Rozanne Els attended the 20th Anniversary Festival of TimesTalks, a live conversation and performance series presented by The New York Times. The festival opened with a performance by the enigmatic Grace Jones, followed by an often frenzied conversation between her and the Times’ cultural reporter, Melena Ryzik.
New York - Jones ascends the stage wearing stilettos, a ruby red bowler hat and animal magnetism. Allure and drama coat her movements. As she starts singing, she plants her left foot on the bottom stair of a stage prop that somewhat resembles a winners podium. The prop seems apt as her voice booms as it spreads across the hall and into the furthest corners. Jones is in full control as the lyrics of her iconic hit, Nightclubbing, exit her mouth. Over the course of more than five decades as a singer, actress and model, Jones has demanded the world know her. There should (and cannot) be any doubt as to who Ms. Grace Jones is.
She lifts her leg and plants her right foot on the next big step, swinging and singing seductively as she does. For a couple of minutes the audience gets a glimpse of Studio 54 New York when disco and parties ruled the city.
On the uppermost stair, she decides to jump and her legs buckle beneath her. She rolls, but doesn’t seem to be hurt, and with the microphone still in her hand, incorporates the stumble into her performance. It’s almost as if it was planned. (It wasn’t). She’s quite alright, she assures her exclaiming fans. “I do that all the time. I learned how to fall before I could walk.”
Jones isn’t at the TimesTalks festival just to sing, even though it is an almost extravagant gift to have the chance to see her on stage. She’s here, in Midtown Manhattan, to talk about a newly released documentary about her life, Bloodlight and Bami, by director Sophie Fiennes.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
The film explores the why and the hows of Jones’ life and how she came to be this larger-than-life phenomenon. She refers to Fiennes as her sister, “my family,” and says she completely trusted her to create a genuine depiction of her life.
Jones was born in Jamaica in 1948 and as a child she moved with her family to Syracuse, New York. At 17 she pursued a modeling career and her striking, androgynous appearance helped her on a path to success. Then came music as she dived into the disco scene, mixing reggae, funk and pop into a style that came to be known as signature Jones.
Later she also included acting in her repertoire, took a turn as a Bond girl in A View to Kill and made the one decision she regrets: “I said no to Blade Runner.” Yes, the original cult classic in which she would have starred opposite Harrison Ford. The audience gasps as she laughingly tells the story. “I know, I know!” she clamours.
A DIFFICULT CHILDHOOD
Fiennes’ documentary also probes the darker side of Jones’ upbringing and the abuse she suffered as a girl. As Jones wrote in her biography: “[My childhood] was all about the Bible and beatings.” She grew up in a deeply religious family who are of Pentecostal faith. As a child she was not permitted to play, she says. “I wasn’t even allowed to wear open-toe shoes.” Or pants. She describes this time in her life as profoundly disciplined even militant.
Over time she has realised, Jones says to the audience, that the disciplined way she now approaches her career is an extension of her upbringing. But, it also finds expression in the extravagant and often naughty elements of her style, personality and stage performance, all of which serve to subvert the hardships she faced.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea it [the abuse] had jumped into me...The spirit of my grandfather’s abuse became part of me, and it needed to be exorcised.”
Enter acid. (Though she adamantly maintains that it was “mostly” prescribed by her doctor”)
These days it translates into a power that keeps people beholden to her talent and her very contrarian nature. She oozes a frenetic self-confidence, is a bit diva-like, smiles and laughs and seems to enjoy making people uncomfortable with naughty jokes.
Mischievous Grace Jones. “My mother always said I was born feet first,” she says, laughing, before expertly demonstrating to the audience how to properly hula hoop. Just because, you know?
Let me tell you, even just an hour with Jones is a riveting trip.
(Photos by Griffin Lipson/BFA. Courtesy of TimesTalks)