“Slave to the Rhythm,” is a 1985 hit song released by artist Grace Jones from her album of the same title.
What’s unique about this song is the many Afrofuturist elements in terms of the acknowledgement of African-American culture, constructions of identity, and its parallels of man as machine.
Afrofuturism (Wikipedia): A literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past.
The song title “Slave to the Rhythm,” itself can be a metaphor to many forms of exploitation that people of color may experience. In the opening lines Jones says “You work all day and men who know / The wheels must turn to keep the flow.” These lyrics allude to capitalist ideologies of productivity and work that keep many in a constant mode of labor to keep surviving. This idea can be brought back to the enslavement of black people but also currently how black people are continuously exploited in this capitalist system.
Even further comparisons are made to this African-American history through mentioning of fires, chains, and the “chain gang song.” After the abolition of slavery, chain gang labor in prisons were created to further enslave people of color in another legal system. This type of forced labor in prison chained men together and forced them to work and live in harsh conditions. Prisoners would often sing as a means of getting through the day and completing tasks efficiently. These songs during labor allowed for people to complete tasks that may have been viewed as impossible or super difficult. Lastly, Jones repeats “Work to the rhythm! / Slave to the rhythm! / Live to the rhythm! / Love to the rhythm!” This repetition highlights ideas of how exploitation can carry on to many aspects of our lives in terms of the way we live, work, and love. You can think of this in terms of exploitation in the music industry, exploitation of labor, and exploitation of just daily living of how the white heterosexual idea of living is used as a model for all types of lives and any deviation outside of that can bring consequences.
These ideas of exploitation of life and certain models of living are things that Jones critiques heavily in this song and accompanying artwork, particularly these ideas of race and gender. In many ways, Jones highlights how these things that we judge people on and treat people differently on are mere societal constructions. The music video has many aspects that relate to this idea of performance especially in terms of minstrel shows. Many of the characters in the video have some sort of body paint covering either majority of the body or just face. For instance, at around 1:09 you can see a white man covered with black face paint and a woman covered in black body paint and yellow face while they both hold cameras in their hands and TVs on their head. Even 1:24 has remnants of the minstrel show as you see these characters wearing white gloves as another character closes the curtains and the crowd cheers. These and other examples of black, yellow, and even white face in the video portray this idea of the performativity of race and how it has been such a part of performance history itself.
What is spectacular about this is how Jones has recognized and used identity as a way of liberation. It is also worth considering Jones’ gender performance in the video as well. The album cover and the beginning of the video depicts Jones as someone who is larger than life and transcends traditional humanlike features with the elongation of her face and stark expression. Additionally, Jones plays with gender frequently in the video but most notably around 1:41 as we see two representations of Jones in both male and female assigned bodies. In a way, they’re exact mirrors of each other with postures, hat, eyes, and drink in hand. You could say that Jones inhabits a space of gender fluidness or genderlessness. This relates to Afrofuturism’s ideologies of breaking binaries that were created from white hegemonic ideologies and inhabiting a space where one has more control over themselves due to the power of being able to blur conventional lines and ideas of existing.
These ideas of humanity and what it means to be human are highlighted even more in the representation of man as machine. Not only is the highlighted in the lyrics as Jones sings “Axe to wood, in ancient time / Man machine, power line,” but also in the music video. Around 1:50, we see a cyborg version of Grace Jones appear in the desert with the same elongated mouth as seen in the album cover art. A car with another version of Jones comes out of the mouth, does a few tricks in the sand, and then returns full speed back into Jones’ mouth. Even more indirectly, this mechanized humanity is present throughout with the repetition of song lyrics, the machine-like quality of the characters dancing and movement throughout and the stoic stiff postures exhibited in the pictures that appear in the video frame. In fact, most of the movement throughout is highly mechanized and stiff with forms of varied repetition. Afrofuturism embraces this idea of man as machine, especially since many were denied access to the status of being human. Here Jones not only highlights that ideology but also appropriates it as a form of liberation and as an extension of breaking the man-machine binary. With this idea of man as machine, perhaps we can break down constructions of identities as machines can exist by being genderless and unmarked by race.
“Slave to the Rhythm,” offers us a unique interpretation on the idea of humanity by fusing many Afrofuturist ideologies. Grace Jones in her personal existence and with these songs break down binaries and molds by displaying how race and gender are constructions. These constructions can be altered, broken, and either outside of a binary. The characters in the music video exist in hybrid spaces of race and gender by being more than one of something and not anything at all. With the idea of technology and man as machine, Jones also breaks down this machine-man dichotomy displaying how we can be both through this historical and current idea of enslavement in the many aspects of daily life. Her song seems to be an acknowledge of history and enslavement but in a way is a call to appropriate and embrace history in order to move forward.