Proximity to Blackness

Daniel Alexander Jones on David Bowie

After finishing my 33 1/3 volume on David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, I’d had enough ruminating about the album on my own. Now I wanted to hear what other people had to say. So I wrote to some of the smartest and most interesting people I know to ask them for their thoughts and feelings about Bowie and Diamond Dogs. One of those people was Daniel Alexander Jones, a Guggenheim award-winning performance artist, playwright, director, essayist and educator who teaches at Fordham University. At the center of several of Jones’ work is his performance alter ego, Jomama Jones, who is “a legendary performer. She made her triumphant comeback to recording and the stage in 2010, after having left the USA in the mid-1980s for personal and political reasons to live abroad.” Not long after Jones’s most recent piece, Black Light,  finished runs at the Public Theater and the Greenwich House Theatre, I shared an advance copy of my book on Diamond Dogs with him, and asked whether David Bowie was a reference point for him as he developed the Jomama Jones persona. This is his fascinating and illuminating reply:

Your book Diamond Dogs gave me the opportunity to appreciate the particular “magpie intellect” of Bowie in the context of his artistic journey and the forces that defined it from without and within. I always viewed David Bowie with a healthy dose of suspicion along with my admiration. 

The short answer to your question is that Bowie was not at all a reference point for me with Jomama Jones. The reasons why are rooted in the realities of segregation and exploitation in the music industry, and the broader culture in which it operated. As a teenager in the early 1980s, I tuned to the local community radio stations that focused on Black music—from contemporary Soul and Dance through their antecedents. Jomama comes wholly from those sonic roots. She is shaped by Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Donna Summer, Labelle, Tina Turner, Melba Moore, Angela Bofill, Teena Marie (who while white, was embraced as a part of Black culture), Patrice Rushen, Prince, and by older singers like Josephine Baker and Lena Horne, and performers like Diahann Carroll. And she certainly has a bit of Sylvester in her. 

I first encountered David Bowie through “Let’s Dance.” Due in part to Nile Rodgers’s influential style in the arrangement and recording of the work, it had the sonic credibility to be played on Black radio alongside songs like George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.” Bowie was also grouped in my mind’s eye (not yet being familiar with his earlier work) with the U.K. New Wave artists who were popular at that time. I embraced that music but my perception was always that Bowie was another rich and famous white artist who took from Black music and culture. Proximity to Blackness had given him his greatest commercial hit, but seemed to be framed as less artistically meaningful after the fact by those assessing his contributions. Unlike Teena Marie or Heatwave’s Rod Temperton (white artists who participated in and contributed to Black musical culture), I looked at Bowie, at the time, like I did Madonna, who dipped in when it was useful and jetted when they were done. Cool but distanced.

It was much later that I learned about the breadth and depth of Bowie’s work. I came to appreciate his shape-shifting, his provocations, his beauties, and, indeed, that cool but distanced stance in the context of the cultural revolutions afoot during his earlier years and, now in retrospect, at the time of this album’s genesis. I greatly appreciated a range of his songs, grew to love the expressiveness of his voice, and also admired the ways he challenged the world through his acts of reinvention. I was deeply affected by his final album. I can appreciate the disruptive force of his creative practice, and understand the brilliance of Diamond Dogs on its own merits, born at the threshold of a dark, global turn.

Grab a copy of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs here!

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