Out of Context #6: The Whitewashing of Prince

“Out of Context” is a 10-part series that addresses the topic of cultural appropriation as it intersects with both Western European-based classical music and the broader social landscape. Commissioned by American Composers Forum and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the goal of the series is to offer information and diverse perspectives to those seeking to acknowledge historical context, honor cultural traditions that are not their own, and expand their sphere of knowledge with awareness and respect. A culminating collection of these articles and other resources will be shared for continued learning and dialogue.

In 2013, a movement started to take shape in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, a young Black boy killed by a neighborhood watchman. As a result, three Black queer women founded Black Lives Matter to shine a light on racially motivated killings, racial terror, and the systemic destruction of Black bodies. In 2015, the case of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, so heinous, that it inspired Prince to write a protest song for the times, “Baltimore,” and hold a Rally 4 Peace as the city erupted into flames and put peaceful protesters in harm’s way. Prince’s Rally 4 Peace in Baltimore helped to calm the city’s unrest following the death of Freddy Gray, just as James Brown calmed the unrest at his own show in Boston in 1968 moments after announcing the loss of Martin Luther King, Jr. These acts of leadership are rarely bestowed upon artists, but both men loved their community, both men loved Black people, and both men wanted to heal the pain of racial animosity that gets Black men and women killed.

There was something different going on in Baltimore and around the country in 2015, and Prince could sense it. These young activists were the “new breed leaders” he had called upon in “Sexuality” (1981), “The Rainbow Children” (2001), and again in 2015 after the murder of Freddie Gray. They were the ones he thought could lead Black America going forth. They had the spirit of the past, but they were wired with the technology and ingenuity of the future. He knew their movement would go far, and he supported them with his knowledge and finances, participating in a way he couldn’t during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s when he was just a child.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

One year after the launch of Black Lives Matter, Prince’s appearance at the 57th GRAMMY Awards in February 2016 was arguably one of his Blackest moments on TV, and one of the most divisive among his fans. While presenting the award for Album of the Year, Prince spoke the words, “like books and Black lives, albums still matter,” and the response was immediate. Many understood where he was coming from because these killings were being filmed and America was seeing for itself what Black folks had been saying all along. The Black community felt validated, but some fans weren’t happy that Prince had voiced his Blackness.

In the wake of his death in April 2016, Prince was described as an artist who “transcended race,” and many continue to describe him this way today. This phrase has rolled around in my mind a lot over the last four years because it bothers me. It is an inaccurate statement, and one that lends itself to being racist. It is the equivalent of saying that America is “post racial” for having elected a Black president when all the structural and institutional formations of white supremacy haven’t been torn down. “Transcending race” implies that Prince’s race somehow wasn’t good enough, and he ascended to something better. But what could be better? Blackness and the struggle of Black people were in every note of every song.

Since his passing, I have been amazed at how the mention of Prince’s Blackness offends some fans and causes them to feel excluded from the fandom. But you can’t have a conversation about Prince without also acknowledging his Blackness because fundamentally, it is at the heart of his music. His musicianship, song writing, and how he performed were all rooted in his experiences as a Black man. To see it as anything else is to deny who he was at his core. How could you love Prince but not recognize him and his struggles as a Black man?

Despite the fact that Prince was a Black man, white fans have clung to a fabricated narrative of Prince being biracial, which allows white fans and Black fans to claim equal ownership over him and his music. This appropriation of Prince’s racial identity and image removes much of his work from its intended context in the name of white comfort and favors his earlier music and cultural image while rejecting his later output, which focuses on race and social justice and is steeped in the many traditions of Black music.

Photo by Manu Kumar on Unsplash

Photo by Manu Kumar on Unsplash

The whitewashing of Prince began in 1980 with the release of his third album, Dirty Mind, which featured a new wave sound that was not geared toward the mainstream and had no songs designed for commercial airplay, but it was a critical success. Prince did more interviews and promotion than he had done with his previous two albums, and most were with white media. These interviews shaped Prince’s racial ambiguity—a falsehood created to muddy the waters between Black and white. He was presented as multiracial but mostly white, the impresario son of a white mother and half Italian, half Black father.

As time went on, so did the gross misrepresentation of Prince’s racial identity, culminating in the film Purple Rain where Prince played a biracial musician. It had since been discovered that Prince was actually the son of two Black Louisiana natives who migrated to Minnesota. After years of Purple Rain being called a “semi-autobiographical film” and despite Prince denying it, audiences still believed the narrative that Prince was biracial as opposed to just simply being a Black man, as if being biracial is what made him more talented.

Even the people who worked closely with Prince have attempted to whitewash or rewrite his life. For example, a former white band member from the 1980s took credit for introducing Prince to jazz and Joni Mitchell. In reality, Prince’s first exposure to jazz was through his father, a jazz musician. As far as Joni Mitchell, Prince had long been a longtime fan, and Joni Mitchell herself recalled getting a fan letter from a teenage Prince. Stories like these are in abundance, and I have found that there are more white people in Prince’s past who claim to have “introduced” him to things in a white savior kind of way. In truth, the single most influential person responsible for exposing a young Prince to the world beyond North Minneapolis was Bernadette Anderson—the mother of Prince’s bassist Andre Cymone, a black woman who took him into her home and raised him beside her six other children.

In my personal interactions with Prince’s legacy and fandom, I’ve observed that white fans tend to prefer the 1980s version of Prince and are more inclined to believe the fabricated story of his racial identity. Black fans have more love for Prince’s 1990s catalog, have delved deep into the many instances where he discusses race, social justice and faith, and know with certainty that he was a Black man despite the many convoluted stories that have circulated over the last forty years. Classifying Prince as an 80s artist allows white people to keep him in a false biracial framework, making him inextricably linked to them through genealogy. This is the Prince that most makes sense to them. He is one of them. They can relate to him.

What doesn’t make sense to white fans is a Black Prince, the one that emerged in the 1990s. When Prince began adopting The Love Symbol as his name and writing “slave” across his face, people took notice. White people were unnerved by what it could mean—what was Prince saying? Did this mean something other than his feeling of being controlled by a business entity that wanted to exploit his art as a Black man, but deny him ownership in a way that they wouldn’t do to a white artist?

Photo by Doyoun Seo on Unsplash

Photo by Doyoun Seo on Unsplash

What furthered the discomfort of white people was Prince’s full-on emergence into a sound that incorporated the many traditions and genres of Black music. The biracial appropriation of Prince emphasizes his ability to blend so many musical genres, but I argue that this is also rooted in Blackness. For this, we have to go back to the origins of popular musical genres, where they were founded, and from whom they were stolen, and in nearly every case that is from Black people. In Prince’s music, there is the gospel of “Adore,” the rockabilly of “Delirious,” the Philly Soul sound of “Somewhere Here on Earth,” the traditional pop of “Cream,” the funkadelic soul of “We Can Funk,” and the mashup of some of these and more that can be found on his last three albums: Art Official Age, HITnRUN: Phase One, and HITnRUN: Phase Two. Prince also incorporated a rapper in his band, and his use of the N-word was introduced through the release of the album Goldnigga. White fans began longing for the “old Prince” to return. Some diehards hung around, but many left, not understanding or relating to Black Prince at all.

Prince intended for his music to be for everyone, and this was even clearer as he became more radical in his political ideals and beliefs later on. The fact that Prince firmly planted his feet in his community should make his fans—white fans in particular—more astute and want to go back and listen again to the ways in which he discussed issues that were of concern to the Black community he grew up in. An early example is “Baby,” which was about Black teenage pregnancy. At the time in Minneapolis, the Black teen pregnancy rate was three times higher than their white counterparts. For a young man whose father had instilled in him the mantra, “never get a girl pregnant,” these cultural things that happen in Black homes, that may be overlooked or misunderstood by white fans, are critical to understanding him as an artist and as a man. There is no need to appropriate his culture in order to do so—all you have to do is listen and learn.

The murder of George Floyd has also provided an opportunity for fans to see Prince anew as a young Black kid growing up in Minneapolis minding his business and being stopped on the street, or as a newly successful musician just on the cusp of superstardom riding around his hometown in a fancy car and being pulled over. Given Prince’s familiarity with the streets where Floyd’s life was taken and knowing he would have connected to the protests as a Black man, can fans relate now? Do they know now why Black lives matter? Do they understand why he called for a new breed of young leaders to stand up and organize for a better future? Or will it be more of the same? Will fans hold onto the image of Prince they’ve created in their minds because it makes him look more like them, or will they finally see him for who he really was?