There’s an interesting new documentary about performer Grace Jones out this weekend. The title, Bloodlight and Bami, is taken from Jamaican slang for the red light in the recording booth, and bami is a kind of Jamaican flatbread. I don’t know if I’ll see the documentary or not. To me, Grace Jones was simply everything when she came out in the late 1970s. She still is today, nearly 40 years later. She is unapologetically black and enigmatically beautiful.
“Feeling like a woman ... looking like a man.” So go the lyrics from her hit song “Walking in the Rain.” Everything we’re debating and celebrating in pop culture right now—sexual politics, gender identity, being an all-natural, black symbol of beauty—she was living it out in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Her musical sound, much of which was crafted by Jamaican singer-songwriter duo Sly and Robbie, defined experimental high art and underground club culture in the coolest multicultural package ever.
Gender-fluid but always all woman. When asked by a French TV reporter in the ’80s to define her sexuality, she simply said, “Would you eat a cockroach in the desert if you were starving?” The reporter replied, “Yes.” Jones’ silent response said it all. If you’re hungry for life and there are no rules, your true nature takes over.
Her music and her style spoke volumes. They’re still being translated through artists as diverse as Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, RiRi and Janelle Monáe. While all are talented in their own right, Jones was visually stunning and gave us newness. By being first, by being the freshest and the most LGBTQ straight person you’d ever seen, she soared on the winds of change.
Whatever Jones was doing, she woke us up and scared the hell out of us. Even as we thought we’d never be able to even begin exploring our full identities, there was Jones, already in a space transcending the limits of her own identity. Mind you, this was as an artist, as a woman and as a black Jamaican American from a strict religious background.
French artist Jean Paul Goude, Jones’ longtime partner, the father of her son and her collaborator, spelled out the visual vocabulary of her cabaret act. No one could have asked for a better departure point than Jones’ gorgeous blue-black skin, razor-sharp haircut and otherworldly physicality. This became a uniform in and of itself, making her forever one of the most recognizable and iconic figures globally.
Goude elongated Jones’ body, manipulating photographs with nothing more than scissors and tape. He transformed her into a larger-than-life symbol of in-your-face sexuality and ice-cold sophistication.
Jones’ image is as iconic as a mythic figure of the ancient world and at once an ultrafuturistic icon of the modern world. This was perfectly expressed in her video for “Slave to the Rhythm,” where she sits like a Sphinx in the sands of the Sahara as she opens her mouth like a spaceship docking bay to swallow a classic French Citroën sedan—a visual bridge between the ancient and modern worlds.
Jones was a Bond Girl like we have never seen before or since. She stormed through the film A View to a Kill like the Dora Milaje before there were Dora Milaje on film for little girls to idolize or aspire to become.
Designers like Issey Miyake and Azzedine Alaïa adored her sculptural figure, collaborating with her to push the fashion envelope in a way that no other model could. Miyake’s injection-molded bustier and Alaia’s hooded bandage dress—two of the 20th century’s most defining fashion item—were made immortal by the way Jones wore those pieces. Below is Alaïa with Jones, wearing the bandage dress:
Here, Jones in Miyake’s injection-molded bustier:
I spent my high school years listening to Jones’ moody, laid-back, Euro-disco-diva sound and dreaming about her album covers. I was starved for more images of her impossibly perfect cool. Her music and image, for me, were a gateway into the next-level worlds of art, fashion and freedom. She embodied what it meant to design your very being and mold the world around you in your own image.
Like Sade, another unimpeachable queen of the music scene, who followed her, Jones defined a new era of blackness and womanhood. Their power lay in simplicity. Sade, with her red lips, white shirt and slicked-back hair, is forever iconic. Jones, in her sharply tailored men’s suits and flat-top fade, was a true original.
As we head into the weekend, I’m dusting off some old Grace Jones albums—or should I say, logging on to some of her music—as I’ve been very much reminded of how much I love me some Miss Grace Jones.