Guest post by Marissa J. Moorman.
Babylon opens with protagonist “Blue” running through London streets with his friend Ronnie. Bags held tight to their chests, they jump over curbs and dodge cars in snaking traffic. Seeing two young men, one black, one white, running through gray London you might think they are running from. But, a few scenes later, we learn that they are running to. Ducking into a side street, they run and then hop into the truck their crew has loaded with sound system equipment for a performance. In Babylon running is both a strategy and a necessity. It’s one that Jamaican immigrants and their black British children learn in order to manage racism and xenophobia. It’s one the children learn young. Several minutes in, “Blue,” who at home is called “David,” crumples when his mother knocks on his door and says, “I need your help with your brother. He run away from me yesterday. Take him to school.”
Franco Rosso’s 1980 British reggae film Babylon was re-released in 2019 and is finally available in the U.S. through Kino Lorber Films. Featuring the co-founder of the reggae band Aswad, Brinsley Forde, as “Blue” and a soundtrack by reggae great Dennis Bovell (longtime collaborator of dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson), the film was co-written by Rosso and Martin Stillwell (of Quadrophenia fame) and shot by Chris Menges (who would go on to win an Oscar for cinematography on The Killing Fields).
Babylon weaves love, music deals, and a battle of sound crews with the tensions, violence, and racism that constitute everyday life in South London. Midway through the film, when “Blue” walks leisurely along the streets, window shopping and enjoying the quiet of the wee hours, he is cornered by police for, well, being black (in white supremacist spaces, black looking often constitutes theft). He runs. He runs from them. He runs into the dawn. And then they catch him and beat him up. The police abuse the film depicts is precisely the kind that led to the Brixton riots in 1981, a year after the film was released.
The film traces intergenerational relations, the struggles of immigrant families, the violence and racism of white working-class Londoners, and the spaces black British created to thrive despite the violence. In this, music is key.
Sound systems, like running, are a form of embodiment. In fact, “Blue” and Ronnie run to the truck precisely to catch the sound. To build, play, and repair sound systems requires mastery and expertise. The same expertise and right to control his labor that “Blue” asserts (and that results in his firing) is also evident in how he spins and MCs. It’s there too in how the crowd dances, the control over the body that makes movement look easy, that hides the friction of practice, and the racism of the streets outside.
Big in size and sound, the equipment mediates the music, embodies and transmits the sound, delivering it to the bodies that swell and energize the space. These are what scholar and sound artist Julian Henriques calls “sonic bodies.” In a sense, they are inseparable from the equipment, rely on its mechanics and distortion to express and re-form experience. At one point, holding his friend Beefy back from attacking their racist neighbors who’ve been hurtling racist invectives and bottles, “Blue” pleads with him saying, “They don’t think twice about throwing us out of the garage! If they throw us out the sound is finished, man. Where do we keep the sound, Beef?” The sound is immaterial but activates objects and bodies. In Babylon, black Brits resist and live in sound and as sound.
The other film in the Music Films series, Carlos Saura’s Fados, screens on Dec. 9.
Marissa J. Moorman is Associate Professor of African History and Cinema and Media Studies. She was the 2019 faculty director of the Mellon Global Popular Music Platform and curated the Music Films series.