She’s an icon of fashion, art and music.
Her powerful androgynous look stoked conversations about gender, sexuality, identity and race.
It mightn’t sound as cool or trailblazing alongside the aforementioned, but perhaps Grace Jones’ greatest strength was her instincts for people who would bring out the best in her.
“When I collaborate, they push me and I push them, so you always end up with something magical in the end,” she told Jonathon Ross in 2014.
She started out making disco records but sensed a need for a change of direction with 1980’s Warm Leatherette, on which reggae influences were brought to bear on tracks like her covers of The Pretenders’ ‘Private Life’ and Tom Petty’s ‘Breakdown.’
It was Island Records boss Chris Blackwell’s idea to team her up with his biggest stars, Jamaican duo Sly and Robbie. They continued that collaboration on 1981’s Nightclubbing.
“They brought out my roots. And I believe that’s when my voice felt most at home,” Jones told the BBC in 2012.
Her move away from disco caught some off guard, but her choice of songs to cover and re-work show how astute she was as an artist and interpreter of music.
From the little-known Flash and The Pan song ‘Walking In The Rain’ to Bill Withers’ ‘Use Me’ and Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s ‘Nightclubbing’, there was a minimalist sonic setting upon which she was able to inject her inimitable identity and attitude and deliver something unquestionably her own.
The album’s best loved track saw Grace Jones teaming up with Dana Mano and Sly & Robbie (under the moniker Koo Koo Baya). Its risqué lyrics got it banned in the US. But lyrics like ‘Pull up to the bumper baby, in your long black limousine / Pull up to the bumper baby, and drive it in between’ were as smart as they were suggestive, as playful as they were purposeful in broadening the sexual agenda.
And you can’t go past Nighclubbing’s front cover as a statement on challenging given social norms on gender and identity.
In that sense, perhaps her most important collaborator was French artist Jean-Paul Goude who was vital in designing her album covers, choreographing her live performances and directing her videos.
Looking at the sharp angles of Grace Jones’ hair and cheekbones, the rigid shoulders of the suit she was wearing and the starkness of the cigarette perched on her lips, you get the sense of a tough, uncompromising artist, an icon.
How she came to embody this impenetrable sensibility has much to do with her life growing up in Jamaica under the strict religious code of her family and, in particular, men like her step-grandfather who was especially harsh in dealing out discipline.
In rebelling against her family, she found a great weapon.
“I think that is what contributed to my masculinization. I deliberately challenged men’s roles. In fact, I survived by taking on both roles,” she told Design Observer in 2015.
Grace Jones masculine Sprechgesang resounds throughout many songs on Nightclubbing, until you arrive at the closing track which almost shocks at how tender and vulnerable she allows herself to be. There’s a sweetness and fragility in her cover of Marianne Faithful’s ‘I’ve Done It Again.’ that makes you almost want to check if it’s the same record you first put on.
But that’s the thing about Grace Jones. You will never fully know what makes her tick, and that’s the way she likes it.
As she wrote in her 2015 memoir, “So touch me in a picture, whisper in my mask. All you would need to know could be found in how I look in a photograph, or captured in a song. The rest is mystery.”