This year, Associate Professor of Africana Studies Judith Casselberry gave the annual Karofsky lecture on “Solving the Mystery of Grace Jones: It’s the Holy Ghost.”
Cultural icon Grace Jones is in the fourth decade of a professional career that includes high fashion model, actress, and recording artist. Throughout, Jones has served as a symbol for unexplainable excess in the popular imagination. Descriptions of her by critics, public intellectuals, and scholars have included: “an emblem of cold steel androgyny,” “a question mark followed by an exclamation point,” and “sci-fi fantasy.” Since the early 1990s, scholars across disciplines have analyzed her work through theories of gender, race, performance, postmodernism, post-colonialism, and transnationalism in attempts to make her legible. Primarily focused on Jones’ musical work and persona, this lecture pushes current scholarship by asserting her transnational Pentecostal upbringing is as significant as race, gender, and (secular) transnationalism in interpreting her contribution to popular culture. Re-reading Jones’ work through the lens of Pentecostalism shows a dialogue through aesthetics. She infuses “sanctified” expressions into performance in a deliberately profane manner, simultaneously reinforcing a sanctified aesthetic and turning it against itself.
Casselberry teaches courses on African American women’s religious lives; music and spirituality in popular culture; music and social movements; and issues in Black intellectual thought. Her interest in African American religious and cultural studies, with particular attention to gender, guides her research agenda. Her current ethnography, The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism, employs feminist labor theories to examine the spiritual, material, social, and organizational work of women in a New York-based Pentecostal denomination (Duke University Press, April 2017). She is co-editor with Elizabeth Pritchard of Spirit Goes Where It Listeth: Black Women and Pentecostalism in Diaspora. This collection of essays by leading scholars examines Black women’s engagement with Pentecostalism in Mozambique, Ghana, Nigeria, Brazil, Haiti, Grenada, and the U.S. (forthcoming in Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People series with Duke University Press). In addition to research and publishing on organized Pentecostalism, she is working on a project examining the transnational Pentecostal roots of international music icon Grace Jones and their imprint on her performance aesthetics and identity.
Casselberry’s interest in links between lettered and performed scholarship comes from her career as an academic and performer. As a vocalist and guitarist, she performs nationally and internationally with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely, and has enjoyed a career as an international recording artist with Casselberry-DuPree and JUCA. She has shared stages with Sweet Honey in the Rock, Odetta, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, and Elvis Costello, among others