Reclaiming the Black Prince

The following essay appears in my forthcoming book, Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods (dropping tomorrow!).

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“And then you get black.”
– Prince, Under the Cherry Moon

Much of what we know about Prince prior to the advent of the internet comes from print sources: magazine articles, choice interviews, a dozen or so books of varying quality, and much of it draws from the same pool of associates. A lot of how he has been perceived by the public at large, Prince fan or otherwise, comes from a handful of anecdotes and images from a small window of his career, the early to mid-eighties. It is a self-defined mythology, a new breed religion whose bible chapters are albums, a strictly approved gospel of photographs, and a pulpit-slamming legal team hammering down anything not owned or consented by Prince. The thing that eventually stood out to me as a black writer and fan was something that is rarely discussed, or rather, poorly debated: that Prince scholarship is a canon largely written and maintained by white people. The issue isn’t whether or not this is true. The issue is why this is occasionally a problem.

Thanks to social media, things in the world of Prince scholarship are a little different now, but not by much. There is more information to be had than ever before, which is a boon for fans of every level, but the infrastructure of access to that information remains virtually unchanged. Books about Prince remain largely written by whites. The majority of Prince’s audience is still white, particularly high ticket fans and collectors. Journalism is still largely white. Academic scholarship is still largely white, and remains so because academia is perennially white. If the people who participate in the burgeoning Prince conference market or maintain hundreds of online forums dedicated to Prince or attend annual Celebration events at Paisley Park each year are any indication, Prince has more white fans than any other type. I haven’t crunched all of the particulars on this but I don’t think anyone who has ever been to a Prince concert outside of Detroit would fight me over the data. More, none of this is particular to Prince, even as a black artist; just ask any rapper with a record deal. Any American artist who sells a hundred million records over the course of their career has done so on the backs of many white dollars. And to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Prince-ing while white.

These realities are, however, unaddressed parts of the foundation of what has become the largest fight about Prince since his death: who gets to establish the legacy of Prince?

“Oh no, we definitely have different fathers. Check it out: butterscotch…chocolate…”
– Prince, Under the Cherry Moon

Ideally, everyone who encountered his music would get to determine his legacy through a conceptual ownership of his work, buying new product as it is released, and using a combination of scholarship and social media to democratically direct and engage the work critically through suggestion, review, and analysis. Some of this is happening in Prince fan circles, though the effect on the market has yet to bear much fruit. The projects that have come out since his death so far were predictable affairs, and contained things many fans already had access to years ago (albeit illegally and of poor quality). We’ve yet to see the Prince project that feels truly fresh or, more importantly, genuinely expands his legacy. The recently released Piano and a Microphone 1983 album is nice to own without worrying about lawyers creeping into your hard drive, but is mostly a footnote to the Prince we already know, not a new branch on the tree that is his catalog. If he didn’t have several tons of material in a vault, the question of his legacy would be easy: we’d have what he released, whatever anecdotes came with that body of work, maybe a couple of unreleased things of note, and then we’d put him on the shelf next to The Beatles and Michael Jackson and move on. With Prince, such closure is impossible with the knowledge that so much material remains to be explored, some of it sure to rival music we know and love. You can’t cap even a 50+ album career knowing there are hundreds of songs slowly peeling away on plastic tapes somewhere. As a Prince superfan, it is hard to sleep some nights knowing there might be enough material out there to piece together, if not another Purple Rain, then another Diamonds and Pearls or even another The Gold Experience.

The ideal situation described above is standard operating procedure for how the legacies of white artists are handled, owing largely to the fact that much of the press, scholarship and fandom of a white artist are comprised of white people speaking to other white people. When the artist is black, however, most of the same interested parties – press, scholarship, industry, maybe fans, maybe most of the fans – are still white, but now they speak with a cultural agency they may have little to no actual experience with. White people don’t create all the art, but they get to write all the books and most of the reviews and speak at all of the conferences. They get to do all of the contextualizing of the artist and their work, essentially informing the rest of us what’s worth codifying or preserving, what’s good, and how it got to be worthy of their attention.

You may be wondering why I feel the need to bring race into this at all. That’s easy: I’m bringing race into this because legacy is how we define culture, and culture is how we define what kind of society we will be.

As an interrogator of all things Prince, all of the admittedly broad statistics above might be my problem, but they weren’t Prince’s problem. Prince spent the majority of his career straddling the camps of white and black audiences with his art, sometimes with a one-two punch of divergent-sounding releases aimed to draw in key demographics, like Prince followed by Dirty Mind. Sometimes that fishing happened within the same album, like 1999’s side three white-genre-facing New Wave/electronica/rock ballad three-piece (“Automatic”/”Something in the Water”/”Free”) followed by the bubbling funky (read black) -as-hell fourth side (“Lady Cab Driver”/”All the Critics Love U In New York”/”International Lover”). What’s interesting about determining his success in this regard is noting how any barriers he may have faced had less to do with him or his music and more with whatever baggage audiences brought to the table.

Broadly speaking, black audiences that listen to and buy mainstream music tend to determine what we like first by what looks and sounds like us. The bulk of that decision is cultural – survival, really – and some of it is the market boxing in the playing field, limiting options along traditional radio lines. When black artists deviate from black audience expectations of them, we ratchet down support, or move on to someone else, maybe even something else if the change is broad enough (say, from blues to rock). Unfortunately, we have not traditionally spent a lot of time considering the cultural implications of letting whole art forms go, even when we create them…perhaps because we’ve proven over and over again that we can just make another art form when it suits us. It is how we lost ownership and an appreciation of both the blues and jazz to white audiences and power brokers. This bridge-too-far hurdle black audiences often apply to music is ultimately how we collectively missed the latter half of Prince’s career, revisiting him on occasion like a long-lost cousin fresh from a stint in prison during funky musical spikes like “Sexy MF” or Musicology. Black folks give culture away like we’re criminals on the run who can’t afford to get caught with too much weight. And if we are completely honest, we almost gave Prince away too. Almost.

White popular music audiences generally treat black music differently. Their cultural investment in it is different, with many priding themselves on their ability to consume and even absorb any type of music…the key word here being “absorb”, not “appreciate”. The difference between the two is why blues sales charts are filled overwhelmingly with young white artists and their audiences almost entirely with old white men. There are a multitude of reasons why those kind of shifts occur – some intensely cultural (desegregation), some nudged along or out entirely by technology (access to musical technology, venues, and studios), all driven by markets (radio ghettoization, urban music departments) – but happen they do, and Prince spent forty years of his life navigating that strait, mining it for its multicultural riches.

Unfortunately, the question of Prince’s legacy – and some of it is still very much a question – is where the cultural differences in his audiences come to a distasteful head. There are a number of ways in which these cultural differences contribute to undermining the work of legacy building, but most manifestations fit under one action item: white fans frequently attempt to strip Prince of his blackness.

“And when the police come and take yo ass down to the joint, this is me…”
– Prince, Under the Cherry Moon

How this stripping occurs depends on what kind of problematic white Prince fan we’re talking about. In my experience they fall into one of two camps: the fan who suggests Prince’s work beyond his clearly black moments owes a grand debt to white musical influences almost exclusively; and the fan who suggests that Prince’s blackness is irrelevant next to his larger messages (with a wild branch of fan who thinks Prince isn’t black at all).

The first camp can be hard to recognize for two reasons. First, many of these fans are the writers and scholars of Prince minutiae, so we’re inclined to give them more credit because they write for major magazines or have published books. We assume they know more than everyone else, and in a few cases their behind-the-scenes credentials are indeed legitimate. People tend to vet them less because their fandom is deemed almost professional.

Also, their manifestations of this issue are more subtle, imbued with a near shade-like quality. They think Prince’s indisputable abilities are overly influenced by the trailblazing of white artists, almost exclusively. Bob Dylan, The Beatles, David Bowie, and Joni Mitchell are common references in their determinations. When they speak of influential black artists they are often the black artists that white artists have already namechecked as influences for themselves: James Brown, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard. These fans generally understand how musicianship works, at least enough to know that there are no unicorns in music, and understand that every musician listens to someone, usually several someones, and anyone as good as Prince at both playing and composing likely listened to hundreds of someones. And yet, they treat Prince as if he was a bedroom savant all his life that one day poked his head out of the ground like a guitar-wielding groundhog, or an accidentally smart pet; a genius, sure, but untouched by musical influence save for random meetings with hip white people who broadened his palate. Producer/songwriter Chris Moon and bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman are the most popular designees here, but hardly alone. To them, Prince is a talented sponge of music, but of white music first, unwilling to conceive of a direction for his music or career without the touchstones of white artists or the largesse of white guides.

Prince came from a regional scene that was massively talented, musically diverse, and predominantly black. Bands like Haze, Flyte Tyme, Prophets of Peace, The Family (no, not that one), and, of course, 94 East worked the clubs (many of which were still essentially segregated), had their records spun at local parties, exchanged band members and instruments…all things Prince was accessing as an up-and-coming musician. There may be no greater benefit to be derived from the 2013 Numero Uno collection, Purple Snow, than finally exposing not only the kind of music Prince was constantly surrounded by and contributing to, but the blackness as well. Prince was an active participant in Minneapolis’ black culture as he learned to play and develop his musical ideas. Even at two jam-packed discs, Purple Snow represents only a smattering of the acts that tilled the soil from which Prince would share experiences and later, musicians.

One of the most expensive records a collector of Prince memorabilia can acquire is an original vinyl copy of the self-titled album, The Lewis Conection (sic). The album features the song “Got To Be Something Here”, and is notable for being one of the earliest recordings of Prince legally available. Recorded two years before Prince’s debut, he only sings background and plays guitar on the track. Compared to the playing and production values we know Prince for it’s not outstanding – he is essentially a session player here – but the album stands as clear testimony to the type of environment in which Prince was subsumed. He jammed, recorded, and composed alongside local bands of extreme diversity in style and talent, almost all of whom were black. This type of local research can be done and applied effectively, as is done in the excellent (and aptly named) book, Got To Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound (2107) by Andrea Swensson. If more Prince research took the time to, if not commit the same level of hustle as Swensson, at least reference the work that’s been done that broadens our understanding of his world, the bar of the entire field could be raised.

Most Prince investigation also doesn’t focus much on other reference points that would have been commonplace for a black musician coming up in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. Prince’s obvious influences always get their shine (James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, etc.), even from him. And sure, he tried to convince people that he didn’t listen to other people’s music early on to improve his boy-wonder stock, but most people recognize that such claims were a fabrication, and half the musicians who worked the Minneapolis scene would certainly tell you otherwise. You can’t listen to Ernie Isley’s guitar solo on “Summer Breeze” from The Isley Brother’s 1973 album 3+3 and not envision a then fifteen year old Prince trying to play along, or hear the influence in his own style of playing. Ernie Isley probably spontaneously generated a thousand black guitar players in 1973 alone. Not enough is made of how much of Prince’s music sounds like the rest of the black music that was happening all over not only Minneapolis, but the country at that time. Prince’s first two albums have liberal hints of Cameo, The Ohio Players, Sylvester, and dozens of other black bands who were prominent at the time. If you’re a person who believes Prince created either of those albums in a self-referential vacuum, then you’ve never listened to a Switch album or heard of Shuggie Otis (also a wunderkind multi-instrumentalist who released his first album at 17 in 1970). How many Prince songs sound like Otis’ song “Special”? Answer: more than a few, and while not released until much later, the song is indicative of the kind of music that was happening on and off the record everywhere, including while Prince was finding his way. Much has been made of Prince’s rivalry with Michael Jackson but very little of the conversation considers how a decade of Jackson 5 hits influenced a generation of black musicians in the 1970s, including – and perhaps especially – Prince.

The problem with the way white-based scholarship tends to navigate Prince’s roots isn’t that its adherents are unaware of this information; they just don’t think it’s important or relevant. Even in what is perhaps the most comprehensive (and at over 600 pages, longest) Prince biography, Matt Thorne’s Prince (reprinted in 2016), gives short shrift to the period Prince spent developing his craft in Minneapolis. Of the 600 pages that comprise Thorne’s tome, only 10 cover Prince’s formative years as a working, growing musician on the Minneapolis scene before he is taken in under the wing of Chris Moon.

Imagine a scenario in which a similar dismissal of cultural influence was leveled against, say, The Beatles. Can you imagine a version of The Fab Four without having weathered Liverpool’s music scene? Or Elvis without the influence of his beloved (and black) Memphis? Or The Beach Boys without the muse that is California surf culture? To suggest that any of these artists created in a cultural vacuum would be offensive, yet Prince is regularly stripped of these influences.

The bands Prince worked with, learned from, and revered don’t come up very often in research about him because white fans remain largely ignorant of either their existence or their relevance. I am willing to give them enough leeway to suggest that the dismissal isn’t willful, and that sometimes a blindspot is just a blindspot. At the same time, erasure isn’t defined by the intent of the person holding the eraser, but by what goes missing. Applying a cultural context that accounts for Prince’s race as a matter of course and not a footnote – or worse, irrelevant – broadens our ability to appreciate and interpret his music, as well as piece together a more interesting, honest, and complete picture of his history, ideas, and values. Contextualizing Prince as black does not undermine his image or genius; it expands those things.

Which brings us to the second camp of problematic white fan, the ones who commit the crime of identity erasure.

This group of fans have less of a leg to stand on logically, and conversely their issues are far more politically repellent. This type of fan casually strips away Prince’s ethnicity as if becoming a colorless being was his goal, or worse, this somehow improves his standing as a cultural icon. It is clear how Prince muddied this water early in his career but I’m here to tell you what every real fan should have learned by now: Prince told people what they wanted to hear so that they would give his music a chance. If he had to exoticize himself by suggesting his parents weren’t black, fine; he would, for a while, become your quadroon or part-Italian mix fantasy if it would make the uncomfortable image of a black man with a guitar take a backseat to the music he was creating. While Prince was using no small amount of political and cultural shorthand, he was ultimately not attempting to transcend race so much as make it a non-factor in how people considered whether or not to listen to his music. It is the same principle ground into the heels of every civil rights marcher. Prince was attempting to sell a post-racial religion to a firmly committed racist society, not because race was unimportant, but because it was wrong to tell audiences what they should listen to on the basis of his skin color alone.

This non-existent need by black people to be seen as colorless is a political distinction white America has always projected onto the goal of the work blacks do in the name of self-preservation and justice. It is an historical mistake baked into every layer of America’s perception of not only race, but freedom. White people think that black people want to be their friends as part of the mission of freedom, when in fact the goal is to level up the freedoms we’re already supposed to have. If we have to be friendly to be able to eat, fine, we’ll be friendly. It might even take. We have certainly made worse concessions in the name of survival while waiting for white folks to catch up to an awareness of our actual needs. But black folks would much rather be able to do what white people take for granted every day: decide on a case by case basis if we want to be bothered with the world and it not potentially get us fired, maimed or killed because we weren’t living to code.

These black concessions are all tools Prince used in the interest of disseminating his art and advancing his career. As an album, Controversy is perhaps his most bald challenge to expose the cultural hypocrisy of not only radio and music industry forces, but of audiences themselves, forcing the question of what freedom and equality really meant and questioning how far we were willing to go to make our case. He did this visually in the doctoring of his look on the album cover (a little off the nose and lips, please) and in the ethnic composition of his bandmates (though it bears pointing out that the black players were up front and the white players were all but behind the fog machines). He did this in the mash-up of thrift/gay/WTF fashion styles, while courting secular versus religious imagery in accompanying videos. He did this sonically in the blending of new wave, funk, and punk music styles. He even challenged the English language, this album marking his first use of what would become a career-long fascination with sensational spelling in his song titles. Controversy is Prince’s post-racial/sexual/religious playbook, and he would return to its Xs and Os over and over again until white people got on board.

Fans in this camp love pointing to what they perceive as the smoking gun at the core of his colorless philosophy: the lyrics to the titular song of the album. The lyrics of “Controversy” have, over the years, become the chief exhibit of people seeking to strip Prince of his blackness, philosophically or literally. They point to a number of lines in the song, but the two they hone in on with the fervor of a zealot are:

“Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?”


“I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.”

These lines lay out his essential racial truth, they say, or in less dire cases, they suggest that Prince did not think the question of whether or not he was black was important. Several interesting glitches pop up in the matrix of this logic:

It is interesting that, despite the query of “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?”, no one thinks Prince was gay, yet the same line is somehow evidence that he was on the fence about his blackness, or that he wasn’t “just” black at all.

It is interesting that, despite stating what he wished were a cultural reality, Prince was keenly aware of the political reality in which he lived in every other way, being a twenty-two year old streetwise black man living in Minneapolis, a city that in 1980 only had 370,000 people in it, of which only 48,000 were black.

It is interesting that this supposedly colorblind Prince was the same Prince that was booed off the stage nearly twice by 93,000 people in Los Angeles while opening for the Rolling Stones three days before the release of Controversy, an experience loaded with racial aggression and violence, traumatizing Prince to the point of leaving the first show on a plane back home, having to be coaxed back to Los Angeles to do the second almost-aborted show. Ah, if only the band would have called an audible and fired up “Controversy”. I’m sure that would have changed everything.

When he belts out the line “we don’t need no race” in “Sexuality”, it isn’t a suggestion delivered for his benefit, but a demand for white people to get hip. Unfortunately, many white fans have interpreted this and similar sentiments as manifestos for a colorblind world. It is not a wholly unreasonable interpretation of the meaning of the lyric, but it is ridiculous to hold the lyric up as a reality for Prince or anyone else.

“If you wanted to buy a Sam Cooke album, where would you go?”
– Prince, Under the Cherry Moon

For the record, no black person has ever transcended race. Some black people have obscured their race to pass for something else, but that isn’t transcendence so much as it is a survival mechanism. Prince may have convinced a reporter to suggest to their audience to fight for a world where race was less relevant in deciding how we might interact with one another, but he operated personally under no illusions that he was anything other than black, and later in his life made this even clearer in his music, philanthropy, and public statements. Prince regularly tossed conflicting personal information into interviews to obfuscate his image, not clarify his reality.

Black audiences heard the same lyrics white people did but we didn’t take them to mean he was going proto-Tiger Woods on us. We understood what Prince was doing; he was code-switching, telling white people what they wanted to hear (“I wish there was no black and white”) to get what he needed from them (white sales). Being right or talented or wearing the right clothes isn’t enough to survive being black in a white society. In this respect, Prince lived up to the two oldest black adages since we hit American shores: work twice as hard for the same reward, and know more than one language. Prince was a shining example of both tactics at work in his quest to level the field enough to be able to do what he wanted as an artist.

Prince’s blackness bled through all of his transformations and mission statements. His music has passed through all of the officially recognized Black Uncle phases. Conversely, Prince has been, at one time or another:

– the cool black uncle who slipped you your first taste of something you were too young to have (“Darling Nikki”);

– the black uncle that hurts himself trying to show The Younguns that there is nothing new under the sun by attempting their dances (“Housequake”);

– the trash talking black uncle who cannot lose at Spades (“Bob George”);

– the black uncle who, upon his release from prison, got super religious (“The Cross”);

– the black uncle that wears his work uniform at all times because he “got to work in the morning” (“Black Sweat”);

– the black uncle that hits on your girlfriend (“International Lover”);

– the black uncle who gets into a shouting match with his lady at every gathering for 30 years (“Man o War”);

– the black uncle that tells you to cut out all that “gay shit” (“Bambi”);

– the gay black uncle (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”);

– the black uncle who thinks rap ain’t shit (“Dead On It”);

– the black uncle who follows just enough news to have developed conspiracy theories (“Annie Christian”);

– the fat black uncle who rudely keeps pointing out you gained weight (“Cloreen Bacon Skin”);

– and Uncle Preach, who, contrary to his title, doesn’t go to church and whose religion is women or jobs or old music or all of the above because his religion is really advice and you are going to hear about it all every time you see him, sometimes twice in one sitting (“The Sacrifice of Victor”, which might be his most culturally self-referencing song ever).

A note on Prince’s hiring practices: For someone whose artistic mission is, according to the group of white fans currently on the table, to live in a colorless world, his bands and protégés were overwhelmingly black. Of the 10 most well-known backing bands and side projects that Prince created – Apollonia 6, Vanity 6, New Power Generation, the 1979-1983 band, the 1987-1989 band, Madhouse, The Revolution, The Family, The Time, and 3rdEyeGirl – he employed roughly 78 musicians, singers and dancers. Of the people he put on stage with him, only about 24 of them were white, less than a third. Having the opportunity and means to hire anyone he wanted for much of his career, Prince made it a point to hire and maintain predominantly black bands. While many factors may contribute to the hiring of a band, the one factor we know that Prince was always concerned with were the optics of his personnel. His bands reflected the values he wished to convey from project to project, but even when his messaging was not exclusively about race he made it a point to put forth a virtual musical army of black people. Any person that thinks Prince did not consider how such practices might be interpreted either underestimates the degree to which Prince controlled his image, or is a logic-masochist who simply likes to lose arguments.

No study of the influence of Prince’s blackness in his work would be complete without mentioning the one project that, by all counts, should have been a colorblind slam dunk but became one of his blackest offerings ever: Under the Cherry Moon. Prince’s second foray into cinema is a story featuring a comic and lewd version of himself that could have been played as colorless as the black and white film transfer itself. Instead, Prince proceeds to direct a film that is black as shit. Consider: the movie features two black-ass cats from Miami kicking it on the French Riviera, supported in large part by pimping Prince out to rich women. Jerome Benton has less of a wingman vibe and more a reformed pimp/gigolo thing happening. The two players jack white people for their money and largesse. They listen to Miles Davis and Sam Cooke records. They codeswitch and wear do-rags. They play a prank with black dialect on a spoiled classist. They commit an act of breaking and entering. Prince steals a Redd Foxx joke (the ugly people/ugly kid joke) and seduces a woman with open mic-level erotic poetry over the phone. And finally, they drive ridiculously pimped out vehicles. Under the Cherry Moon is two steps away from being a blaxploitation flick.

(Aside: Should I even mention here the number of times Prince used the word “nigger” in a song? Or “nigga”? Or “niggah”? Prince used all of the variants, and in their culturally colloquial ways. You don’t get to do that if you aren’t black, period, ever, don’t care what your black friend said. I could stop there and get on with my life, but then someone is going to mention how he used the word to sell records once he began experimenting with rap, and since he could kind of get away with it – which also means I could stop right there, but let’s play the logic out – he put it in certain songs. To which I am forced to respond with the Piano and a Microphone 1983 recording of “17 Days”, wherein he uses the word way back in 1983, not to incorporate it into a song, but as a black person often uses the word with themselves, earnestly, as an afterthought. In that solitary, unguarded moment, Prince reveals his composition process and his blackness.)

White fans are constantly making the case that Prince is an avatar of a colorless, post-racial world. Black people almost never make this case. To us, Prince is a black man who happens to wears boots, can get whatever woman he wants, and throws a great party. What’s telling about people who make a case for the irrelevancy of Prince’s blackness is that Prince was perfectly black until white people discovered him, or rather when he went in search of a white audience. Nobody was questioning his blackness when he was playing “I Wanna Be Your Lover” to 500 people and his opening acts were comedians back in 1980. That isn’t the Prince whose ethnicity gets questioned. It is the Prince that white people know and like – but most importantly, that Prince caters to – that has the veracity of his ethnicity questioned.

Trying to ascertain why some white fans do these things is a study in and of itself that has very little to do with music and everything to do with the nature of whiteness and the society it has created to sustain itself. Many more pages would need to be added here to illustrate this point fairly, but would take us far afield of the original topic. What I can fit in here is the observation that whiteness is frighteningly normative. It is so structurally embedded in every facet of civilization that white people are more oblivious to the nature of their whiteness than non-whites. The average black person knows more about whiteness than the average white person. Consider that white people can go an entire day, week or month without considering the existence of their whiteness or, in many places, people of color. By contrast, black people have to be on the hook for knowing blackness and whiteness because our survival depends on it. A black person who doesn’t consider white people in the wild potentially invites all manner of trouble. The blooming awareness of how frequently white people call the police on black people for just about any activity one can conceive of may be trending news for white people, but is a generations ancient reality for blacks people. Five years ago no one was talking about “white privilege” and now it’s a more or less accepted footnote in media stories. A footnote, mind you, that isn’t going anywhere and, contrary to what many Prince fans wish to believe, won’t be stalled by playing Graffiti Bridge over and over.

Finally, nowhere in this essay am I suggesting that white people shouldn’t write about Prince. Prince belongs to whomever finds him and can appreciate his work. I am, however, suggesting two things: 1) that more and consistent consideration be given to how Prince’s blackness informs his work, and 2) that more effort be made to include the observations, interpretations, criticisms and work of black writers and fans into the body of research constantly being generated about him. At the end of the day, Prince was a middle-aged black dude born in 1958 in a post-segregated working class Midwestern city. He was a black man born to black parents six years before the Civil Rights Act became a law. He lived in a black neighborhood in a house run by a black woman and lived with his black best friend. He grew up playing black and white music in a predominantly black music scene in mostly black venues, and when he finally made it big, black music remained a significant part of the foundation of his work, which he mostly hired black musicians to play. Eventually he went on to commit acts of philanthropy in aid of black causes both musically and financially, and made the occasional public statement on black issues. And on April 21st in 2016, he died sporting the largest afro of his adult life. Prince was black, has always been black, and was proud to be black. Any narrative that dismisses, erases or otherwise strips those basic cultural realities from Prince does a disservice to him as an artist born of very specific traditions; to Prince as a human being possessing specific values and ideas; and to anyone who wants to know more about him and his work and how it might inform their own appreciation for his art, values and ideas.

8 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Black Prince

  1. I’m sorry but p was only “black” when it was convient. That’s why he had groups like the time to showcase his “black” music but he wanted to be other than black for himself.

  2. You are a brilliant wordsmith that captured this aspect of Prince’s life and career so well I want to cry with relief. I must buy your book. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for your article. I greatly enjoyed it. It made me think of the book, The Lyrics of Prince: A Literary Look at a Creative, Musical Poet, Storyteller, and Philosopher by C. Liegh McInnis who is an African-American poet, short story writer, and essayist himself. His book was originally published in 1996, and he has published and lectured widely on Prince since ’96. He is currently serving as the guest editor for Africology’s Special Issue on Prince, and his essay, “Prince as the Post-Civil Rights Archetype: Using Prince’s Life and Lyrics as an Example of How African Americans Navigate the Poles of Assimilation and Self-Determinism” is scheduled to be published in the journal Popular Culture and Society next spring. So, like you, he is doing his part to increase the amount of African-American scholars writing about Prince. (I think he can be contacted at his website, As such, I hope you continue your work as it is greatly needed. Again, thank you for your work.

  4. Thank you. Omg, thank you for so eloquently and completely writing what Prince’s Black fans have always hated about the way the well known white takers, not keepers, of his legacy erase his true musical history. They give no real nod to James Brown who Prince embodied or to the stellar and the way unsung Barkays who I hear so often in Prince music.

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