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Lovers Rock: when Sade reunited with her first love

While the roots of reggae are deeply anchored in Jamaica, it is in Great Britain where the ancestry of the genre has partly relocated. Twenty years ago, British-Nigerian soul icon Sade paid homage to a British subgenre of reggae with a homecoming album, Lovers Rock.

“I think our songs get lost in how people perceive them and how they get listened to. I didn’t want this record to be smoothed out. I wanted it to be rougher,”  Sade proclaimed when Lovers Rock was released in 2000. The British group, who have captured the hearts of more than just a single generation from its inception in the ’80s, have too often been overlooked. Perhaps by the glamorous image of its lead singer and their first big hits, such as the everlasting “Smooth Operator”, overlooking the fine sophistication in their music. To the ears of many, this ultra-chic, jazz-tinged R&B, which went against the trends of its time, was nothing but an “easy listening” soundtrack for loved-up couples (slightly exaggerating here, but you get the idea). In 1993, after having blessed us with her fourth album Love Deluxe, now almost unanimously recognized as her true masterpiece, the enigmatic star retired from music to reconnect with her life behind the scenes, away from the media fanfare. In this time, her bandmates – guitarist and saxophonist Stuart Matthewman, bassist Paul Denman and keyboardist Andrew Hale – started a new project named Sweetback and in 1996 released, a too often forgotten, exhilarating self-titled album.

Following a sabbatical in Jamaica, which formed a nascent relationship with reggae producer Bob Morgan, the birth of her first child and a shower of gloomy rumors,  Sade eventually found herself back within music in the same way as she had left it: with utmost secrecy. In the meantime, the pop music game had been completely reshuffled. Suffice to say, the smooth and silky sounds of Sade and her band were no longer the standard in the industry, as Beyoncé and others prepared to conquer the top of the charts, re-shaping its image with flashy, pop-centric R&B. “I don’t think we’ve ever been ‘in’ date,” recalls Sade in an interview with The Fader in 2000. “I think we’ve been out of date from the start.” A somewhat surprising comment, coming from an artist who’s sold over 50 million albums worldwide. Eight years on from the release of Love Deluxe, the singer continued to prove her disregard for trends by drawing inspiration from an important soundtrack to her own teenage years as well as for a whole section of London’s black youth in the ’70s: “lovers rock”.

Sade – Lovers Rock

Behind the charming term “lovers rock”, lies a romantic style, not that of rock, but of reggae: a UK-based offshoot that emerged from the large influx of men and women arriving from the British West Indies to help rebuild the country after World War II. These Caribbean migrants (mainly from Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago) would later be referred to as the “Windrush generation”, in reference to the name of the ship which docked in Tilbury in 1948, boarding the first workers from the former British colonies. In addition to making a massive contribution to industrial production, new health services and public transportation, their contribution to culture has been considerable. By bringing their music along with their belongings, they introduced and later, adapted reggae for the British audience. As early as the end of the sixties, DJs, producers and singers began playing a softer, sensual, orchestral and more feminine style of reggae through sound systems across the country, with London at the epicenter of the phenomenon. Under the banner of “lovers rock”, the distinction is clearly made from Jamaican “roots reggae” and the social and political ideology that it was generally associated with. Just like in Jamaica, sound systems became the main channels of spreading this new sound among the working class, and in addition make it possible to reach new audiences and seduce British youth culture. This marked the beginnings of a society integrating at a troubled time, when the reception of these foreign workers was not particularly warm, made evident through discrimination and racial tension.

Inspired by the flourishing multiculturalism which continues to open up in the British territories, Sade Adu was rocked by lovers rock at a young age, as well as by the great North American soul voices such as those of Donny Hathaway or Marvin Gaye. “I’ve always loved sweet lovers rock music because it’s soft, straightforward and unpretentious. That influence has always been there,” recalls the singer, whose first contact with the genre takes her back to being eleven years old and moving to the rhythms of ska in her hometown of Colchester. By putting an end to a seemingly endless hiatus for the time, Sade opened up a new chapter in her discography with Lovers Rock. A mature and stripped-back album, where the bittersweet love songs for which she is famous for, strike deeply into the heart of the listener. “It’s less about the surface and more about the roots,” Sade would go on to comment when the album was released.

overs rock sound systems in London in the 1970s, from the compilation booklet for Lovers Rock in the UK 1975-1992 on Soul Jazz Records.

Glancing at the cover of the album, you can catch a glimpse of the introspection that makes up the essence of Lovers Rock. In obvious continuity to previous albums’ artwork, Sade Adu is photographed in low profile, while visibly in her thoughts, this time however escaping our gaze. A snapshot that immediately sets the tone for the album. Throughout the eleven tracks, the enigmatic artist paints an impressionistic picture of the intimate reflections that accompanied her eight-year period of absence. You can hear the depth of pain following a breakup on the heart-wrenching “King of Sorrow” and “Somebody Already Broke My Heart”. Then the joy found in motherly love with the lullaby “The Sweetest Gift” and the power of unconditional love on “All About Our Love”. As is often the case in Sade’s work, these are humanistic themes, approached with the same tenderness. Naturally, she pays a poignant tribute to the courage and spirit of resilience of her African ancestors on “Slave Song”. “[It’s] a song I’ve always wanted to write but I was skeptical, because it’s a big issue to address in a song,” she said in an interview with Vibe Magazine. “One day we started jamming on it in a really dubby way, and I started to feel the weight of the sea and what it must have been like on the journey over to America. Then I thought of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and thought, ‘Well, what is my point here?’ I knew if I stayed true to that song, it would all work out.”

Sade – Slave Song

Sade also draws on her family history by recounting her Nigerian father’s experience of everyday racism on the moving song “Immigrant”. She also highlights the dignity that characterizes first-generation migrants, including her father. “My mother told me about how, when my father first came to England they’d be shopping and she’d noticed how the guy in the store didn’t want to touch his hand [when giving him change]. That affected me a lot,” revealed the native of Ibadan, Nigeria, in the same interview.

Over twenty years on from its release, the emotional storm that quietly shelters Lovers Rock has not lost any of its power. And Sade’s heartfelt reinterpretation of this music genre, to this day remains one of the most vibrant tributes to reggae for tender hearts and deep minds.

Listen to our Lovers Rock playlist on Spotify and Deezer, featuring some of the best of the genre from yesterday and today, both British and Jamaican.

© Albert Watson