Grace Jones was nine years old when she was found hiding inside a barrel. She was with a boy from her hometown in Jamaica, and they were both discovered by someone from her grandfather's puritanical Pentecostal church. It took the church community two weeks to decide how they would punish her. In her words: "A little natural, tingling curiosity about how I was really feeling – not how I was ordered to feel – led to a trial that implied I had broken the law and infuriated their malicious God. The blows came thick and fast. Punishment was their way of keeping us in line."
It's no wonder she escaped to New York as soon as she hit eighteen, growing her hair into an afro, dropping a shit ton of acid, and having as much casual sex as she wanted. But that's not to say her newfound existence in the US equated to total freedom. While her deeply religious upbringing overbeared her in more extreme ways, the society around her contained subtle, but nonetheless very real, sexual oppressions as well. Needless to say, to be a woman – particularly a black woman in the 60s – was (and is) to be expected to contain yourself. Because to express sexual desire without shame isn't just uncomfortable for certain people – it's scary; an adjective that has been used to describe Grace Jones more than once.
In a recent article for Hazlitt, writer Jess Zimmerman commented that: "The low-maintenance woman, the ideal woman, has no appetite." She continued: "A man's appetite can be hearty, but a woman with an appetite is always voracious: her hunger always overreaches, because it is not supposed to exist. If she wants food, she is a glutton. If she wants sex, she is a slut. If she wants emotional care-taking, she is a high-maintenance bitch or, worse, an 'attention whore': an amalgam of sex-hunger and care-hunger, greedy not only to be fucked and paid but, most unforgivably of all, to be noticed." And now, four decades after Jones first arrived in the city, and as the BBC are releasing a documentary to celebrate her life and career, these ideas have become more relevant than ever.
Jones has never suppressed her appetite and has always been noticed for it. In fact, over the years, her name has become so synonymous with sexual freedom that the sheer sight of a flattop and razor-sharp cheekbones should be enough to make anyone blush. From her deep, growling voice that always sounds as if she's on the brink of suggesting something shocking, to the way she switches between super butch and hyper-feminine roles so that they become one and the same, Jones has a way of injecting sex into everything she does. But most importantly, from the very beginning of her career, she wrote about sex as if she simply could not, and would not, live without it.
It makes sense that Jones would first announce herself to the world in 1975 with "I Need a Man", a track which arrived alongside a video where she slowly gyrates to disco rhythms in a silver rubber breastplate while singing "He'll understand, oh what I'm feelin' deep inside me" like a strange and sexy alien visiting from the planet Venus. The song didn't top the pop charts, but it swiftly became a cult fixture in New York's underground gay clubs, as synonymous with queer desire as her own desire; an anthem for a suppressed sexual appetite unleashing itself during a time when gay sex had barely become legal.
Talking to Pitchfork, Tom Moulton, Jones' early producer, describes seeing her perform the track live at a gay disco: "All of a sudden the spotlight hits her. She starts singing 'I Need a Man', and the place goes crazy. After she finishes, she goes, 'I don't know about you, honey, but I need a fucking man!' Talk about a room-worker. Whatever it takes. She was so determined." In other words, Jones didn't just express her own raw sexuality, but she invited other people to express theirs, in whatever package it came in.
Of course, "I Need a Man" was hardly x-rated. Most of Jones' releases around this era were softer, less direct, than what we would come to expect later, when she ditched disco in favour of a more androgynous new wave style and provocative lyrics in the 1980s. "Pull Up to the Bumper", for instance, is definitely about anal sex (although Jones still insists it's just about parking cars). "Pull up to my bumper baby, in your long black limousine," she purrs, her voice rising over the reggae-tinged percussive rhythms, "Race it, straighten it, let me lubricate, pull up to my bumper baby."
Aside from the fact Jones is the only person on earth who could make these lyrics sound even vaguely hot, it was subversive for a woman to be singing about anal sex. Hell, it would be subversive even now. But back then, when the AIDs crisis was on the brink of devastating whole communities, and when women rarely sang about sex, it was considered taboo. And not only was Jones singing about it, she was singing about wanting it, and she was demanding that someone give it to her and giving them detailed instructions. To hear her sing the words "pull up to my bumper baby, and drive it in between" without a shadow of coyness was bold as hell – it was promptly banned from most mainstream radio stations.
Her sex positivity isn't just confined to her lyrics, though – it permeates everything she does. The first and only time I ever met Jones, she exclaimed that music and sex must always go together because they are the same thing. "There is no way you can separate music or sex!" she shrieked at me, her eyes widening across the table. We were in a restaurant in South London, and she had ordered herself a huge plate of lamb chops and sauce, a large glass of red wine, and a line of Sambucas for dessert. She polished off the whole meal quickly, swishing the red wine around in her glass, and only taking breaks to animatedly tell a story or erupt with laughter. If you spend just one evening with Jones, whether in a restaurant, or watching her hula hoop topless on stage at a festival, it quickly becomes clear that she is a lust for life personified.
Even if you're not an avid Grace Jones fan, chances are you've come across her most famous photographs shot by Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Jean-Paul Goude. Her collaborations with Goude, particularly, led to some of her most iconic snapshots, in which her oiled limbs appear to stretch on forever, rendering her hypersexualized; her blackness emphasized; her androgyny amplified. Writers have since pointed to Goude's work as exploitative, but Jones has always said that Goude merely captured and celebrated the energy she exuded, and she was proud of their collaborations. "This brutal, animalistic energy that was part disco, part theatre of cruelty, two lucid ways of presenting an appetite for life," she later wrote. "It was a visual description of an impossible original beast, only possible from this planet, a voracious she-centaur emerging from an unknown abyss and confronting people's fears. Perhaps you can see Jean-Paul falling for me, and turning it into a visual love letter." Grace Jones never wanted to hold back, and Goude encouraged her not to.
It's hard to quantify what the pop landscape would look like without Jones. Would FKA twigs be dangling, bondage-style in her "Pendulum" video had Jones not been shot by Goude in the same way? Would Rihanna have appeared in head-to-toe monochrome patterns for "Rude Boy" had Jones not been naked and painted by Keith Haring all those years ago? Would Janelle Monae be donning a button-up suit in "Tightrope" had Jones not already pioneered the fierce, androgynous aesthetic? Would Kim Kardashian have broken the internet on the cover of Paper magazine if Jones had not posed the same way decades prior? Would Nicki Minaj be seen writhing around in a cage for her "Stupid Hoe" video had Jones not been immortalised in an identical position for Goude's controversial 1982 book Jungle Fever? Would we be filling our Instagram feeds with #freethenipple hashtags to protest against sexual objectification if Jones' "Nipple to the Bottle" had not been banned from the radio in 1982 for the same reason? Would Lady Gaga even exist?
Celebrating how Jones wholly embraced her sexual prowess over the years is more than just that; it's about celebrating everything that came after her; everything that wouldn't exist had she not broken so many boundaries. Because Jones didn't just use sex to seduce or pander to the male gaze – she exercised and weaponised what she recognised was rightfully hers. From the very beginning, she chose to opt out of a society that subjugated women to the role of passive sexual objects, fetishised black women, and expected women to suppress their appetite. But most importantly, she decided that if any of that was going to happen, it would be entirely on her terms, with her rules, larger and fiercer and bolder than anybody could have ever expected.
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(Lead illustration by John Garrison)