David Jones died of cancer on 10th January 2016. He was not the only artist to change his name, but Bowie was to become an icon and figurehead for many beating a drum for diversity and the challenging of stereotypes.
To be honest, I mostly love his sound. It’s upbeat, energetic, and of course varied. For many, his lyrics continue to reach out to legitimise that sense of being different. As one tribute amongst millions reminds us – ‘When he sang lines like Rebel Rebel’s ‘Hot tramp, I love you so’, he held our hand and gave us permission to embrace our differences – different is interesting, and interesting is cool’.
Yes, Bowie made difference interesting and cool. How did he do that? Like many others who made it in the rock and roll business he did it through good music that appealed to the rebellion of youth. But he did much more than this. He embraced fashion and continually reinvented himself. This reinvention was important for us also. You don’t have to be how others see you. ‘Why are you wearing a woman’s frock?’ a New York policeman asked him once. ‘It’s not a woman’s frock’ he replied, ‘it’s a man’s frock’. He made difference interesting and cool by drawing attention to it – not through aggressive confrontation but by witty, carefully managed and expressive exposure.
Questions remained perhaps more important than answers to Bowie. And he regarded spirituality as very relevant to his work.
“I honestly believe that my initial questions haven’t changed at all. There are far fewer of them these days, but they’re really important. Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing. Always. It’s because I’m not quite an atheist and it worries me. There’s that little bit that holds on: Well, I’m almost an atheist. Give me a couple of months…’ (Bowie in a TV interview with Ellen DeGeneres).
For me his work speaks to our own work of embracing and exploring difference. I don’t want to overplay the connection, because Bowie’s influence remains so varied and broad. He was not political in the sense of rubbing elbows in the halls of power (he turned down a knighthood). And I need to remind myself he was an artist first and foremost. But maybe he wouldn’t mind me exploring the connection in any case.
Bowie was about posing questions, whether about identity, spirituality, gender, sexuality. In a world where facts, certainty and outcomes are valued so highly, we should not forget the art of challenging assumptions and stereotypes – of questioning others and more importantly learning the art of questioning ourselves. The emphasis on providing ways of creating encounters where people can ‘turn and face the strange’.
Doing this in a way that appeared cool and attractive, and as much in his later years as in his youth, was the genius of Bowie. He used his talent as an artist ‘to contribute in some way to the culture that I was living in.’ For us the important thing is to provide the right kind of spaces for encounter that will contribute to a world that mirrors more closely the values we hold.
At the heart of this is the value of belonging and of being who we are. We don’t adopt a campaigning posture but prefer to create carefully managed spaces which can help this happen. And we regard leadership as a key ingredient for delivering the lasting changes we want. This leadership is something to be nurtured and aligned with the need to handle difference and diversity. There are not many internationally renowned icons amongst such leaders, but there are plenty of others, in all walks of life.
Encountering difference and nurturing leadership fit for our changing and diverse world gives us hope. Like Bowie we have ‘never responded well to entrenched negative thinking.’ We believe people with very different beliefs and identities can and do live together productively, and that challenging those who think to the contrary can be done in ways that are interesting and engaging, and perhaps even cool.
Thank you, David Jones.