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Why Grace Jones will never achieve ‘auntie’ status

Grace Jones at the Carre theatre, Amsterdam, in 1981 - Credit: Redferns

BONNIE GREER on what Grace Jones has, which Patti LaBelle doesn’t.

This pandemic, the lockdown, the whole nine yards of it, can make you look at yourself. Think about things. Like the term ‘auntie’.
Because I have never owned property, nor ever had what used to be called ‘a proper job’, most of the people I know and associate with are decades younger than me.

I am seometimes called ‘auntie’, a term at first I thought was derisory but which, I have come to know, in the black British and African American communities, is one of affection and respect.

‘Auntie’ means that you are always there; always offering solace, food, wisdom, refuge. It means that you have lived a life and now you are settling down and have something to show, something to share. You are present, as all aunties should be.

But I always tell my young friends that I am no ‘auntie’. Not even to family, although I love them. And that I never will be.

The other day, a young friend asked me, in reference to an article about the great soul artist, Patti LaBelle, why Grace Jones was not included as an auntie. After all, Ms. Jones is only a few years younger than ‘Auntie Patti’ and should be in that mix. On the surface, this is correct.

These women came to prominence in the 1970s and both were ground-breaking, Patti LaBelle in her daring mixture of soul and gospel, Grace Jones in just being. But this is where it ends.

Patti Labelle has been called the ‘Godmother of Soul’ and you do not get this title unless, as black people say, you can “saaang”.

Soul itself, was considered a kind of transgression. Soul comes from African American religious music. The sermon and the music is why Sunday in many communities is an all-day experience. As are funerals.

Thomas A Dorsey – the pianist for blues and jazz legend Ma Rainey, along with Bessie Smith, one of the queens of 1920s music – began to write church music with a slight air of the secular. His music had the feel of his work with Smith, but did not cross the boundaries of the sacred.

Ray Charles came along in the 1950s and upped the ante with I Got a Woman. If you listen to the lyrics and let the feeling take you, it is easy to see that you can put the word ‘God’ in there for “she been good to me”.

This caused a bit of a stir in the church communities, but they went along with it. But Sam Cooke, for many in church circles, took it too far. Some considered Aretha Franklin to have done so too. Then along came Patti LaBelle in the 1970s and she hung on to ‘church’, even as she sang soul.

It is in her voice. Even when she soars in the classic Lady Marmalade, which is definitely not about a church woman, you can hear a kind of plea for redemption from Patti. Can somebody come and save this bad woman’s soul who Patti is singing about?

I saw her onstage with her great group, Labelle, in the 1980s. They were flamboyant, ground-breaking: three African American women not only being divas, but signalling to the emerging LGBTQ community that they were in solidarity. That that they were with them.

And Patti, glorious in gilded clothing that looked like a borrow from the costume shop of what the French call a peplum – those spectaculars about ancient Rome with a cast of thousands – still was ‘church’. She still made you feel those soothing, redemptive sounds of a Sunday mid-morning and smell that cooking going on down in the church basement which was the reward for enduring the preacher’s hours-long sermon.

Patti LaBelle in 1975 – Credit: Getty Images

You just always felt that you could turn up at Miss LaBelle’s house and that she had food for you and warmth and maybe, if you were lucky and truly blessed, she would sit at the piano and sing for you.

She was the quintessential, glorious auntie even when she was young, and by all reports is one still.

Grace Jones, on the other hand, made me stop straightening my hair and cut it and wear it natural. Which I have never stopped doing. She posed with not much else than attitude and made all women of African descent think about insouciance.

By some miracle, I was present at her baby shower at the legendary Paradise Garage in mid-1979. It was thrown by other celebrities and they were all there. At some point in the proceedings, Grace was wheeled onstage in some sort of contraption, dressed like something out of Dada.

I think that she sang – I can’t recall. She kind of sang, but no one was listening. To me, she looked like no mommie about to give birth. We were looking at total defiance, even in the face of what we had been brought up to consider to be a retiring time. You hid yourself, did not show yourself when you had what is called in this country ‘a bump’. Grace was flouting it, but not as a ‘yummy mummy’. She was A Creation. She belonged to no one.

In the next decade, she went on to make even more daring music and movies, and her lifestyle and attitude saw her described as the ‘Errol Flynn of the 80s’.

She has hula-hooped onstage before the Queen at an age when that sort of thing is supposed to be long ago in your  past, and is said to be a doting granny in real life. But she is most definitely not your auntie and, unlike Patti LaBelle, would not be included in any list of them.

Jones is said to have been banned from Disney World for baring her breasts – but if you know anything about her shows, what else was expected? Her 2015 memoirs, entitled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs give instructions on what she requires on tour, including an oyster knife.

The legendary guitarist, producer and performer Nile Rodgers tells the story of how, when, after being invited to an exclusive Studio 54 party by Jones, he and Chic bandmate Bernard Edwards could not get in. She had not left their names at the door, and so they started yelling. The incident directly inspired their massive hit Le Freak, although the song’s refrain “freak out”, started off somewhat coarser in that New York waiting line.

But above all, the difference between LaBelle and Jones and why at a certain point you have to choose which camp you’re in, goes back to my point about insouciance. That will to just keep being defiant. LaBelle’s brilliance is in making you feel warm, bringing you inside, wrapping you in her beautiful voice and kindness. Jones’ glory is to make you keep banging on the door.

In this time of pandemic, with a killer virus raging, our European citizenship coming to an end and who knows what else, it is the ‘I’m Not Your Auntie’ stance of Grace Jones that I prefer. Grace keeps moving.

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