PRINCE’S MUSIC WAS REPPING THE BLACK EXPERIENCE FOR 40 YEARS (AND MANY OF YOU DIDN’T KNOW IT)

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Prince backstage at the Bottom Line nightclub in 1980. (IMAGE CREDIT: Deborah Feingold)

It’s been about three days after learning that Prince became an ancestor, and the sadness I continue to feel is strange — as if a part of my innards was forcibly extracted, a clearly unhappy event, but my brain refuses to fully compute what just happened.

I’m not the only person with out-of-sorts emotions. Prince is loved by just about everybody.

We’re talking about a lot of people.

He’s one of the few artists I know of who attracted worldwide love for so many different reasons — in addition to his tremendous talent.

For example, Prince being a weirdo subsequently made him an inspiration source for other weirdos.

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Speaking of breaking molds, African descendants caught up in fighting daily Western stereotypes of how Black folks should think, dance, dress, write, sing or otherwise create also saw a role model in Prince.

Musicians demonstrated their love through the copius student notes they took of either Prince’s song book or fiery live performances, while others studied through a jealous lens.

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His music became the soundtrack for a night out with friends, wedding celebrations, spring break, the evening your kisses were given permission to descend below the collarbone…

Millions of fans found their Prince connection through the Pop majesty of Purple Rain — both the album and the film.

But global acclaim offers only a simple description of Prince’s true brilliance.

Prince yet again captured the adoration of independent artists after his rebellion and defeat over Warner Brothers’ feudalistic ownership of Prince’s master tapes.

Prince was woke. All the time. And his quiet efforts to heal a world he saw in trouble garnered even more love and respect. (Peace to S.H. for the link.)

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But there’s something else you should know about what Prince gave to the world.

Doing so requires going back to the late 1970s — the beginning of Prince’s relationship with Warner Brothers.

Back then, Disco music’s apex in popularity showed early symptoms of crumbling into a nadir. The Disco Sucks movement took on a familiar bigoted swipe at people of color and the LGBT community.

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Any musical output by Black musicians during the period that was not Blues or Jazz was quickly relegated to the Disco marketing category — a near-certain death sentence for almost any Black artist like Prince, who not only merged Rock with R&B but also freaked a bikini onstage.

Fans and other celebrities didn’t offer much support for Prince during the early days.

According to the book DanceMusicSexRomance — Prince: the First Decade by Per Nilsen, an arranged meeting between Prince and Bob Marley in 1979 didn’t result in an anticipated agreement to collaborate on a song, likely because the King of Reggae demonstrated a cold reception torward the future Prince of Purple’s wardrobe choice for the get-together:  a leopard G-string.

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The same book describes how “An older, respectable, Black supper club” audience in New Orleans that same year wasn’t receptive toward Prince and band’s display of spandex tights, lingerie and simulated sex acts onstage. Prince had a few observations to share about the reserved audience:

They didn’t understand that we are trying to bridge the worlds of Rock, Funk , Jazz and whatever.

He also said:

They thought we were gay or freaks. We’re wild and free. It’s no holds barred. We can’t dress in three-piece suits or glitter outfits or raggedy clothes …

New York City, the cultural melting pot of the US, also wasn’t entirely ready for the five-foot, two-inch cross-dressing Minneapolis bandleader and his ensemble. New York Times’ critic John Rockwell called Prince’s February 1980 performance at NYC’s Bottom Line nightclub “vulgar and derivative.”

You don’t believe me. I can tell. That’s why I provided a link to the article, as well as an image of it below.

ny times review of first prince concert in nyc said vulgar and derivative

Mon, Feb 18, 1980 NY Times review of Prince's first show in NYC.

(Laughing) Did you read the “colorless falsetto” part? How about that social analysis of Black folks’ taste in music?

Okay — regardless of your opinion about a man wearing high-heels and making sexual gestures onstage, you may at least understand why someone else will slap a “vulgar” sign on such a presentation.

But “derivative”?

Doesn’t this sound like “Keep your dirty paws off your betters“?

Nilson’s book also notes that the left-leaning Village Voice wasn’t feeling Prince’s Bottom Line performance either:

Georgia Christgau, of the Village Voice, was also critical, disliking Prince’s
fusion of rock and funk, and feeling that he “brought out the cliches in the
music, not the contrasts.”

And all of this criticism happened after Prince released his first two albums, but before Prince hit the world with the third and more risqué Dirty Mind.

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But despite the culture shock and early resistance, Prince became a legitimate superstar by all accounts in 1984 with the release of Purple Rain.

His racy lyrics — a claim I find laughable when you look at years of Rock and Outlaw Country songs which, with impunity, covered respective topics of drug use and murder — are actually artistic head-nods made to the Blues ancestors, who had some steamy songs of their own.

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You know, tunes like “Little Red Rooster” or “I’m selling my Pork Chops, But I’m Giving My Gravy Away“…

I have to laugh about the way Prince’s Afro-androgynous flow became a distraction to many of his critics since his wardrobe is one of the longest-running allegories in show business. And many of you still don’t get it …

But you don’t need to study poetic devices in order to dig a different and more important point about what Prince gave to the world: Prince fully understood that the African Diaspora’s musical offspring include Rock, Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Soul, R&B, House and more. He integrated these forms over the years with other styles from around the world so that he could hip you to the limitless possibilities of what Black music can sound like. And it’s music everyone can enjoy — not hate or be ashamed of.

In other words, Prince gave you a 40-year-long lesson in Black music — without telling you first.

Muddy Waters was trying to teach a similar lesson a long time ago.

So did Alice Coltrane. Bad Brains. Jimi Hendrix. Rosetta Tharpe. John Coltrane. Flying Lotus. Labi Siffre. Charles Stepney.

What did you think Afro Punk was talking about when they refer to “The Other Black Experience“?

The Black Rock Coalition‘s been trying to teach you the same lesson.

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So, you now can imagine that Prince would be tickled on July 12, 1979 when a stack of Disco vinyl records was destroyed in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, and the act was supported by thousands of raging Rock fans, mostly White, wearing Led Zeppelin T-shirts. Hit me back if you don’t see the joke …

Honor Prince by removing any categories and colors you place on music. And while you’re at it, do your part to heal the world like he did …

song currently stuck in my head: “all the critics love u in new york” – prince

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3 Responses to PRINCE’S MUSIC WAS REPPING THE BLACK EXPERIENCE FOR 40 YEARS (AND MANY OF YOU DIDN’T KNOW IT)

  1. Awesome post. I’ve been a fan since the beginning, and my sadness will linger for some time. He lived his life on his terms, and he gave me the courage to be the weirdo that I continue to be. Thanks.

  2. BlackBeri says:

    I knew his great import from the first note I ever heard. And that would have been the For You ALBUM. Beautifully written. My heart is undone…

    Thank you telling it.

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