POSTED ON: January 30, 2014 IN 3rd Text Africa, Mario Pissarra, Word View, Word View Authors

Mario Pissarra, 30 January 2014

Note: originally written as editorial for Third Text Africa vol 1 no. 2, 2009

“Jerry Jones is a soul singer.”

That would be an innocuous sentence, except that, as Jones assures us, “Still waters run deep.”

Jerry Jones is a soul singer, but you won’t find her on an anthology of soul music. This may seem strange, particularly since Jerry Jones was a black, Alabama born singer who released albums in 1970 and 1971, i.e. when soul was entering its mature phase – Marvin Gaye was about to release Motown’s first ‘protest’ album (What’s Going On) and Curtis Mayfield was beginning his solo career.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Jerry Jones recorded in Jamaica with Studio One. Perhaps if she’d hung around Detroit and had a girl’s name, something like Diana, Martha or Mary. Perhaps.

Studio One is to reggae what Tamla Motown is to soul. A foundational recording studio and record label. But you won’t find Jerry among the five Jones’ listed in The Rough Guide to Reggae. This may seem strange, particularly since every Reggae afficondo knows that soul had a profound impact on the evolution of Jamaican music.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that with the emergence of militant Rasta Reggae in the early 70s Studio One was temporarily displaced as a central force in Jamaican music. Perhaps if Jerry had arrived in the mid 60s she would have had a good run with Rocksteady, the Jamaican equivalent to soul. Perhaps you’ll find on a budget compilation in the future titled “Jamaican Soul”, along with Chicago Soul, Northern Soul, Philly Soul, and anywhere but nowhere soul.

The fact that Jerry’s timing was out of sync with Jamaican trends and recorded an ocean apart from US soul does not make her a less competent or interesting artist. It just means that she becomes invisible.

The irony is that while Jerry Jones does not fit comfortably into rigidly defined musical genres, she was not an iconoclast. She did what made sense to her, namely singing soul music. She was not a lyricist, and never ventured into the creative wordplay and patois that has become synonymous with Jamaican culture. However, like many descendants of the transatlantic slave trade she did appreciate the wisdom in proverbs, as “Still Waters” attests. She also may not have sung any ‘militant’ songs, but there is a strength of character and resilience of spirit that does come across in her work.

I was told that “Jerry Jones is a soul singer” by a Rasta record dealer in Camden. As a statement it is a simple descriptive fact, just listen to her and that much is clear. It also has an evaluative dimension. It means that she is a good singer, Jerry Jones has ‘class’. Certainly “Still Waters” turns a pedestrian Temptations song into a sublime statement. Working with top musicians like Ernest Ranglin didn’t hurt, but the voice is all hers.

I begin this editorial for the second edition of Third Text Africa with some thoughts about an obscure singer because they highlight the importance and impact of the conceptual framing that ‘locates’ or ‘defines’ art and artists. This framing has both benevolent and malevolent aspects. Benevolent in the sense that it is by identifying and applying relevant terms of reference that one can enrich the process of generating ‘meaning’. Malevolent in the sense that misleading, restrictive or exclusive frames of reference act to limit possibilities and inhibit the ‘movement’ of ideas. ‘Framing’ an artist can have a devastating affect, rendering them irrelevant and marginalising them, or it can serve to assert their importance, elevating their prominence.

Framing is fraught with tension, even contradictions. At one level many artists resist being labelled. However many artists, often including those who resist being labelled, privilege issues of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, culture, sexuality, age as key concerns. At times this appears contradictory, especially when absolute positions are articulated, inevitably to be contradicted by practice. This revives the old debates between privileging the work as a purportedly autonomous entity and imposing the broader context as a deterministic force. Ultimately both these polarities have to be explored, and the interpretation of the work occupies a dynamic space that mediates these binaries.

The archival essays contained in this edition of Third Text Africa are all concerned, explicitly or implicitly, with the development of critical frameworks that illuminate the interpretation of art produced in African contexts, including those, such as North Africa, which have only comparatively recently been reframed as part of that polyglot signifier ‘Africa’. Mostly they are concerned with deconstructing frameworks that have been developed within dominant cultural frameworks, reflecting ‘western’ interests. They are themselves informed by both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ perspectives, positions that are seldom crisply delineated as distinct, but which inevitably reflect earnest struggles to locate ‘meaning’. Ultimately, they highlight the need to develop flexible frameworks that reflect the particularities of practice and the contexts of these practices. These contexts are local, but they are also global. Few artists do not see themselves as part of a global imaginary. These global imaginaries are many. They may usually rotate around centres of power, with dominant centres exercising proportionate influence, but it would be foolish to ignore their plurality.

Framing is inevitable – it is part of the process of making sense of particular acts by placing them within discernible patterns. At its most basic level it enables a level of recognition and comprehension that introduces comparative and evaluative dimensions. But when does framing stand in the way of deeper, more critical readings? When we find ourselves casually making sense of one artist by thinking of another, of reading meaning that is based on ideas developed in their own specific contexts, we risk losing sight of the particular qualities of specific works and artists. We may want to see the big picture, but let us not loose sight of the specificity.

I’d like to return to Jerry Jones. Consider the words of the title of a cover song she made all her own: “Compared to what?” Consider the impact of reframing this as compared for what? Such a shift highlights the purposes and consequences of framing. Some of us may ultimately not be primarily interested in art and artists: these are simply points of departure for our own understanding of the world. So what if the theories I develop impact on others, including the artists who prompted my thinking, so long as I get my platform! For others the artist and her work remain central. We accept the invitation that is extended to us in the opening words of “Still Waters”: “walk with me/ take my hand…” Whatever our orientation, one thing is certain: we need to generate a culture of producing new readings.