Bloodlight-Jamaican slang for the red light that indicates when a singer is being taped in a recording studio.
Bami-a flat and round Jamaican bread, the “staff of life.”
The roots of Black music in religion and spirituality are a forgone conclusion. The desire for Black congregations for showmanship as part of their ceremonies of praise is a given as well. Emerging from this sanctified morass in the Pentecostal Church, of which there are over 150 separate denominations. Simply put, Pentecostals believe in a personal relationship with the all-mighty, manifested in expressing their spiritual empowerment by way of speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, and exorcism (not to mention handling rattlesnakes).
This earthy demonstration of the wonders of Heaven is accompanied by a strong musical tradition, likely a compelling motivator to attract and retain the faithful. Simultaneously, the faith is built upon a bedrock of punitive discipline in which to correct the offender, and admonish others in the congregation not to follow in the path of the wrongdoer. This often leads to capricious punishment that can, in turn alienate the offender. Notable musical talents exposed to the faith in their youth include Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Michelle Williams. Whether they were compelled raise their voices in a secular fashion due to the callous treatment they’ve endured is, of course dependent on their individual experiences.
Yet and still, musical aficionados believe the emotion and passion honed in performing songs of “praise to the almighty” have been transposed to the tunes of the material world.
Long before she captivated the globe with her merging of the idioms of disco, new wave, and reggae, Grace Jones was indoctrinated in the strict regime of the Pentecostal religion. How much of the background is manifested in her music and especially her performance persona is one of the themes explored in the recently released “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami,” by documentarian Sophie Fiennes (sister to movie stars Joseph and Ralph).
The most telling sequences of the film occur as she returns to her Jamaican homeland to visit her family. While there, she and her kin reminisce about the sadistic, Holy Roller parenting style of her step-grandfather, “Mas P,” who certainly was the source of her rebellion, estrangement, and (possible) reconciliation with the church. The result is an androgynous, cross dressing, gender-bending, hyper-sexualized, take no prisoners manifestation of what it is to be, in show biz terms, a “Diva.”
Underneath this exterior, one senses the insecurity at her inner core. Her behavior off stage is an on-going exhibit of what surely are defense mechanisms devised from the ruins of her childhood. The camera catches her drinking copious amounts of champagne, accepting hotel room service nude aside the omnipresent fur coat, and uttering profane utterances when no audience is around, as when she whines about the difficulty of prying open oysters (“I wish my p*ssy was this tight”).
This entitlement is especially overt in her business dealings (her cash payments must be delivered, up front before she performs). Multiple episodes have her haggling in person or over the phone with various impresarios, and tongue lashing those who don’t measure up to her demands, including the legendary reggae production duo, Sly and Robbie.
Fiennes could have been more deliberate in editing the transitions between Jones the performer and her home coming to her Jamaican relatives, including Bishop Noel Jones, pastor of Gardena’s City of Refuge Church. Instead, we jump from sound checks in France, to family reunions in Jamaica, to layovers in random hotel rooms, often without benefit of locale descriptions or other identifiers.
The film would have benefited with flashbacks from her extensive history of collaboration with fashion designers Phillip Treacy, Issey Miyake, Eiko Ishioka, Azzedine Alaia, and especially her ex-paramour, Jean-Michel Goude (who has described her as “…beautiful and grotesque at the same time”). All of them were instrumental in shaping her image (Jones’ allure is as much visual as it is aural) Goude does make an appearance, as he and Jones converse about their shared past, which includes their son, Paulo (who also appears, with Jones’ granddaughter).
All in all, Grace Jones remains a captivating performer relevant some 40 years into her career, and a compelling inspiration for scores of entertainers following her, including Annie Lennox, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Janelle Monáe, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Rihanna. Her influence transcends the realm of dance music, and impacts pop culture, curetted fine art and fashion.
Amber Rose challenged the status quo and our perceptions of race, sexuality, her place as a pioneer of a particular-and ever changing-aesthetic sensibility remains unchallenged.
“Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami,” opens Friday, April 20 at the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd, in west Los Angeles.