Sunday, 9.30, Grace Jones’ head almost touches the ceiling of the Royal Festival Hall in London. Her skirt, about 20 feet long, covered in a Keith Haring print, flutters sharply in the wind. She looks like she’s about to take off, but instead she slowly lowers herself onto the stage, her skirt falling off as she kicks off her 2008 hit “This Is”. “Those are words I didn’t invent / Just an attempt to say what I meant,” she purrs into the microphone as pink strobe lights bounce off her glittering hat and fall onto the faces of the audience below.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen Jones, now 74, in the flesh. In 2015 I profiled her for Dazed around the time of the publication of her autobiography, I will never write a memoir. We ate lamb chops, drank sambuca at the bar, and laughed at psychedelics. Then I was struck by her warmth and easy character. Throughout her fifty-year career, she was caricatured as some kind of ferocious mythical creature, speaking in flamboyant, sometimes unforgiving phrases. But there are many versions of Jones. “I’m changing roles,” she told me then.
Today, she embodies that mythical ideal. There is a complete costume change for each song, which means she appears in no less than ten different looks. In “Love is a Drug”, she is standing under a neon laser beam wearing a disco ball hat. For “My Jamaican Boyfriend” she wears a long cloth headdress in the colors of the Jamaican flag. For “William’s Blood,” she dons a long dress and a wide-brimmed black fur hat, like an idiosyncratic church performer. For “Slave to the Rhythm”, she wears a spiky black wig and wears a hoop around her waist for most of the song. It’s like watching a theater play. “Even if I forget the words, I’ll just make them up,” she tells the mesmerized crowd, her accent landing somewhere between London, Paris and New York with a Jamaican accent.
Jones first entered the public consciousness in the 1970s as a disco musician and supermodel. Soon she will experiment with new wave, dub, reggae and art pop, and will also become famous for her playing. She was a regular at New York’s Studio 54 nightclub, 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). night clubs album’s coveron which she stands imperious and androgynous in a jacket, with an unlit cigarette between her lips).
So many years have passed since then that it’s easy to forget just how ahead of the curve Jones was and how much of an impact she has had on popular culture. Long before the word “queer” entered our everyday lexicon, Jones refused to label gender and sexuality. Long before we had Lady Gaga, Christine and Queens and Grimes blurring the lines between music and art, Jones pioneered such an experiment. She released songs like “Nipple to the Bottle” decades before the #freethenipple hashtag hit Instagram. Get a little closer – to pop videos, outfits and today’s ideals – and echoes of Jones are everywhere.
In many ways, this live performance – on the last night of the week-long Meltdown festival she curated – felt like a celebration and a reminder of all of the above. At one point, security led her through the audience wearing a shimmering disco ball hat as the crowd cheered and clapped. “Happy Gay Pride!” she called across the room, repeating it louder in case anyone else couldn’t hear her. “I’m so happy that you can be here. For older viewers, many of whom have lived through the AIDS crisis, her words would have a special resonance. Now we’re used to artists voicing their support for the LGBTQ community, but Jones and many of her fans remember when that wasn’t the case.
For the encore, Jones changed into her thousandth outfit — a billowing black cape with swirling buffalo horns on her head — and sang a dramatic version of her 2008 track “Hurricane.” The song’s lyrics echoed in the eardrums of those below: “I can be tough, soft as a breeze / I’ll be a tree-ripping hurricane!”