Black Magnolias, Prince, and the Black American Working Class

The special issue of Black Magnolias dedicated to Prince is here, live and alive, and you should read it and buy it if you can. My essay, “How the Exodus Began: Prince and the Black Working Class Imagination,” is ridiculously long and I’m grateful to editor C. Liegh McInnis for believing that all those words meant something worth reading–especially in the company of incredibly talented writers and scholars like McInnis, De Angela Duff, Michael Gonzalez, Satchel Page, Gabrielle Anderson, and the other folks who appear in this special issue. Here I’m going to break down my essay just a bit, primarily as a way of getting my own house in order.

First, though, check out this cover:

That tells you right away what this is about: Connecting and reconnecting Prince to Black folks: the African continent and diaspora, Black folks around the world, his own family, his community, his fellow musicians, his audiences, and Black culture in the United States before, during, and after his life. If you’ve followed Prince scholarship, popular writing, and the public imagination, you know that Prince’s blackness was often reduced in importance or entirely marginalized in mainstream media and replaced with a “colorblind” ideology that misreads (simplifies) Prince’s message during the height of his popularity in the 1980s. Since his death, the proliferation of academic and popular publications and conferences have begun to change this. But there’s still so much to talk about.

Why is my essay is focused on the Black American working class? Prince was born into it, his songs spoke to, for, and about it at different times in his career, and his philanthropy almost always focused on helping underprivileged Black youth. And yet, this part of the story of his life and career has been marginalized. In this essay, while I spend a lot of time on his early life and the first decade of his career–which is why this essay is so damn long–I settle in on the period from 1990-1995, beginning with Graffiti Bridge and ending with The Gold Experience. This time period includes his infamous fight with Warner Bros. for control of his master recordings and release from his contract, among other things, during which he scrawled the word “slave” on his face. But I’m more interested in putting that series of events into the context of his evolving business practices and the music he made during these years. As I write in the essay:

In sum, it seems that around 1990, Prince began to better understand the ways in which capitalism and its class dictates were harmful to the Black working class and to himself. Rapidly, he seemed to be thinking more and more about what he had in common with the exploited laborers of the Black working class. This ideological shift was expressed in a musical shift. Prince began to more firmly ground himself in musical traditions of the Black working class while confronting the new expressions of that populace: hip-hop culture and rap.

In other words, these years were a hinge, a transition period in which he reengaged with contemporary Black music–including an embrace of rap–and used it as the palette for his exploration of blackness and class, in addition to masculinity, religion, and technology. The messages are usually not overt, and in fact, much of the conversation is happening in the sounds. For instance, if rap tended to be seen as working-class, Afrocentric nation-conscious rap was considered more middle-class; new jack swing straddled the line between the two. That all comes together in the Graffiti Bridge song “New Power Generation” and its reprise at the end of the album.

This video also gives you an idea of Morris Day’s role in the film, which was the sequel to Purple Rain. Day is the unrestrained capitalist whose takeover of the clubs in the film may keep them black-owned but will stifle creative freedom.

What I try to chart in the essay is what Prince imagined: not just the reality of the present but a possible future. As an artist, he was always looking forward, but here I’m following his changing class-consciousness from the aforementioned integrationist model into something more complex. These years led to his “exodus” from Warner Brothers and traditional contracts with record companies and a more consistent, explicit critique of capitalism through the lens of Afrocentricity on albums like The Rainbow Children and songs like “Dear Mr. Man,” “Judas Smile,” and “Golden Parachute.” (On the latter, see William Armstrong’s Marxist reading in his essay in this volume.) What emerged, as I write, is “a more focused and consistent collective call for revolution, economic self-sufficiency, independence, and justice that would aim to benefit not only musicians but all people exploited by capitalism, especially the Black American working class.”

That’s enough explanation. I hope you’ll read the article along with the rest of Black Magnolias‘ special Prince issue.

Now for the personal part.

By 1990, as a high-school sophomore, I was fully aboard the Prince train. Graffiti Bridge was the first new Prince album I bought as soon as it came out. (I’d made a dub of the Batman soundtrack from the tape I checked out from the public library, as I’d done with my friend’s copies of other Prince albums.) “Diamonds and Pearls” was the theme song of my senior prom, the rare instance when my tastes were actually shared by whomever organized those sorts of things. The Love Symbol album came out when I was in college, and I got to talk with Chris Rock about it briefly when he performed on our campus. (One joke I remember from his set, following a riff on Vanilla Ice: “And who the fuck is Snow? That’s shit’s gonna melt.”) Within a year or two I was trading bootleg cassettes with people in Denmark via the college’s nascent internet. I heard “Strays of the World” that way. I was listening to Prince’s informal Glam Slam sets months after they happened.

Quietly and not-so-quietly, Prince was teaching me about the intersections of class and race in America in those albums. And there was a reason why the spoken-word intro to “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got”–“Dear Dad, things didn’t turn out quite like I wanted them to / Sometimes I feel like I’m gonna explode”–on Graffiti Bridge spoke to me. The blistering first verse on “We March” from The Gold Experience spoke to me, too, even if I recognized that my experiences were not precisely the same:

If this is the same avenue my ancestors fought to liberate
How come I can’t buy a piece of it even if my credit’s straight?
If all the water’s dirty and I wanna lay the pipe, my dammy
The river that I drink from, will it be the same as your mammy?

I was born into a working-class family. Money had always been frustrating. We didn’t have a line of credit. We were never poor, but we always seemed, my single mom and I, to be one bad month away from it. And it’s not like my dad was rolling in the dough. He still lived in the trailerpark where I was raised as a baby before my parents divorced. Walking to classes on the picturesque campus of a liberal arts college where half the students drove Saabs their parents paid for demonstrated to me how different my economic background made me. I hesitate to say it was isolating. The influence wasn’t overt. It was more like having a gentle reminder regularly pop into my head saying that I didn’t really belong there–that I was a fraud.

Through Prince I could hear what I had in common with Black folks who’d grown up working class–but his music was so in love with Black culture and music and history that I couldn’t ignore the differences of our experiences, either. If I felt out of place on this tony campus, what did a young Black working class student feel at this vastly white college? If I felt the pressure of living up to the opportunity, what were the pressures felt by a Black working-class woman who had worked twice as hard to get there? Certainly I was able to understand this a little better thanks to the books I was reading in my classes, books like Before the Mayflower and Jean Toomer’s Cane and Toni Morrison’s Sula and Beloved. I had come to Prince as a fan and a musician, but now I began to see and hear Prince in the context of African-American literature and history, which is to say, the story of the United States. If Prince’s music showed me that I wasn’t alone, it also showed me that if I didn’t want to be alone as a citizen, I had to open myself up and try to understand, respect, and love difference and work for equity and justice in order to ethically share those commonalities.

Maybe those white rappers like Vanilla Ice and Snow really loved African-American culture and history and maybe they were down with progressive, liberation politics–but probably not. Probably they wanted, as the critic Greg Tate has put it, “everything but the burden.” The hype, the gold, the thrill of rebellion, the droop, the signs, and the music itself–but none of the consequences, the dangers, faced by Black folks.

“What’s My Name” was recorded in May 1993 during sessions for songs like “Space” and “Come,” but wasn’t officially released until Crystal Ball (1998).

How different was I, though? What I liked about Prince was that I learned from his music (though at the time I didn’t think of it as “learning”), and learned the courage to be critical of myself and my assumptions about whiteness and blackness. In “What’s My Name,” an unreleased track recorded in 1993, Prince sings, “You never would have drank my coffee / If I had never served you cream.” True that. The households I grew up in were almost devoid of Black music, the sole exception being Motown, and while it’s probably true that, as a teen, Prince’s allure had something to do with the rebellion of being devoted to a Black artist, my way in was Purple Rain followed by Around the World in a Day and Lovesexy. At age thirteen and fourteen, I’m sure I identified more with the “cream” than the “coffee.” To realize this about myself as a college student was perhaps a bit embarrassing, but it was mainly instructional about the upbringing I had taken for granted and music’s ability, through sound and words, to slip through complex social barriers.

Because of that ability, music–the art form itself–is free. It always will be. But no one who makes it or even listens to it is truly, completely free. That’s why music, like any other art form, can feel so liberating. I doubt it would feel so freeing if we were already truly free of the expectations, the systemic abuses, the histories of pain and lies and broken promises that shape the present. I say “we” fully acknowledging that my whiteness has provided me numerous advantages within this system, but I also take the stance of James Baldwin that no one in America is truly free unless everyone is free. Throughout his career, Baldwin consistently asserted that the concerns of Black Americans were the concerns of the United States of America writ large, and that the same pain and moral illness would continue until white Americans learned to think differently about themselves, not just Black folks. This was a subtle operation in Prince’s music as it found me, at least: its ability to encourage my response, a criticism of my own reflection, and to promote a private dialogue.

Prince performing “Count the Days” with the NPG in 1995. The song was included on Exodus, the second New Power Generation album.

That’s not to say this period of Prince’s music is always dour and serious. This is funky, ass-shaking music filled with energy and joy and eros and anger. The rhythm section of Michael Bland on drums and Sonny Thompson on bass was the key, linking the balladry of “Diamonds and Pearls” and “So Dark,” the techno-funk of “I Wanna Melt with U,” the R&B of “Come” and the funk of “Billy Jack Bitch” with a serious, robust “Bootsy get live” bottom end. If Prince was working in newer forms like rap and new jack swing, he was also bringing back the organic virility and live musicianship of his 1970s idols like Parliament-Funkadelic and Earth, Wind, and Fire. And then there’s that gospel fire, helped tremendously by the presence of Rosie Gaines on backing vocals along with The Steeles and Mavis Staples’ guest appearances. That continued in songs like “Count the Days,” which owes a lot to Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” a song with which Prince often began his aftershows in 1995.

The music is live and alive; its warmth and collectivity is the sound of collective struggle and celebration. The early-mid 1990s is undoubtedly one of my favorite Prince periods because of what was happening in my life, but there’s something in its emphasis on a band’s musicality, the exchanges between performers, that I find compelling and wonderful. Not to say that was lacking in his previous bands. But the highlights, the give-and-take, and the rap features (though the Love Symbol album), combined with the deep soul grooves, feel looser, freer–especially in the aftershows, which not coincidentally saw Prince performing plenty of R&B and funk covers. For instance, in this aftershow from 1995, he opens with “People Get Ready,” then segues into “The Jam” and “I Believe in You,” both by Graham Central Station.

What I heard in Prince’s music between 1990 and 1995 was that struggle between the desire for freedom and the acknowledgment, more profoundly and more consistently than in his previous music, of the social and historical limitations, the melancholy, the threats, and yes, the economic systems that stand in the way of Black Americans. But he was also singing of the camaraderie, the family and friendship, and the shared love of Black ancestors, innovators, trailblazers, around which the Black American community, including the working class, could organize. Prince was never only singing about himself, even in an autobiographical song like “The Sacrifice of Victor.”

The Ryde Dyvine was a TV special broadcast in late 1992 following the release of The Love Symbol album. “The Sacrifice of Victor” is the final track on the album and is the last song in the special as an “unplanned” encore.

What occurred to me was that I shared common ground with someone who was so different from me, and that aside from a love for music and performance, the common ground was class. “The Sacrifice of Victor” spoke to my upbringing, to my single mom’s efforts to see us through, to the value of a strong work ethic, and to an optimism that I clung to as depression began worming its way through my brain. And yet, it was a revelation to my younger self that race and class intersected, to use the concept and term pioneered by KimberlĂ© Crenshaw. “Education got important, so important to Victor,” Prince sang, and while I nodded my head in agreement, I understood that education’s paths out of working-class precarity were more open to me than a Black student whose grades and motivation were just as strong as mine. As the saying goes, we may all be on the same ocean, but we’re not all in the same boat.

The term I seem to be working up to is “solidarity,” an idea that has fallen out of favor in our isolated, social-media world. In Prince’s music I found solidarity, I began to understand its value and its challenges, and I began to imagine what the art I made could do about it. It was a slow painful process that has not ceased. If it felt like enlightenment, it showed me how much more there was to understand. Certainly I failed sometimes. Certainly my youthful zeal, the excitement of the newly converted, obscured complexities and gave me an exaggerated sense of empathy. But in Badiouian fashion, an Idea was planted in my head that demanded fidelity, and if I was flawed, I could at least be faithful.

Still, what stands out to me is this: The predations of capitalism and the divisions of class were the initial vantage points from which I could better comprehend the objective realities of race in America. Capitalism is uniquely dependent on the competition bred by racism, both in times of stability and times of crisis. Capitalism is not the only reason for racism, of course, but once you’ve seen how the two are intertwined, you can only un-see it by fooling yourself.

That connection, that intertwining, I think, is what Prince was confronting in those years from 1990-1995. In his wake–I was always in his wake–I began my own journey of class-consciousness.

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