“Humble me, humble me. Don’t let me forget who I am.”
June of 2008. It was the second summer I worked my part-time job as a junior tutor at my high school. During my breaks, I would browse through various songs on my music player, looking for something to be enthralled in, while thumbing through publications like Rolling Stone, Spin, and Entertainment Weekly just to kill the time. On one occasion, I came across a double-page spread on a band that was making a huge buzz on the music scene. The beautifully shot photograph, which took up the entire spread, captured the band huddled toe-to-toe, against a metallic background. The eight men looked squarely in the camera, wearing dapper suits and rugged patent leather shoes to boot.
In the midst of them was a middle-aged, chocolate-brown woman. She stood confidently and fiercely in a flowered dress. Her blown-out Afro was soft and as she tilted her head, she flashed an inviting, motherly smile across her face. She appeared as a regal Black queen etched from a certain time and dimension, with anointed beauty and strength burning brightly for a new era. It was my introduction to the Brooklyn, New York-based collective, the Dap-Kings (formerly known as the Soul Providers) and their powerhouse Augusta, Georgia-born lead singer, Sharon Jones. I gazed at them with befuddlement and astonishment all at once.
Initially, I thought that Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings was a new band, as I hadn’t followed independent music much. I hadn’t even heard of them before. I’d soon find out that they’d been together for over a decade and recorded three critically-acclaimed albums by that time. Sharon Jones, in particular, had been singing professionally for more than 30 years prior to her partnership with the Daptone Records collective. She just hadn’t gained fame then.
My relationship with soul music during the millennium was truly odd. My ears were focused heavily on the sounds of neo-soul and soul music from the past. Commonly, I would scorn any band that wore Italian-tailored suits and played real instruments, thinking that they mocked idioms that defined the past, with no true integrity to their approach. After my first glance of the band, I was enticed to snag a copy of their third release, 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights to actually hear what the buzz was about. From the Dap Kings Horn Section’s solemn brass showcase that opened their breakthrough single, “100 Days, 100 Nights” to the rousing, gospel-flavored shouts of the album’s final song, “Answer Me,” I was instantly hooked.
While their musical approach was primarily based on heavy funk and deep soul productions from the mid-Sixties to early-Seventies, the Dap-Kings were committed to reviving the rhythmic attitude and raw spirit of Atlantic, Stax, Motown, Chess, Hi, and People for a modern soul landscape that was growing stagnant on truth and originality. Their music wasn’t built on nostalgia either, as it exuded true feeling, which is a rarity in today’s music landscape.
Above all, it was Sharon Jones’ dynamic voice that drew me even closer into the music. In one casual moment, echoes of the gritty Southern twang from Mavis Staples, Merry Clayton, Bettye LaVette, and Muscle Shoals-era Etta James made your head turn; and in the next, the mighty soul sister preaching of Marva Whitney, Vicki Anderson, and Lyn Collins shook you. Make no mistake, though—Jones was in a class of her own. This wasn’t an interpreter merely wearing her influences on her sleeve for the sake of it. This was the real deal. Her vocal phrasing and range were truly distinctive, especially when looking at the plethora of soul and funk divas that rose before and after her. With her richly-textured voice, she melded her gutsy tones and relaxed coos in such an effortless fashion that you had no other choice but to give her your undivided attention. She could tell it like it was as the bold soul mother she was.
Although a great deal of her music explored a range of commonplace topics pertaining to the travails of love, I greatly appreciated the sociopolitical emphasis in her artistry. Songs like “Money,” “Without a Heart,” “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects,” “People Don’t Get What They Deserve,” and “What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?” showcased her heartfelt concern towards a wounded America that was adversely abandoning the societal issues that were affecting its people, particularly people of color. When she covered Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” for her 2005 sophomore release, Naturally, she recontextualized its populist patriotism and breathed her down-home realism into it. Over the Dap-Kings’ tasteful jazz-funk backdrop, she exposed the economic and social disparities that affected Black America from the very beginning. It remains a remarkable critique on corporate capitalism in the 21st century—something that Augusta’s funk queen knew all too well as she was part of America’s working class for her entire life.
Several of Jones’ critics often label her as ‘the female James Brown,’ and while Brown certainly had an immense impact on her artistry and upbringing as a Black and proud woman (both hailing from Augusta, GA), it is simply too limiting and unjust of a description to give her sole notoriety for. In fact, this marginalized attribute is equally relative to the adversity she faced in a rather partisan industry that considered her “too fat, too Black, and too old,” when she first tried to secure a record deal at Sony Records.
She ended up releasing her first album, 2002’s Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings on an independent label at the age of forty and gained international fame—a huge feat that gave more credence to fact that a woman’s success, beauty, or talent could never be underscored by any man’s validation. In a time when society tragically upholds ageism in favor of maintaining youthfulness, Jones courageously broke that barrier, proving that women could in fact fulfill their destinies at any age and be vivacious doing it. When the industry disregarded and exploited its fellow elders and ancestors who worked to unhinge its oppressive infrastructures, she gave her heroes a space to survive, just as she vehemently did for herself.
During a 2010 GQ interview with writer Melissa Maerz, Jones was asked about competing with younger soul singers in the business. Jones stormily responded with, “I’m not some young singer throwing my CD in your face. I’ve been workin.’” “For one thing, I’m not in nobody’s background,” she added. “Amy [Winehouse] and Mark [Ronson] been listening to me for years, whether they mention my name or not. I was a big influence on Amy, just like Aretha [Franklin] and Mavis [Staples] were big influences on me.”
To overlook Jones’ position as a top-flight live performer is to simply disregard her legacy and the legacy of Black performance in general. The legacy of Black performance has often been praised and ridiculed on the same token from day one. It has introduced a series of triumphs that solidify the magnificence of the Black experience, even at the most conflicted and darkest of times. The masterful synergy of artistic improvisation and physical vivacity that is utilized by its entertainers emphasizes the need for the experiences and concepts that define Black culture to constantly grow and evolve, as there are structural and political forces that negatively impact them. When utilizing their live shows constructively, entertainers can effectively communicate their metaphysical and sociopolitical dilemmas, as they pertain to the Black experience.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were, first and foremost, a live act. Personally, I found it odd that the band never recorded a live album, as their shows rivaled much of what they cut at Daptone’s House of Soul. Whether you attended one of their live shows or watched one of their performances during a broadcast, you would immediately know that it was more than a show. It was a revelation filled with immense energy. In one sense, it possessed the secularized modes of a late-night Chitlin Circuit revue; and in another, the sanctified fiery of a Baptist church service.
A consummate entertainer, Jones strutted, shimmied, and stomped with an intensity that would leave you breathless, while the Dap-Kings cooked relentless grooves that moved your feet as well as your spirit. Maintaining the raw funk and communal influence of Black performance during their live shows, they strived to evoke the power of ‘less being more’—a golden principle where concerts weren’t fixated on stylized choreography and pyrotechnics. It was about the groove and its communal commitment to the People. It was pure feeling and nothing extra.
In evaluating Sharon Jones’ remarkable discography, the one album that best exemplifies the essence of her artistry is her fourth release, 2010’s I Learned the Hard Way. A bridge between the earthier funk swagger of Naturally and the lush Northern R&B sway of 100 Days, 100 Nights, I Learned the Hard Way found Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings moving their signature revival vision forward with newfound confidence and passion.
If anything else, Jones hit a personal peak when it came to emphasizing a certain emotion or atmosphere that allowed a song to reach its full potency. She was always an incredible storyteller, who lamented over lost love, broken relationships, and the growing pains that come with it. On The Hard Way, she became a bold soul pundit on Black romanticism and Black women persevering through their complications with love. This is immediately illustrated during the album’s opening three-song stretch, where her painful acknowledgement about a frayed romance on “The Game Gets Old” and the title track compellingly gives way to her rising above it all on “Better Things.” That, in a nutshell, speaks to the affirming power of Sharon Jones’ resilience.
She was a soul survivor who defied expectations and triumphed against all odds.