It’s 9.30 on Sunday night and Grace Jones’s head is nearly touching the ceiling of the Royal Festival Hall in London. Her skirt, which appears to be about 20 feet long and covered in a Keith Haring print, is billowing dramatically in the wind. She looks as though she might take off, but instead she’s slowly lowered on to the stage, the skirt collapsing as she launches into her 2008 hit “This Is”. “These are the words I didn’t invent/Only an attempt to say what I meant,” she purrs into the mic, as pink strobe lights bounce off her glittering hat and land on the faces of the audience below.
This isn’t the first time I have seen Jones, now 74, in the flesh. In 2015 I profiled her for Dazed around the time of the publication of her autobiography, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. We ate lamb chops and did Sambuca shots at the bar and laughed about psychedelics. Back then I was struck by her warmth and easy-going nature. Over the course of her five-decade career she’s been caricatured as a kind of fierce, mythical entity who speaks in flamboyant, sometimes unforgiving soundbites. But there are many versions of Jones. “I am a role switcher,” she told me at the time.
Tonight, she embodies that mythical ideal. There is a full costume change for every song, which means that she comes out in no less than ten different looks. For “Love is a Drug” she stands beneath a neon laser beam while wearing a disco ball hat. For “My Jamaican Guy” she wears a long fabric headpiece in the colours of the Jamaican flag. For “William’s Blood” she dons a long dress and wide-brimmed black fur hat, like an idiosyncratic church performer. For “Slave to the Rhythm” she wears a spiky black wig and spins a hula hoop around her waist for almost the entirety of the song. It’s like watching a theatre production. “Even if I forget the words, I will just make them up,” she says to a mesmerised crowd, her accent landing somewhere between London, Paris and New York, with a Jamaican lilt.
Jones first came into the public consciousness in the 1970s as a disco musician and supermodel. Soon she would be experimenting with new wave, dub, reggae and art pop, and became known for her acting, too. She was a staple of the Studio 54 nightclub in New York known for her influential creative collaborations, most notably with graphic designers such as Haring and her then-partner Jean-Paul Goude (the man behind her Nightclubbing album cover, in which she stands powerful and androgynous in a suit jacket, an unlit cigarette propped between both lips).
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So many years have passed since then that it can be easy to forget just how ahead of the curve Jones was, and how much she has influenced popular culture. Long before the word “queer” entered our everyday lexicon, Jones was refusing to attach labels to gender and sexuality. Long before we had Lady Gaga, Christine and the Queens, and Grimes blurring the boundaries between music and art, Jones was pioneering such experimentalism. She released songs such as “Nipple to the Bottle” decades before #freethenipple hashtags abounded on Instagram. Lean in a little closer – to pop videos, outfits and ideals today – and the echoes of Jones are everywhere.
In many ways this live show – on the final night of the week-long Meltdown Festival, which she curated – felt like a celebration and reminder of all the above. At one point, she was carried through the audience by security, disco ball hat shimmering, as the crowd screamed and clapped. “Happy gay pride!” she hollered across the hall, saying it again louder in case anyone didn’t hear her. “I’m so happy that you could be here.” For the older members of the audience, many of whom lived through the Aids crisis, her words would have had particular resonance. Now we are used to artists being vocal about their support of the LGBTQ community but Jones and many of her fans will remember when this wasn’t the case.
For her encore, Jones changed into what felt like her 1000th outfit – a billowing black cape, with swirling buffalo-style horns attached to her head – and sang a dramatic rendition of her 2008 track “Hurricane”. The lyrics echoed like a closing statement onto the eardrums of those below: “I can be cool, soft as the breeze/I’ll be a hurricane, ripping up trees!”