depth explanation of this.

  20. 20.

    See William Henry, ‘Jah Shaka’, in A. Donnell (ed.), Companion to Contemporary Black British Culture (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 155.

  21. 21.

    For more details see

  22. 22.

    See New Beacon Books, The New Cross Massacre Story: Interviews with John La Rose (London: New Beacon Books, 2011).

  23. 23.

    See ‘13 Dead Nothin Said Exhibition’, 2017,

  24. 24.

    This can be heard on Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Making History album, released in 1983 on Island Records.

  25. 25.

    John Goto, Lovers’ Rock (London: Autograph, 2013).

  26. 26.


  27. 27.

    Joan Douglas, personal communication, March 2020.

  28. 28.

    The Story of Lovers Rock (2011).

  29. 29.


  30. 30.

    ‘Tru Reggae Story’, interview with Dennis Bovell, Summer School project (2006: Nu-Beyond Learning By Choice).

  31. 31.

    The Story of Lovers Rock (2011).

  32. 32.

    The poor treatment of artistes in reggae is a highly contentious point and space does not allow for an in depth analysis of it here, but some insight can be gleaned from the film ‘The Story of Lovers Rock’ (2011).

  33. 33.

    Dennis Bovell, personal communication, November 2018.

  34. 34.

    Lisa Palmer, p. 183.

  35. 35.

    For an in depth analysis of this cultural phenomena, see William Henry, ‘Shades of Consciousness: From Jamaica to the UK’, in Ronald E. Hall (ed.), The Melanin Millennium: Skin Color as the 21st Century International Discourse (Michigan: Springer, 2013).

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Henry, W.‘., Back, L. (2021). Reggae Culture as Local Knowledge: Mapping the Beats on South East London Streets. In: Henry, W.'., Worley, M. (eds) Narratives from Beyond the UK Reggae Bassline. Palgrave Studies in the History of Subcultures and Popular Music. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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