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content warning: physical and religious abuse
her starkly, darkly dazzling presence has rippled ferociously through the world. she's a velvet-clad blade, "'a question mark followed by an exclamation point,'” a "witch with a smear of blood on [her] cheek” (Jones and Morley, 128). baring her teeth, breasts, and soul in a lifelong endeavor towards unapologetic self-possession, Grace Jones puts the "icon" in "iconoclast."
i can't recall the exact moment i first learned of Grace Jones -- it would be like trying to pinpoint where the first drop of rain lands in a storm -- but i know for certain that her look was well-familiar to me before i ever recognized the contours of her sound, even in her most famous songs like "Pull Up to the Bumper" or "Slave to the Rhythm." her immaculate deep brown skin, her avant-garde sense of style, her unwavering gaze: they all found me before her songs or her story.
it wasn't until my dear friend Twinkle gifted me Grace Jones' autobiography that i challenged myself to develop a much deeper appreciation for her personhood and body of work. named after the opening lyric to her song "Art Groupie," I'll Never Write My Memoirs invites us into Grace Jones' personal life on her terms:
"If you want me, this is me. Not the caricature of me. This is the deeper me, the other me, and there are other me’s I’ve not even thought of. But I’ll get to them. I’ll keep following the trail I left behind and find out where I’m going next. I’ve got one life to work with and I’ll squeeze it dry before I’m through" (Jones, x).
every time i pick up the book, i do it like i'm handling a precious item, and i am! Twinkle took the time to read it and hide thoughtful annotations on scrap paper throughout the pages, so if i'm not careful, i'll dislodge the notes from their rightful places. i feel so loved and understood every time i encounter my friend's words among Miss Jones'. beyond this though, the book represents a sacred opportunity to extend more complexity to someone i'd adored, but unintentionally flattened.
in anticipation of her birthday* yesterday, i spent the last few weeks reading this memoir and listening to her full discography, enjoying an extended celebratory prelude for all the lives she's lived. Taureans are typically characterized as headstrong pleasure-seekers who love the sensual and the sensational just as much as the steady and comfortable, and that is her to at T. though it's old news that she's a Taurus, no one can say for certain exactly how old Grace Jones is, not even her, not that it matters.
"Time for me is an energy. I'm another energy, and the two energies wrap around each other. The present can seem as distant as the past, which can seem as close as the present. The most exciting thing is what happens next, even if it has already happened" (Jones, 3).
along with her disregard for linear time, it's been a delight to see much of my own narrative reflected in hers: growing up in New York a child of Caribbean immigrants; irreverence towards the trappings of gender; predilection towards melodrama, nudity, and mind-opening substances; an exterior oft-perceived as intimidating that obscures a sensitive core; the flair for thwarting respectability simply by showing up. she my spiritual kindred for real!
her efforts to be both seen and heard (not solely the former) correlates to her repressive upbringing in a devoutly Christian household in Jamaica. to borrow biblical parlance, Mas P, Grace Jones' step-grandfather, spoiled no child by creating viciously abusive environment, doing his best to strike the fear of God in Jones and her siblings after their parents left for the United States. outside of frequent physical beatings, Mas P used his steely, threatening gaze to intimidate the Jones children: "If you saw Mas P, there was something in his eyes that revealed how angry he could get. You can se the spite, the intensity. You can really feel that fire had descended to the earth" (Jones, 25).
because religious rules and conventions were enforced with physical violence and intracommunal surveillance (church members reported perceived transgressions to Mas P), defiance became Jones' calling once she rejoined her parents in America. rejecting all that she had been taught in the church was her first claim to self-actualization, to being born again as the envelope-pushing chanteuse we have come to admire.
"I didn't start to doubt God, or faith, or the belief. I never had a distinct moment when I turned on the religion that had been tightly wound around me squeezing the freedom out of me. I didn't have a moment of revelation, that it was all nonsense, or dangerous, or superstitious. I started to want to find things out for myself. I wanted to have my own experiences. And it was in environment, snagged by all the strictness, that I began to discover pleasure in rebellion--rebelling against authority was not necessarily a method of establishing independence, but it was one of the few pleasures I could find for myself. For me, expected from a very young age to follow the rule or else, being naught became a great pleasure. I've never lost that reeling of taking delight in a certain amount of mischief" (Jones, 35).
she split her time as a teenager and young adult between New York and Philadelphia, finding herself within various life-changing experiences: stretching her consciousness with LSD, having her first crushes, surviving anti-Blackness and police repression. she also underwent a name change. she used to go by her middle name Beverly in Jamaica, but American teachers re-Christened her during roll call by choosing her first name instead, inadvertently affirming her desires to make herself anew after fleeing Mas P's clutches. names are destiny, so she opened herself to be a vessel for beauty, an expression of fluidity and adaptability, an offering of redemption.
"I landed in America as Bev, and then set about becoming Grace. With a vengeance. But Bev has not totally gone even now. That's why I still say that prayers protected me. There is still Bev the believer, and there always was, whatever I got up to, however much I chased experience, however much I lavished myself with pleasure and adventure...I was desperate to escape the church, to escape the punishment, but even as I feld, there were still inside me the remains of faith. They're still there. I know where I am Going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God's grace." (Jones, 176)
Jones ventured more resolutely into modeling after trying out stage work with theater professor Tom Fingeshu during her time at community college. her striking beauty unexpectedly exiled her in American and European modeling worlds alike, from the vehement distaste she received from Wilhelmina after shaving her head (thus highlighting her supposedly unmarketable features), to Johnny Casablanca's refusal to send her out on jobs in Paris because "'selling a black model in Paris is like trying to sell them an old car nobody wants to buy.'" (Jones, 107) her unconventionality would eventually become irresistible, particularly through the auspices of Issey Miyake who made her the lead of his 1976 runway show that featured twelve Black models. before that night, she expressed to Miyake that she didn't want to fit into any one box -- "not a singer, not a model, not a dancer, not an actress, not a performance artist: all of that together an therefore something else. That's why he set [her] up as the leader of the show, to help [her] work out how to be more than only a model" (Jones, 136).
she manifested precisely what she asked for because she soon became one of disco's darlings, gaining mythic status for her electrifying renditions of "I Need A Man" and "Send in the Clowns," both included on her debut album Portfolio. her re-interpretation of Edith Piaf's "La vie en rose" struck out as the leading hit from Portfolio, even though the slowed acoustic guitars and unadulterated rawness set the song apart from more digestible disco grooves.
one of her songs that first stuck with me years ago was "All On a Summer's Night" from her second album Fame. its sultry overtures capture the headiness of a spontaneous mid-July romance. the below performance is audacious and tastefully ostentatious, featuring rhythmically writhing atop a statue of a horse while clad in a sequined bodice, still somehow looking effortless the whole way through.
one of the other songs i first loved was "On Your Knees" from Muse. this album starts with a suite of four religiously-titled tracks, which narratively hearken back to her upbringing in the church before deviating into standard disco fare. then comes the final track which seems like it might borrow from the same Christian influences, but it's less about praying to a merciful god than it is telling a partner to beg for forgiveness after they've scorned you. danceable in its demand for supplication, the song often had the opposite effect, lifting people up onto their feet to dance the night away.
in the above performance, Jones stands implacable and nearly immobile in all black as she hypnotically warbles the first two verses. once breakdown arrives, she casts off her floor-length cape, revealing a lavish, leggy bodysuit with fabric piled high on her shoulders. the dancers on her left and right twist and spin on the floor as the backup singers urge them on: get down on your knees when you crawl, baby/let me see you plead, beg, crawl, baby get down.
as much as i love Grace Jones' disco sound in the trifecta of albums she released from 1977 to 1979, she reveals the frustrations that surrounded those projects in her memoir:
"[Portfolio, Fame, and Muse] all followed the same formula--the thumping dance, the showboating Broadway, some inevitable French spice, the glossy, tightly arranged Philly frills. There were songs and medleys that were souvenirs of the Studio 54 era, and they had titles the referred to my modeling career and to my association with artists and photographers. I was becoming the decoration, and I was getting bored with that" (Jones, 205).
with the exception of "La vie en rose," Jones will rarely perform songs from these albums, likely because of her distaste for the trite, corporate-coated product that disco was turning into. Muse was the last album released before the genre officially fell out of mainstream favor, and her next project Warm Leatherette moved her into the New Wave, a sound which combined "the erotic French side, the acid tripping rock ‘n’ roller, the Jamaican drum and bass, the androgynous android electronics" (Jones, 212). the album primarily features rousing, reggae-laced re-imaginations of rock songs like "Private Life" and "Breakdown" that are charged further by the distinctively deep tones of her voice. she released two more albums with Compass Point Records -- Nightclubbing and Living My Life -- thus producing her second sonic triptych, with each album featuring more original songs than the last.
her androgynous aesthetic expanded to match her changing sound during the 1980s: the crisp flat-top fade became her signature, and she "...[exaggerated] her features with makeup, often darkening her skin with an iridescent purple and overemphasizing her bone structure, eyes, and lips to look almost alien." (Barnes, "Living My Life: Grace Jones Performing Undecidability of Fear and Desire"). Grace Jones' romantic relationship with Jean-Paul Goude, a white French multimedia artist, influenced much of her output with Compass Point Records. many of the enduring images of Grace Jones from this time were his creations, ranging from all the album cover art to their collaboration on the concert video One Man Show.
"We never discussed [One Man Show] being about blackness, or femininity, or masculinity, about the breaking of certain taboos and traditions. The power of a black female entertainer being so confrontational in a world where that meant you didn't challenge or provoke was not something we set out to do, and maybe that's why it was seen as so challenging and provocative. We were not limited by thinking there were barriers to break down. We didn't even consider the barriers. As far as we were concerned, we were so far on the other side of any barriers that we never even though of them. We were after a kind of freedom to experiment with performance, and we could do that more by not limiting ourselves to any categories. I was a human being, and more than anything we were seeing how far you could stretch being human before it became something else altogether" (Jones, 261).
i watched One Man Show for the first time the other night and found myself enthralled by the immersive forty-minute performance. i will admit that i'm not on board with all the ways she attempted to reclaim power from racist ideologies: for example, the concert opens with her descending a grand staircase while donning a gorilla costume before she shocks the audience into "Warm Leatherette" with a percussive blast. i'll always question the necessity of re-appropriating blatantly anti-Black stereotypes since satirical intent can easily get lost in the shock value; that said, One Man Show is an inimitable, boundary-breaking piece of work that should have won the Grammy it was nominated for. in a myriad of other ways beyond the jarring opening display, "Jones works from the inside by subverting, disrupting, and deconstructing the historical fantasy/spectacle of negrophilia, that simultaneity of repulsion and arousal, of fear and desire" (Barnes, "Living My Life: Grace Jones Performing Undecidability of Fear and Desire").
unfortunately, Jones' desire to transcend traditional conceptions of blackness and womanhood didn't necessarily protect her from misogynoir, not in the industries to which she belonged, and certainly not in her partnership with Jean-Paul Goude.
"It turned out he was born on the same day as Mas P, and it turned out that, like the church, he wanted me to be perfect. He could make me perfect by turning me into an illustration, a sculptire, a video, a special effect, a record sleeve, a stage show, a car commercial. He could create, and constantly modify, an illusion, plant me into a flawless phase. of glamour midway between machine-ness and she-ness. He wanted me to be perfect. He wanted me to represent An Ideal. As with the church, it was an awful lot for me to live up to. Prick me, and I bleed." (Jones, 228)
two-dimensional and easily manipulated, images demand less than their subjects. there are only lines and color where needs and desires once entered. Goude's growing fetishism towards Blackness precluded his ability to treat Grace Jones as a full human, which led to the eventual dissolution of their union after the show's completion. as much as she admired Goude's work, she was ensnared within it. the same could be said for her experiences in Hollywood, where the roles she took were overblown portrayals of her public persona. thanks to my bestie Charlie putting me on last year, i saw Grace Jones in Boomerang as the mercurial, hypersexual socialite Strangé. in her memoir, she recounts how the filmmakers "were amassing information about [her] when they were writing the role because they wanted the character to reflect who [she] was...Stories about [her] behavior to build up a cameo from real life, even though what they ended up with is as far removed from real life as you can imagine." (Jones, 296).
i remember saying something along the lines of "She's basically playing herself!" as she heightened the absurdity of every scene Strangé was in, but i realize now that sentiment came from a place of believing the commonly-held misconceptions of Grace Jones' actual character. what she did was choose to relish in the "loopy, sex-mad caricatures" she was offered in Hollywood instead advocating for portrayals closer to the truth, because they ultimately shielded her sanity. the deeper she went, the more she realized Hollywood was an industry that would demand too much creative compromise, an extension of the objectification she had already suffered.
she found an oasis in Slave to the Rhythm, the concept album produced with Trevor Horn, but her experiences with Capitol Records while creating Inside Story and Bulletproof Heart unfortunately relegated her to the realm of restricted independence once again. executives sabotaged her vision and downplayed her skills, which was more than enough to dissuade her from releasing music for nearly two decades before she came out with Hurricane in 2008 (possibly my favorite project of hers, as hard as it is to choose). during that time, she directed her attention to sharing her art in other ways, as well as mourning the deaths of several close friends and collaborators: Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Alex Sadkin, to name a few.
as a Taurus, Grace Jones is represented by The Hierophant (V) in tarot, counterpart to The High Priestess (who i covered in my tribute issue to Nina Simone). like the High Priestess, the Hierophant sits between two pillars of truth, but their Divine knowledge is externally directed instead of internally situated. The Hierophant is positioned to transfer their knowledge to the kneeling students, the crossed keys at their feet connoting their role as religious gatekeeper.
Grace Jones was once crouched at Mas P's feet, finding subjugation instead of prayerful purpose in her position. Mas P's authoritarian reign was presumably intended to initiate the Jones children into a sanctified life, but the terror he wrought undermined his plans, driving Grace instead to reclaim her autonomy by any means necessary. in Ancient Greece, the hierophant "symbolically cast his former name into the sea" upon assuming his position, much like Grace Jones outwardly rid herself of her childhood name after traversing the Caribbean waters.
bringing the essence of The Hierophant in reversal, Jones' ascension to the throne in her own rite required subverting, not following, the traditions violently imposed upon her mind, body, and spirit. furthermore, the number five represents change and disruption, a welcome inversion of the old to devise something new, like how she took Mas P's chilling stare and adopted it in her own performances: "That was my way of dealing with this monster--turn it into something he would have been horrified by. I threw it back in his face even if he never knew it" (Jones, 274).
we can also revisit "On Your Knees" in The Hierophant's context, considering how dampened crowds of outcasts would pack the floors of underground clubs when this song poured from the speakers. the accompanying video uncannily resembles the card, showing her in full command of the stage between two staircases before she pulls several audience members to their knees, who gratefully receive the message she has to impart. in an instant, a holy yet debauched dominion of Grace takes hold. by giving herself the full-bodied permission to be different, she snatched the keys and opened up countless doors for people of all backgrounds to do the same.
she refuses to kneel ever again to the whims of patriarchy or profit, prioritizing her principles and passions above all else. tarot deck architect A. E. Waite describes the Hierophant as a "channel of grace belonging to the world of institution as distinct from that of Nature, and he is the leader of salvation for the human race at large." be they sacred or profane by your own estimation, the multi-hyphenate mysteries Grace Jones unlocked undeniably stand the test of time.
an icon is a visual symbol that courts adoration, but reducing someone to simply an image produces distortion at best, exploitation and violence at worst. we may grow enamored with her image, mais c'eci n'est pas Grace Jones. Grace Jones is a living testament to artistic integrity and imaginative decadence, she is "a formlessness that engulfs all form" (Jones, 380). she doesn't just flow ahead of the current, she is the current, beckoning for us to keep up if we dare try.
"Strangé It Stinks So Good!" clip from Boomerang
"All On a Summer's Night" by Grace Jones
I'll Never Write My Memoirs by Grace Jones (as told to Paul Morley)
"On Your Knees" by Grace Jones
One Man Show by Grace Jones (in collaboration with Jean-Paul Goude)
The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by A.E. Waite
*Grace Jones shares revolutionary company on her birthday: Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansberry, Yo Chi Minh, and Yuri Kochiyama were all born on May 19th, and each of them bear their own mountain-moving legacies! here's a lighthearted tweet about this cosmic miracle.
she is currently curating the festivities for this year's 27th annual Meltdown Festival in the UK, showing off her impeccable Taurean tastes with choices like Solange, cktrl, Skunk Anansie, Meshell Ndegeocello, and of course herself on the final day! aside from the music, i wish i could be there for the roller skating party.
speaking of taste, this is Grace Jones' list of required items for her rider:
would U expect anything less lavish?
if U didn't peep in the previous issue, make sure to listen to ZEWMAGEDDON's "GRACE," a deep house mix that samples from Grace Jones' Slave to the Rhythm. if U want something new, Barbie Bertisch put out a Grace Jones tribute mix four years ago that U can listen to here.
feast your ears and eyes on this footage from her performance of "Pourquoi me réveiller" with Luciano Pavarotti at his 2002 benefit for Angola. she considers this performance one of her greatest triumphs as a singer.
i love everything about the music video for "Corporate Cannibal," an unsettling lament about capitalist greed. Jones is a foreboding sybil/cyborg whose form melts, warps, and multiplies in time with the haunting, industrial synths and creepingly coarse bassline.
here is Grace Jones showcasing one of her newest songs, "Shenanigans," at Afropunk 2015.
this section is purely to share my favorite songs by album, and highlight some of my favorite pictures of Grace!
That's The Trouble
I Need a Man
La vie en rose
All On a Summer's Night
On Your Knees
Don't Mess With the Messer
I've Seen That Face Before (Libertango)
My Jamaican Guy
LL Cool J sampled this for "Doin' It Well"
The Apple Stretching
My daily anthem while I was visiting Brooklyn from the 12th-17th
Unlimited Capacity for Love
Ladies and Gentlemen: Miss Jones
Fun fact from Wikipedia: "The hit single version of the song is in fact confusingly re-titled "Ladies and Gentlemen: Miss Grace Jones" on the Slave to the Rhythm album. The track "Slave to the Rhythm" on the album is in turn an entirely different interpretation of the song..."
Someone to Love
I'm Crying (Mother's Tears)
Celebrating her birthday at Stringfellows
Grace Jones’s Birthday Party, 1994. Photo by Ron Galella
another birthday image and another stunning look! plus, i have a thing for knives.
Magnifying her gaze
Grace Jones at Compo Beach, 1974
"I loved roller skating. I loved the feeling of speed. Skating gave me my first scar, at the top of my right arm." -- Grace Jones
as a roller skating enthusiast myself, i was excited to learn we shared this too!
Preparing to hit "Below the Belt"
Grace in golds
Performing "La vie en rose," awash in red (from One Man Show)
Lightwork is a brilliantly-talented Black queer artist and poet based in C*lumbus. before i left Ohio, i KNEW i had to order her charcoal sketch of Gucci Mane, and she was nice enough to throw in a sketch of Grace Jones for free as a going-away gift <3 her commissions are open if U hit her up on IG!
that's all from me -- i was only a day late, but definitely not a dollar short! i'll catch U next month <3