Photo courtesy of AfropunkI began to suspect early on. Yet after two songs and two costume changes into her headlining set at the Afropunk festival’s inaugural Fancy Dress Ball at Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park, there’s no longer any ambiguity: Grace Jones is topless. Reprising a 1984 collaboration with Keith Haring, white body paint has been applied to her skin in patterns derived from Nigerian Ibo symbols, which also appear on a torso-covering corset. Capping a week full of tabloid hysterics over the Times Square desnudas, the pioneering performing artist’s semi-nude turn seems a bold stance, though there’s no guarantee that she’s even aware of the minor controversy. After all, she only just flew in from Jamaica, and with some difficulty for that matter. Subtlety is for other artists.
Citing her travel difficulties, Jones says, "It took some getting to get here,” which might very be the understatement of the year. It’s hard to even imagine an event like Afropunk, a three-day celebration of black musicians, artists, and causes, without her. This year’s festival presented a broad selection of curated and formidable talents, from left-of-center singers like Jesse Boykins III and SZA to dynamic rockers like Gary Clark, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz. A godmother to the entire lot, Jones paved their way by being an unapologetically bold performer, producing a potent discography that both delights and challenges at the same time.Her three early Eighties albums recorded with Island Records co-founder Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas—Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing, and Living My Life—came during an extraordinary time for Jamaican music. The emergence of dancehall coupled with a heightened fascination with and appreciation for island sounds in the U.K. had paved the way for artists from outside the Caribbean to experiment with these sounds. Elvis Costello, the Clash, Madness, the Police, Public Image Limited, and countless others appropriated from reggae’s plentiful bounty to inform their new rock forms, garnering them much critical acclaim or at least attention.Jones, originally from Spanish Town, subverted these earnest plundering anglos by loading this album trilogy with radical reggae-heavy cover versions of known songs by The Pretenders and Roxy Music, as well as works by pioneering black R&B artists like Smokey Robinson and Bill Withers. Having previously honed her knack for reinterpretations during her late 70s tenure with disco mix maestro Tom Moulton, she consumed the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing,” making them all her own by way of then-burgeoning new wave. Jones’ band for these sessions included the now-legendary rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, as well as a handful of less heralded yet immensely talented Jamaican session players like Mikey Chung of Lee Perry’s Upsetters and Tyrone Downie of Bob Marley and the Wailers. If that weren’t enough, those records progressively showcased original material written or co-written by Jones, including “My Jamaican Guy.”
What sweet revenge Jones perpetrated on the cultural tourists! Unwilling, unlikely and perhaps even unable to conform, her success in music, as well as fashion and film, was a thumb in the eye of the Western world for its overly masculine tastes in Jamaican music and exaggeratedly feminine standards of beauty. A professional model since the age of 18, she was no doubt acutely aware that her physicality was a focal point and thus weaponized it accordingly. Stylized by then-partner Jean-Paul Goude, Jones’ album covers were monumental events in and of themselves. The artwork for her Island Life hits compilation exaggerated her athletically lithe physique via a clever cut-and-paint technique, and remains an iconic picture exalting glamorous blackness.So much of Jones’ image involved challenging conventions of femininity and gender. She wore her hair short, frequently with sharp and almost cartoonish edges. She appears in a broad shouldered suit on the cover of Nightclubbing, predating David Byrne’s comically large one from Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense concert film. As depicted best in the “My Jamaican Guy” video with its dueling face shots, Jones could alternate between male and female appearances with ease and credibility. It’s little wonder that she became a respected figure in the LGBTQ community, one that came out in droves for this weekend’s Afropunk Fancy Dress Ball.Jones’ set delivers on the promise of her 80s run, giving the eager crowd a selection of hits and newer cuts. Between songs like "Love Is the Drug" and “Private Life,” her wardrobe changes in elaborate and creative ways. Emerging from behind a billowy curtain bathed in deep blue light for the austere opening “Nightclubbing,” she performs in a gold headdress and skull mask with black cloak. At one point she’s a lioness, decked out with an elaborate mane and matching tail for which to prowl her stage. Then later she’s a dazzling cabaret star with glittering cap. Still poking at gender roles, she has a painted man work the stripper pole while she wears an oversized interpretation of a grass skirt. Throughout, Jones’ chameleonic abilities allow her to occupy any form she chooses to inhabit, and each outfit shift is as credible as it is marvelous.Towards the end, Jones straddles the shoulders of a suited man who proceeds to carry her through the crowd. The adoration is palpable, as if it wasn’t already. Defiant as ever, the body paint now almost entirely smudged or sweated off, she projects a raspy by not pained stream of repeated "I love you"s to the crowd. It’s the love of a mother to her children, full of pride in what they’ve become under her tutelage.Gary Suarez is a slave to the rhythm. Follow him on Twitter.