Lessons on resilience from soul singer Sharon Jones

Soul singer Sharon Jones died last month after years of fighting pancreatic cancer. Jones, who passed away at 60, was the singer for The Dap-Kings. For more than a decade, the group has enjoyed international success as the trailblazing band that forged the way for the classic soul revival.  

After chemotherapy sent her cancer into remission in 2014, Jones returned to the stage with a show of undiminished energy and continued to perform for as long as she could. In her final years, Jones worked to bring her struggle with cancer into the public realm through a documentary entitled “Miss Sharon Jones!

Her extraordinary story as a woman of color who persevered in a male-dominant industry, despite her battles with sexism, racism, and a terminal illness, offers lessons for artists and media practitioners to reflect upon.

1. Being a woman of color in the arts is an uphill battle, but one that must be fought. “Jones started life the youngest of six children born in a hospital storage room in Jim Crow Georgia,” NPR’s Mandalit Del Barco reports on All Things Considered. “Her mother was not allowed in a real hospital room. Her parents separated, and she continued to face prejudice growing up in Brooklyn and prejudice of a different sort trying to break into the music business.”

Jones tried to make a name for herself for decades, but was repeatedly told by record labels that she didn’t look like a performer. In the 2016 documentary, “Miss Sharon Jones!,” and in her song, “I’m Still Here,” Jones recounts how she was often told that she was “too short, too fat, too black and too old.” Regardless, Jones continued to forge ahead.

2. It’s never too late to make it. Jones supported herself in any way that she could while chasing her dreams. She worked as an armored car guard for Wells Fargo and a corrections officer at Rikers Island while trying to break into the music business. She finally made her official music debut when she was 40. And, “Jones was in her 50s when she finally began to enjoy international recognition,” Del Barco reports.

3. Turn outwards. Community can help with healing. While going through chemotherapy, Jones’ bandmates proposed creating a music video for “Stranger To My Happiness.” Jones told NPR’s Arun Rath that she looked at herself and thought, “Wow. Do I really want to do this video, with no hair? Do I really want to do this video with this port sticking out of the top of my chest?” She decided to be visible and show her fans what she was experiencing. “That’s part of my healing process, is to not try to hide the way I look, or stay away another eight or nine months until my hair grows back, or until I think I’m strong enough,” Jones told Rath. “And I think, also, maybe someone out there that’s going through cancer and that’s going through what I’m going through can see that life doesn’t stop, or sickness isn’t until death. … that’s part of the healing.”

4. Reflective storytelling helps bring hope into the darkest times. Jones began constructing her own reflective story during her last years. The resilient singer decided to become the subject of a documentary knowing that she might not live to see the project through.

In 2013, Jones had to take a break from performing after she was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer. The documentary “Miss Sharon Jones!,” by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, follows Jones for two years after her diagnosis. “Miss Sharon Jones!” is not a story of defeat or illness but a documentation of perseverance. Jones found light through being on stage and by sharing her story with others. Kopple admits that initially she thought it was a bit odd to begin filming as Jones became ill. “I knew she had cancer when I went in. But I never looked at it as a film about a person with cancer,” Kopple said in an interview with The International Documentary Association. “I looked at it as a film about a person who’s a marvelous singer, who’s got so much energy and perseverance and passion. And I was always just exploring who she was.”

After a brief introduction, the film begins with Jones shaving off her trademark dreadlocks. The documentary holds a mirror up to what it’s like to live as a public artist with an illness. While “Miss Sharon Jones!” is overall positive, the film does not sugarcoat the day to day struggles of cancer. The compelling documentary strikes a balance between celebrating Jones’ small and large triumphs and detailing how Jones confronts her health, vulnerability and grief.

In a later scene, Jones, on one of her worst days, prepares to perform at a 20,000-seat outdoor venue in Philadelphia. “I don’t know how many of you know me,” Jones said to the audience between songs. “But I’m battling. No matter how much pain I’m in, I can always sing.”

The documentary’s honest portrayal of resilience and a discography of electrifying soul is what Jones left her fans. Her pursuit of art and her perseverance to overcome multiple hurdles leaves us with a closer look at how the queen of soul sustained hope throughout her lifetime.

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