“It’s time for something else to happen”: The Perpetual Motion Machine That Is Grace Jones

November 20, 2015   •   By Francesca T. Royster

GRACE JONES is having a moment. Anticipating I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, The Pitchfork Review published a feature with her face, makeup evocative of her early collaborations with Keith Haring, gracing the cover. She is currently on a US/UK tour and the subject of an upcoming BBC documentary and is about to release a new album. She also seems to have written the rulebook on public outrageousness for recent women in pop, her influence evident in the shape-shifting personae of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Annie Lennox, and Björk.

She is not just a disco singer, though video clips from her performances at Studio 54 or at the Paradise Garage definitely reveal her power to induce a frantic boogie state (and her albums, especially those created with the Compass Point All Stars, all still sound fresh). She is not just a campy film star, though she is definitely as fierce as Bond villain Mayday in A View to a Kill, and she steals the show from Eddie Murphy as Strangé in Boomerang. She is not just a model, though she’s appeared in Elle and Vogue and in that TV ad for the Honda Scooters way back in 1986 — the one that used to run while my friends and I watched Friday Night Videos and MTV. Jones at once epitomizes the sleek 1980s and transcends them. She’s generated velocity enough to escape the pull of that decade, unlike most of its cultural output.

Jones has popped out of her own birthday cake and had her clothes ripped right off by overly enthusiastic fans at a Studio 54 New Year’s Eve performance. She met Nelson Mandela and performed for the Queen of England. Friend and collaborator Andy Warhol once advised her to embrace her role as fantasy: “Everybody must have a fantasy. For some people, you are the fantasy. You must not spoil that.” The value of Jones’s performances, if sometimes reduced to caricature, is found in her commitment to sounding and exploring the fantastic and taboo, crossing lines of gender, sexuality, and race: the sound of the No-No, the pleasures of the bumper and warm leatherette, the space of the “never” that she chooses for her memoir’s title, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, and cheekily undoes.

The visual has always been paramount in Jones’s work; her album covers, designed by Richard Bernstein and Jean-Paul Goude, among others, have been as much about her arresting visual presence as her sound. This might come from her experience as a model and actor, as well as her astuteness as an artist, influenced by cubism, surrealism, the stillness of Japanese Kabuki theater, Andy Warhol’s films of the Empire State Building, the charisma of Jamaican Pentecostal preachers, S&M dungeons, and the New York performance art scene. Her talent as an artist is what drew her to some of her best collaborations: Jean-Paul Goude, Issey Miyake, Andy Warhol, Richard Bernstein, Norma Kamali, and Keith Haring, as detailed in the memoir.

The photographs featured in the book are important as a way of documenting the chain of associations, as well as revealing Jones’s special awareness of the power of the pose. On the jacket photographs by Greg Gorman, we see many layers of Jones: she sports her trademark flattop, so effective in revealing the beautiful planes of her face, her high cheekbones and strong forehead; the vulnerability around the ears. On the cover image, she is looking to the side and left, and licking her teeth, at once mischievous and a little cannibalistic (and given her history of intentionally manipulating her own image, I have to ask: are those teeth just a little longer than is natural?). On the back cover, we see Jones in repose, bared upper body, skin shimmering bronze, one part Saint-Tropez tanning lotion model, one part Oshun, the Yoruba water goddess. Jones covers her breasts with hands crossed as might an Egyptian mummy, but her eyes are alive, clear, reflective, the deep brown of a river, topped with amethyst shadow. She does not smile.

The book’s photos offer an important aspect of her history: old family snapshots of her parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters; a sepia photo of the All Saints Church in Spanish Town, Jamaica, where her family wielded local power and influence; poses at Studio 54 and on a New York rooftop; shots from her honeymoon with Atila, the only man she officially married; Jones at home and at ease at a family reunion or bouncing her newborn son on her knee. A still from her influential One Man Show. The captions reveal a kind of self-deprecating humor that also reveals the distance of maturity, looking back at a younger self. She writes next to a photo of herself suited up in bikini and goggles, “Ibiza in the 1980s, getting ready to head into the water or into outer space.”

Many who listen to and, perhaps even more so, watch Grace Jones struggle with naming her: Black, Jamaican, American, Parisian, African; masculine, feminine, androgynous, asexual; animal, machine, vampire; an idea or a desire; the “three-lined whip”; a promise for the future. Indeed, this is something that she herself cultivates. She writes in her foreword:

What follows is the me that I have made up, rather than the one made up by other people. Whatever people think of me, I want them to keep thinking of me. I don’t even mind if people make up things about me as long as they don’t make me look boring or ordinary — as long as they don’t smooth me out or reduce me.

Like her native Jamaica, which she describes as “an exuberant hybrid of pirate, gadabout, British Empire orderliness, enigmatic, indigenous swagger, slave resistance, all roughly tossed together in the heat,” there is always something chameleon about Jones’s voice, whether recorded in singing or writing.

Which is why Jones’s memoir is such a revelation. One of the strengths of this book is its ability to ground Jones’s life and art-making in a specific context and history, a balance to the self perpetually in motion that is Grace. She refuses to give her exact age: “I like to keep the mystery,” she tells us. “I get onstage and tell everyone I am ten years older than they think, and then I hula-hoop for twenty minutes. That’s my age — that’s how I measure it.” But she grounds her early story and the forces that shape her future selves in Jamaica’s post-World War II moment, the years leading up to Independence. And she’s reflective of the formative force of Spanish and then British colonialism on place and national character. Spanish Town, her hometown, was a haven of escaped slaves and a spiritual home of both Rastas and the charismatic Pentecostal church.

The Pentecostal church she was raised in, and spends her youth attempting to escape, is both constrictingly conservative and highly performative. Jones tells us:

The Jamaicans were very open to the idea of spirits and spirit possession, with their African and indigenous Indian ancestors — they didn’t have to travel far form the spirit-filled world many of the already lived in to accept this Pentecostal Holy Spirit. They also gave this more American revivalist religion a little local strictness introduced by the British, but compared to the formal Anglican Church, their style of worship still seemed quite rowdy. They didn’t shout like in America or play crazy music and leap around; they still sang hymns, much more traditional and familiar, but in its merciless pursuit of an idea of saintly perfection, Pentecostalism did have a very emotional and exuberant side.

Jamaica’s Pentecostal church reflects Jamaica’s status as a colonial subject, as well as its independence.

Jones was greatly shaped by her two maternal grandfathers, John “Dan” Williams, the handsome, rapscallion performer of jazzy mento and calypso, who eventually abandoned the family for America, and her step-grandfather, who she refers to as Mas (as in Master) P, a religious conservative and tyrant who fought hard to break her spirit and failed. From both of these men, Jones learned a kind of masculine performative power: from Dan, the power to sing and charm, and from Mas P, the powerful glare and the fierce performance of strength. Jones also draws power from her mother, Marjorie, who left to recreate herself in the United States when Jones was still a girl. When Jones moves to Syracuse to join her mother and father, it’s the start of a new path away from fear and toward self-discovery.

Jones’s history, told through her unique perspective on identity, gives us a new sense of the lefty movements of the mid-20th century. We learn, for example, about the Philadelphia hippie community that she became a part of as a young adult, experimenting with LSD and marijuana, expanding and redeveloping her stunted girlhood sense of possibility. She tells us that it was, in part, repeated stops by Philadelphia police in the company of her white hippy boyfriends that contributed to her understanding of African Americans. Yet she has often struggled against essentializing her identity by race and nation and gender. She writes,

I never wanted to limit myself to being A Black Woman, because that immediately puts a person on their back foot — beginning from a kind of negative space in order to prove the positive — and I never wanted to think of who I was as anything less than positive. If there was any woman in there, she was abstracted, hidden behind a mass of disorienting contradictions. I didn’t want to act black, or white, or green.

After experimenting with theater, modeling, and singing in New York City, Jones leaves for Paris to model. Here, we see her negotiating the still-closed ranks of mostly white European beauty standards and competition between women. She writes,

I was an outcast because of my funny accent, the color of my skin, a strange looking face […], and because in so many ways I didn’t fit in. Black, but strangely full of myself. Oddly entitled seeming, which the African-Americans weren’t. I was expected as a black model to act a little humble, a little grateful. No way.

Eschewing diplomacy, she finds her look “natural and unnatural at the same time,” and hones her skills in movement, gesture, and space. Working with designer Issey Miyake in his show Issey Miyake and Twelve Black Girls, she learns a key aspect of her performance style, “that withdrawn, minimal, underplayed performance.” She writes,

He showed me how to discipline the body in order to heighten the excitement, which is something that set me apart from the standard way that pop singers moved to make their point. He made me realize that to make my presence felt I could stand still, and radiate intense inner life without having to dance around like all the others.

This powerful stillness, perhaps also learned at the disciplinary hands of Mas P, refined and sharpened through collaboration and the catwalk, becomes her defining style, performed to great effect later in her One Man Show. It is one way, Jones confesses, that she circumvents the demands of a more muscular, soulful so called “authentically black” performance that her body and voice were not quite able to reproduce commandingly. (Along these lines, she shares an amusing conversation with friend Tina Turner, who teases her, “‘Oh, Grace, you are so crazy. But Grace, you don’t really work’ — because I would simply walk around the stage, like an explosion that hadn’t gone off. She would put so much effort into the performing, and next to her it was like I was in slow motion.”)

Back in New York, Jones makes her first recordings with Tom Moulton, including her first big single, “I Need a Man.” This early sound is influenced by French Pop, show tunes, and the 4/4 beat of disco. She becomes involved in the Studio 54 and Warhol’s Factory scenes and gives a powerful portrait of pre-gentrification New York (something explored in the art of Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, and Peter Hujar, and in Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids). Ultimately, she fears becoming a caricature, a long-gowned disco queen stuck performing in Las Vegas. The two forces that end up reshaping her sound are Jean-Paul Goude, the French visual artist who becomes her collaborator and her lover, and her aunt Sybil, who convinces her to return to Jamaica and rediscover the land she has learned to associate with fear.

Returning to Jamaica as tourist and explorer at the behest of her aunt, Jones begins to understand the influence of place and history on her sense of self:

Once Jamaica became part of the music it was so much more natural, because that reflected who I actually was. The voice matched the music. That’s me. I can do all the other stuff, but at the heart of it is the Jamaican experience. It’s unprocessed; it’s me, naked. It’s where my soul was, so if I wanted to make soul music, however mutant, I needed to be in touch with my soul.

Her next recordings are with the Compass Point All Stars, and by bringing in the influences of reggae and dub and even rap, and exploring her voice’s lowest register, she finds her sound. These sessions, in my view, shape her most powerful recordings, including “Private Life,” “Slave to the Rhythm,” “Warm Leatherette,” “Demolition Man,” and “She’s Lost Control.”

In Jean-Paul Goude, Jones discovers a fellow provocateur, someone willing to engage stereotypes of race and sexuality and the primitive, to open up possibilities of identity. She writes of the power of seeing Goude’s art piece Nigger Arabesque, featured in a New York magazine profile of her. The image shows Jones in profile with microphone, skin glossed to a ceramic sheen, long legs and arms extended (pre-Photoshop) into an impossibly fantastic pose, at once in motion and still, plugged into the electric current of desire. For Jones, Goude’s work was key to her own project of recreation and the exploration of taboos:

Jean-Paul’s photo-elaboration of me put me inside my very own fantasy, connected to Jamaica, and New York, and Paris, and performance, and worship, and hallucination, but ultimately a world of my own. The picture became like the ground zero of how every solo female singer since wants to be when she tried to be a little edgy, potentially a bundle of headline-making trouble. Once Jean-Paul had created that image, it became more and more apparent that the music I made should reflect it, be the soundtrack of that suggestive, analytical perversion of me.

Having read Goude’s art book Jungle Fever, and been disappointed to see his refusal to give Grace Jones her due as an artist-collaborator, I found Jones’s discussion of their relationship revealing and powerful. She details the ways the collaboration both excited her and challenged her to be vulnerable, often in public. For example, we learn that Goude’s image for the cover of Slave to the Rhythm, in which Jones is caught mid-scream, mouth expended and multiplied, teeth bared, was actually a shot Goude took (and then doctored) of Jones giving birth to their son. Jones, we learn, is a courageous artist, courting risk with images that both provoke us and distance us in their powerful evocation of icons of masculinity, femininity, and black anger.

In the final chapters of the book, Jones moves away from intense reflection on her artistic process to address her lovers and gossip, her not-so-positive experience of the Hollywood Studio system, and other pop artists who seem to have borrowed freely from her example. These last chapters of the book might be more formulaic, at first glance, straying less from the scripts of the Diva tell-all, but they still please in their practicality and willingness to tell truth to power. She addresses one chapter to “Doris,” who I interpret as an amalgamation of many recent performers (rather than one, as some have speculated). She offers advice to these women who seem to have lost their sense of their own style in the urge to copy hers. She writes:

I would like to be a tutor for some of these singers. I would like to help them avoid becoming a piece in the system. It would only take five minutes. I would say to them, Get out! Quick! Don’t go back for your possessions! Run! There is only hell ahead, the hell of having to cling onto fame by doing what others tell you.

While there is a deliciousness in anticipating a catfight, and in possibly seeing Jones claim her due, she again circumvents our expectations, offering instead maturity and a sense of humor, as well as the always beckoning possibility of reinvention. She ends with a provocation: “Do you want to move forward with me, or not? Do you want to know where I am going next? It’s time for something else to happen.”

For a time, there was a rumor that Grace Jones was a hologram, an ingenious marketing scheme by Island Records. But she means more as a flawed human, a model of inventive and resistant living.


Francesca T. Royster is Professor and chair of English at DePaul University, where she teaches courses in Shakespeare Studies, Performance Studies, Critical Race theory, Gender and Queer Theory and African American Literature.