With Grace Jones’ documentary Bloodlight and Bami out, writer Shirine Saad talked with director Sophie Fiennes, producer Chris Blackwell and the artist about her Jamaican journey.
Born in Spanish Town, Grace Jones grew up in America and fell into the transgressive downtown gay scene at Andy Warhol’s Factory and at disco shrine Studio 54. Moving to Paris in 1970, she became a cult supermodel and style icon, collaborating with legendary designers Azzedine Alaia, Issey Miyake, milliner Phillip Treacy and her ex-husband Jean Paul Goude, the multidisciplinary art director who transformed her androgynous, sculptural figure into a fetishized vision of exotic sexuality. Fearless, Grace Jones has lived to shatter the boundaries of this world. The queen of genre-bending has moved from art to fashion, film, and music with candid curiosity and fierce determination. Working with her longtime friend, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, dropping timeless hits such as “Pull Up to the Bumper,” “I Need a Man,” and “Slave to the Rhythm,” she created a fresh new mix of disco, New Wave and progressive reggae, vibrant with the intense percussions of dance clubs and Caribbean rhythms.
Director Sophie Fiennes first met Jones at the screening of her film about the musician’s brother’s church in 2001. “I love the smell of your film,” Jones told Fiennes. She trusted her to follow her into her most intimate moments for twelve years, in a raw cinema vérité style. Throughout the 70-year-old star’s sleepless nights, champagne-fueled shoots and ceaseless travels, Fiennes knows that Jamaica is the place where she always returns. She reveals the island girl beneath the masked icon, between dance floors and secret lagoons, hotel suites and coconut shacks, unabashed eroticism and disarming vulnerability. We meet the icon and director at the movie’s New York premiere at Metrograph.
Love and Faith
On the 1979 disco stomper Sinning, Grace Jones sings a hymn to the shameless pleasure and excess of the Studio 54 era: “Sinning everyday/Cussing all the way/No fantasy/You’re trapped with me/Just don’t get tired and I won’t bring you down/Bad as I can be.” Sophie Fiennes documents Jones’ reconnection with her oppressively religious — and sometimes abusive — childhood in her Spanishtown family home. For her mother, Marjorie, a church leader, and her father Robert, an apostolic Bishop who founded a church in Syracuse, NY, singing was purely a channel to commute with god. In Grace Jones’ early rebellion she transgressively transformed her body, and her voice, into total carnal temples.
“If you believe that spirituality is something light and sublime, in art it can’t exist without the obscene, explains Sophie Fiennes before the New York premiere of Bloodlight and Bami. “In religion, you can’t have heaven without hell. For Grace, it’s all about libido, the life force, the life energy, the strange force of our consciousness.”
In the documentary, which follows the legend over twelve years from Paris studios to New York penthouse suites and Tokyo clubs, Fiennes shows this elemental duality in Jones’ life and its roots in her hard upbringing. “We see it in the scene where she loses herself in a nightclub, and then she’s at the church in Jamaica with her family,” says Fiennes. “She is struck by the beauty of the experience that we are all witness to. In the Calvinist church that she grew up in, you can’t show an inch of your body, so her performances are a form of rebelling. She’s an erotic body in action, she is a force. She works through any of the shame religion creates and embraces the 360 truth of human.”
After the disco albums Portfolio (1977), Fame (1978), and Muse (1979), the New Wave record Warm Leatherette (1980) marked the beginning of a reggae-flavored collaboration with the Compass Point All Stars. The band assembled by Chris Blackwell that year was led by legendary duo Sly Dunbell and Robbie Shakespeare and pioneered a progressive medley of Jamaican rhythms and edgy synth grooves that led to the seminal Nightclubbing (1981) and Living My Life (1982), the final record of the trilogy. Jones returned to the studio with Sly and Robbie for the self-funded album Hurricane (2008), whose rocky making is documented in the movie, and on a new album in the making.
Island Records founder Chris Blackwell was stricken by Jones when he first met her in the mid-seventies. “I didn’t know anything about her, but a friend of mine told me I should meet her because she was a Jamaican and a model who was starting a career as a singer,” he says on the phone from Goldeneye, near Jones’ Ocho Rios home. “I remember how spectacular looking she was and also her personality, which was very outgoing and open. We listened to her first album, and the song ‘La Vie en Rose,’ and we bought it. She had a very rich sounding voice, a beautiful tone. It was just a whole different sound, a bit like theater. When I heard that record, I thought it would do very well and it was very different than the records Island Records was putting out. We were very much into the rock business then, and had recently signed Bob Marley.”
Though Jones had become an international fashion icon, removed from her Caribbean origins, Blackwell envisioned that her very Jamaicanness would define her as a music star. “Because she was Jamaican I thought she could be confident enough to try something different and to add Jamaican rhythms to her music,” he says. “I thought it would inspire her, and it did because she was working live in the studio with the band.”
Jones, of course, is obsessed by the rhythm, by the mad percussions of Afro-Caribbean traditions and the symphony of the Jamaican jungle, its birds, crickets and night insects. “You have a church and just across the street they have some dancehall shit going on, they make their own bass,” says Jones. “I try to figure out the Jamaican bass for every studio we blow every speaker. Last night when we did the gig (at the New York Times) I thought, my voice was deeper than the bass, I have a deep voice. And this is why Chris Blackwell was brilliant to match me with Sly and Robbie because they had a bass that my voice could echo. And this comes from Jamaica so my voice with that sound that’s so fat, so full, it’s like an earthquake. I said I want to hear an earthquake, wake up the neighbors!”
“You have the big bass and huge Soundsystem, but really it’s about the rhythm,” says Fiennes. “It’s this area where rhythm and trance come together, which comes from the Pentecostal religion — the ecstatic, erotic dimension in religion that got domesticated by the postcolonial church. And it’s also about the lyricism of the Jamaican language, which is what bloodlight is — a Patois combination of two strong images that refer to the studio red light signal.” Bami, the Jamaican flatbread beloved by the musician (along with jellies and oxtail stew), is the other side of the experience in the metaphor of creation and pleasure, art, and life.
Far from racing taxis and deafening nightclubs, in the perfect serenity of Jamaica’s verdant mountains, dirt roads, and green lagoons, Grace Jones finds a sense of peace, stripping her stage corset, sculptural hats, and dramatic makeup to connect with family, friends, and nature. Fiennes’ camera finds her happiest floating alone in the Blue Lagoon, along with the infinite sky and water.
“What I love most and miss most about Jamaica is the smell,” said Grace Jones after the New York premiere of the documentary at Metrograph, attended by close friends and musicians such as Kyp Malone. “When I arrive, I think that they’ve burned all the ganja. I land and I’m so relaxed within two minutes. The smells are amazing. And the rhythm. Jamaica is about the sounds, the smell, the sea. I love the sea. Yeah! I take everybody there with me!”
On the island, she connects with the absolute freedom she has chased throughout her existence of extreme experimentation and risk-taking. “Living on the edge has always been her way of embracing being alive, being up close and personal with the event of being alive,” explains Fiennes. “But there’s something liberating, a release in letting go of control, in being vulnerable.” As Jones sings on her 2008 diary record Hurricane’s “This Is,” “Are you going into the light/Are you free of fear today/When do you lie down to sleep do you kind of float away.” Now that she has laid bare the human being behind the stage persona, Grace Jones seems to have exorcised her early fears into the deep Jamaican horizon.
Shirine Saad is a Brooklyn-based editor and writer who has worked for New York Magazine, MTVIggy, CNN and NOWNESS. Her third book will focus on the new generation of Jamaican artists. Follow her adventures @shirinesaad on Instagram and on www.shirinesaad.com.