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F*ck Cancer: How Sharon Jones’ Song ‘I’m Still Here’ Captures the Late Singer’s Amazing Story

The legendary singer's band The Dap Kings and documentarian Barbara Kopple discuss how the autobiographical song about Jones' defying the odds has taken on new meaning.

Miss Sharon Jones!

“Miss Sharon Jones!”

Starz Digital


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Sharon Jones’ life ended November 18, but it defied odds. “Too short, too black, too fat and old” (lyrics from “I’m Still Here”) for the music industry, the 4′ 11″ Jones spent her 30s and 40s working odd jobs ranging from wedding singer to corrections officer before she met the The Dap Kings, a Brooklyn R&B group with a label (Daptone) specializing in music that captures the essence of ’60s and ’70s soul and funk.

As she approached the age of 60, Jones had become an unlikely music star, known for a dynamic performance style that drew comparisons to James Brown. It’s also when she was diagnosed with stage two pancreatic cancer. Yet like every other obstacle, cancer and chemotherapy weren’t going to stop Jones from performing.

READ MORE: 2017 Oscar Predictions: Best Original Song

“Logic never really applied to Sharon, she was a superhero,” Gabriel Roth, bass player and co-owner of Daptone Records. “It never made sense where she got her strength from and it seemed like whatever was in her way, or whatever pain she was feeling, she got on stage and connected with the audience and [was] able to transcend everything. In some ways it’s very consistent that when she was having her hardest trials that she hit the stage the hardest.”

Sharon Jones when she was correctional officer

Sharon Jones, when she was a correctional officer

Starz Digital

It’s that defiant spirit that drives “I’m Still Here,” an original song used in Barbara Kopple’s documentary “Miss Sharon Jones!,” which captures the singer’s three-year battle with cancer.

What’s amazing about the song isn’t just that she was able to still perform at a high level, but that in her weakened state she somehow became an even better performer.

READ MORE: Two-Time Oscar Winner Barbara Kopple: ‘Miss Sharon Jones!’ Director Says This Is the Golden Age of Documentaries

“I felt like she got stronger, not only as a performer-entertainer, but as a singer,” said Cochemea Gastelum, the Dap Kings’ baritone sax player. “She just grew even bigger and more radiant, her voice opened up in this way I hadn’t heard it before, she kept growing, getting better.”

“I’m Still Here” is blatantly autobiographical, which makes it an unusual track in Jones and The Dap Kings’ songbook.

“She’s had a lot of songs where we were nodding to things she had been through and inside the band we knew what they were about and they were very personal for her, but nothing had been as much of a literal testimony as this song,” said Roth.

Jones didn’t write many of her songs, but during her three-year battle with cancer she did take part in a few large group writing sessions with the band as they started to work on a new album.

“Sharon was sitting next to me, she had her notebook open, she wanted to write some lyrics, and I was asking her what she wanted to write about and she was like, ‘I just want to tell my story,'” said Gastelum. “I said, let’s start from the beginning then, and we started talking about Augusta [Georgia, where Jones was born] and her mom taking her family up to New York to leave her abusive father. It just kind of took off from there and everyone just started pitching in with lyrics and arranging the song. It felt very organic and kind of in the moment.”

READ MORE: ‘Miss Sharon Jones!’ Trailer: From Prejudice to Cancer, Nothing Can Hold The New Queen Of Soul Down

According to Roth, Jones would often talk about her life story in interviews and on stage. As she became more famous, Jones became intensely aware of what that meant to her fans.

“I think [writing this song] was important for her because she realized how inspiring that part of her story was to so many people, who didn’t really fit into that traditional success story themselves,” Roth said.

February 6th, 2014 – Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings kick off their delayed 2014 tour at the Beacon Theater in New York

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As a documentarian, the autobiographical “I’m Still Here,” was an incredible gift to Kopple.

“I first heard ‘I’m Still Here’ when we were three quarters of the way through the film,” Kopple wrote IndieWire. “I heard it when it was still unmixed, but I could immediately tell it encapsulated all the emotions and drive of the film.”

Roth offered Kopple the song and finished the mix so it could be used in the movie. For Kopple it was no brainer to play the track during the film’s end credits and following Jones’ climatic and triumphant performance at the Beacon theater.

“‘I’m Still Here’ speaks directly to our emotional reaction to the awe that is Sharon Jones, and our witnessing the strength it took for her to sing at the Beacon stage,” wrote Kopple. “Throughout the film, she has taken us through her journey and we, as viewers, have witnessed her moments of despair alongside her triumphs. At the end of the film, we can appreciate everything she’s been through and the song takes on a new, more powerful meaning.”

 

 

The song took on new meaning with Jones’ death last month. While Kopple’s film captures Jones’ cancer going into remission, Jones announced at the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year that it returned.

READ MORE: Oscars 2017- 91 Eligible Original Songs Include Three ‘La La Land’ Tunes

For Kopple, the song used to fill her with such joy and a swelling sense of victory, but with Jones’ recent passing she said she can’t hear “I’m Still Here” without tears filling her eyes.

“This song and film are a testament to Sharon’s soul, and ‘I’m Still Here’ beautifully captures the story of her life,” wrote Kopple. “We will never forget our beloved Miss Sharon Jones and she will live on through her music.”

Gastelum says he hasn’t the seen movie since Jones passed away, but he’s listened to the song a few times during the difficult past few weeks since the death of his friend.

“When I hear the song, it’s like, ‘I’m Still Here,” she was still here fighting and kicking ass every night on the stage and now it’s more — it’s she’s just left this incredible legacy,” said Gastelum. “Not just with music, but with how much she’s inspired people. For me with the song, her spirit is very much alive.”

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Lyrics for “I’m Still Here”

Left my home in North Augusta at the age of three
My mother, big brothers, two sisters and me
She brought us to New York City to set herself free

From all the fightin’, screamin’ and misery, yeah
But New York in 1960, no peace to be found
Segregation, drugs and violence was all around

But I’m still here, yeah
But I’m still here

All the things I’ve been through just to sing this song
All the people I’ve seen come and go as I kept pushin’ on
I had to work as a prison guard telling men to do what they were told
‘Cos some record label told me I was too fat, too short, black and old
I had to direct the choir to let my voice out
That was the only place I could sing and be proud

But I’m still here, yeah
I said I’m still here

From the ghetto to The Garden, from the ballrooms to The Bow
From Down Under to Great Britain I played so many drinkin’ holes
Then the Big “C” crashed down on me
Tried to take it all away
And I didn’t know if I would live
Live to see another day

But I’m still here, yeah
I said I’m still here
I’m still here

I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here
I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here
I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here
I didn’t let nothin’ get me down
Sometimes you got to let those little things go

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