Purple, Black, and White:Querying Prince's Minnesota Roots
The unexpected death of Prince Rogers Nelson, aka Prince, on April 21, 2016, broke hearts and unleashed waves of sadness, nostalgia, and creativity across the nation and the internet. No one was ready to speak of this edgy, fearless, transgressive musical genius in the past tense. Stricken with grief, his middle-aged Revolution bandmates launched an emotional reunion tour. His 1984 hit "Purple Rain" had a posthumous go-round, nding its way to the Billboard Hot 100 at number seventeen.1 In his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota—the actual location, give or take twenty miles, of his sound production studio and creative lair, Paisley Park2—the sudden absence of the Purple One brought a palpable shock that turned the night skyline a sorrowful shade of, yes, purple.
Elegy to the Purple One
Prince's Relationship to Place
I don't like Sinatra. I like Prince. And I want to go to Minneapolis!"Cream," music video
In this Minneapolis-based exhibit, the Weisman Art Museum invited visitors to ponder the connections between Prince's celebrity persona and his midwestern origins, thus implicitly raising questions about race and place.3 As the Prince from Minneapolis exhibit brochure put it,
Prince was proud to hail from Minneapolis. Throughout his life and fabled career, he continued to live and work here, putting the city rmly on the map of the music industry with the Minneapolis Sound. … Perhaps the only global megastar who has remained so embedded in the cultural life of his hometown, Prince is a crucial part of what Minneapolis and Minnesota are today. [End Page 221]
Framing Prince in terms of his relationship to Minneapolis and Minnesota allowed museumgoers—most of whom come from elite, white, college-educated backgrounds—to explore Prince and his music without requiring a direct confrontation with local histories and politics of race or racism. The exhibit was in fact just one component of a much larger multimodal project conceived of by Arun Saldanha, a geography professor at the University of Minnesota.4 Treating pop culture as art suitable for a university museum usually requires a subtle act of diplomacy in order to address "omnivorous cultural dispositions" without offending notions of "good taste."5 One can only imagine the curatorial skillfulness and imagination involved in presenting Prince as a tasteful and sophisticated intellectual subject, the man who banked on sexiness and wrote songs called "Soft and Wet," "Kiss," "Come," and "Head." Following Saldanha's scholarly cues, Senior Curator Diane Mullin brilliantly navigated the deceptively complex terrain of Prince's world, his music, and his life.
Professional Photographs and Fan Art
The first step to building the exhibit was to adopt a wide, democratic, and noncontroversial approach to Prince's relationship with his hometown of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota.6 By populating its Carlson Gallery with photography and its Target Gallery with fan art, the exhibit attempted to balance the luminaries—for example, professional and self-identifying art photographers known for their images of celebrities—with the ordinary people whose exuberant love for Prince takes shape in their creations.7 Including a 2008 piece "Grego Morphing into Prince" by Burhan Doğançay, an American painter born in Turkey, could be seen as part of a diplomatic strategy to bridge the two galleries.
Four Minneapolis-based photographers—Robert Whitman, Allen Beaulieu, Nancy Bundt, and Terry Gydesen—covered specific moments in Prince's career from 1977 to 1993. Their work reveals the evolving image of a swaggering teenager bristling with local talent to a full-fledged, international rock star. Whitman was a young man himself when he was commissioned to capture the yet unknown artist against different street and studio backdrops. Over a couple of enlarged contacts sheets, Prince is trying on different poses and expressions, all of them showing off his big, soft, puppy dog eyes; a seventies-style Afro; a cool guitar; and a shirtless, hairless torso suggesting innocence and athleticism. In Whitman's iconic image, pre-fame Prince stands in a parking lot full of cars. While he gazes directly into the camera, a middle-aged woman watches curiously from behind. The backdrop is a local landmark mural depicting the [End Page 222] musical score for Maurice Ravel's "Gaspard de la nuit." The overall effect is intriguing, warm, and sweet.
By 1982, Prince's young smiling face and rounded body is replaced by a sharper jawline and jutting cheekbones adorned with frills, makeup, and smoke. In Beaulieu's photos, Prince's stage persona emerges tentatively, defiant: his Bambi eyes have turned inward, mysterious, and distant. Two years later, Bundt went on the 1984–85 Purple Rain tour. Here is Prince fully actualized, a star on stage in Minneapolis at First Avenue, in action, awash in color. Prince was internationally famous by the time he hired Gydesen, a photojournalist who had previously documented Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. She accompanied Prince and the New Power Generation on their 1993 European tour, producing a collection of artful black-and-white photographs Prince later released as The Sacrifice of Victor.8
Gydesen's images offer glimpses of Prince's emotional experience as a pop icon living in a unique social world. In "Montjuïc, Barcelona" Prince is neither relaxed nor posed; he is simply inhabiting the otherworldly character he spent his life inventing. Chin pointing slightly down, his gaze pierces the camera. A cropped outfit grasps his tiny waist, revealing a bit of skin. He rests against a balcony; far below him a crowded, vaguely European metropolis awaits his next performance. Even in this strangely unmoored moment, he is still linked to Minneapolis by the person holding the camera.
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A footpath of tiny purple doves connected the photograph collection in one gallery to the fan art collection in the other. Like the photographs, artwork by fans shows Prince's international reach; he was never just "Minneapolis famous."9 However, in contrast to the Minneapolis photographers who worked closely with Prince to boost his career, his fans adore him from afar with little or no knowledge of the person he really was. Troy Gua's prolific collection of surreal, fantastic images based on hundreds of structural miniatures takes Princephilia to an extreme. Each tiny figurine resembles Prince in a particular moment of significance to his fans. One Prince figure standing in front of a music mural in an Afro and jeans makes an unmistakable gesture to Whit-man's 1977 pre-fame portrait of Prince. This circularity of Prince references, which began before his death, will probably increase among fan artists now that Prince is no longer alive to produce new original scenes. Gua's work raises an uncomfortable question: at what point does Princephilia (love for Prince) morph into Princeploitation (an effort to profit from his image)? The question applies to Graceland Holdings' 2016 takeover of Paisley Park, and to other posthumous treatment of celebrities, such as Bruce Lee.10
A few well-chosen pieces exemplify a type of appreciation expressed in terms that are familiar to Minnesotans across lines of class and culture. These pieces stretch the non-Minnesotan's definition of art and the idea of what it means to be a fan. For example, crop art is an annual feature of the Minnesota State Fair. The crop artist Lillian Colton (1911–2007) was tagged "The Seed Queen" for her dozens of celebrity pictures made with seeds. She used five varieties of seeds glued to cardboard to make her 1987 Prince portrait. Colton referenced Prince in a distinctively Minnesotan medium, but whether she did so out of appreciation for his cultural accomplishments is now probably impossible to discern.11
According to the League of American Bicyclists, Minnesota is the second most bike-friendly state after Washington. Question: Can a functioning Minnesotan bicycle also be a work of art? Answer: Yes, if it is built and custom designed for a Prince fan. In this case, the owner—who rode the bicycle to the museum—is also a descendant of Ignaz Schwinn, America's famous bicycle engineer. The purple frame, gold chain, and silver components are detailed with lyrics from "Purple Rain." The top stem says, "Love God." The gears read "Baby you're much too fast" from "Little Red Corvette."
Prince's music and life story offer a vehicle for cross-cultural exchange. The California-based brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre were working in Minneapolis when Prince died. They created two hand-blown glass figures to commemorate his life through Mexican imagery. One is his spirit animal: a [End Page 224]
four-footed being with blue antlers, droopy ears, a white cravat, and eyes with huge white sclera. The figure stands on a base that is clear and solid, filled with shiny jewelry, handcuffs, and a small, white doll that together signal domesticity, innocence, and kinkiness. The second is Prince's Day of the Dead ghost: a purple human with white frills, a pale face, blue eyes, and hands in the guitar-playing position. He stands on a pedestal filled with tiny black arms with hands reaching up, amid tiny pairs of dice. The Day of the Dead is a celebration of life. This sculpture offers a Mexicanstyle tribute to Prince.
Raising Questions of Racism and Blackness
By asking what Prince's relationship is to Minneapolis and Minnesota, the exhibit implicitly asks questions about racism and blackness in this city and this state. While purple in a political sense, the state of Minnesota is majority white in terms of its overarching history, cultural norms, and demographics. In terms of racial and ethnic makeup, the metropolitan region of Minneapolis and Saint Paul is more complex and differentiated, while also informed and influenced by white, male privilege and antiblack racism. What obstacles did Prince face before becoming a giant crossover legend? Digging deeper into local [End Page 225]
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history, another question concerns Prince's predecessors, whose activities surely enabled his growth and development. How did they navigate racial and cultural barriers, thus opening up a space for the young Prince to grow and thrive? Looking toward the future, as the black community of North Minneapolis seeks to articulate and preserve its own grassroots relationship to Prince and his legacy, how will mainstream efforts to advance Prince as a profitable commercial activity merge or collide with the grassroots?
Locally Grown Musical Giant
Crossover Artist Par Excellence
Prince appeared on the scene as a champion of outcast originality. He demonstrated for a new generation the beauty of true style and unconstrained personality, the complexity of the interplay among love and God and sexuality and—most important—the essentially multiracial nature of rock & roll music.—Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone
Labels hardly contained him: transgressive cultural icon who redefined his world, gifted musician, black Minnesotan.12 His magnitude defied categorization, and sheer talent was only part of the story. In "Got to Be Something Here": The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound, the Minneapolis-based radio host and music journalist Andrea Swensson meticulously reveals and emphasizes the impact of structural and systemic racism—residential segregation, segregated musical venues, and voluntary busing in the public schools—on Prince's early musical interests and aspirations. He emerged out of a distinctively racialized urban and musical landscape. His parents were both musicians who played local gigs for a living. His mother, by Swensson's account, was white. Prince was seven when his father left home, leaving behind a piano he had previously forbidden anyone to touch. Having access to that piano, then later borrowing drums and guitars from his nearby relatives and friends, Prince was determined to make his own sound. A host of women—his mother, other people's mothers, and the young women who sang with them—were also part of this coming-of-age story. At fourteen, he and his friends played rock, funk, and pop hits at high school dances and community centers. They named themselves Grand Central and would become known as one of the creators of the "Minneapolis Sound."
As an artist and performer, Prince was totally devoted to his craft. He was gifted, able to sing (what a falsetto!), and could take on any instrument—guitar, [End Page 227] bass, keyboard, piano, drums, percussion—without formal training.13 His rst studio-length album, For You, was released in April 1978, when he was only nineteen years old. His most famous film, Purple Rain, won an Academy Award in 1985 for Best Original Song Score. That year, he was only twenty-six. Over his entire lifetime he wrote more than nine hundred songs, produced thirty albums for commercial release, and toured the world: Japan (1992), UK (1995, 2007), Hong Kong (2003), Norway/Denmark/Netherlands/Italy (2010, 2011), Canada (2011), and Australia (2003, 2012).14
In 2004, Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That same night, in a ceremony to posthumously induct George Harrison, Prince took the stage with Tom Petty and other big-name white male rock 'n' rollers to perform "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Prince's unexpected and unrehearsed guitar solo became the ceremony's most memorable moment.15 Three years later, Prince played the Super Bowl halftime show in a complete downpour—featuring, of course, "Purple Rain." One blogger exclaimed: "He could've done the whole show with no singing and just guitar solos, and I don't think anyone would've hated it. He was that good."16 Prince's talent and determination, outrageous sexuality, gender-bending fashion statements, magnetic stage performances, and sheer musical output eclipsed his diminutive body. He was all of five feet, one inch, one hundred and twelve pounds when he died.
Social Activist for Racial Justice
Does anybody hear us prayFor Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?Peace is more than the absence of war—"Baltimore," Prince Rogers Nelson
By contextualizing Prince as a social activist for racial justice, this review seeks to elaborate on and deepen the impact of his music. Indeed, rather than diminish his artistic legacy, emphasizing the social and racial consciousness embedded in his lyrics elevates Prince's significance for local and national cultural histories. The truth is that the impact of race and racism are clearly visible on Prince's life story. His early songs "Controversy" and "Uptown" made explicit his position against forcing humans into checkboxes and categories, and called for total freedom of style and expression. In 2015, moved by the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Prince held a concert in Baltimore called Rally 4 Peace. He also wrote a song called "Baltimore." Shortly after that, police shot Jamar Clarke in North Minneapolis and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights (an outer-ring suburb of St. Paul). Without violence or drama, and possibly not [End Page 228] wanting to provoke his fans, Prince quietly supported the Black Lives Matter movement, among many other social causes. Only after his death were some of these contributions made public.17
Pushing against every kind of boundary became Prince's main act. In his early years, he was not just aiming to shock; he was actually trying to survive and claim space in a commercial industry that privileged white heterosexuals like Steven Greenberg, the young Minneapolitan who wrote the 1980 crossover hit "Funkytown."18 It turns out that because of racial segregation, being local to North Minneapolis actually cost Prince something, and he was determined not to pay the price. According to Swensson, baby Prince Rogers Nelson was born in South Minneapolis, but "his parents' origin story was deeply embedded in the streets and community centers of North Minneapolis."19 Those North Minneapolis roots definitely connected teenage Prince to family, friends, and an abundance of talent, drive, and creativity. But from the 1970s up to the present, concentrated poverty together with segregated schools and housing have isolated children and families and circumvented many people's chances for success. For decades, the residents of North and Near North have borne the huge brunt of that inequality.20
The exhibit's widely successful Opening Night Party on December 8, 2017, enticed over seven hundred people into the galleries, a testament to Prince's popularity and unifying power. Where Scandinavian hyggelig values encourage comfort and coziness with family—usually accompanied by an icy aloofness toward strangers—the exhibit and the symposium pushed Prince's message that music can bring people together, even in the Great White North.21 Through his lyrics, style, persona, and performance, Prince helped everyone move past divisions based on culture, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Mullin subtly probed Prince's Minnesota origins and his fan base; in doing so, she assembled some of the enduring key elements of Prince's place and race narrative.
If the exhibit had wanted to press further on the question of Prince's origin, it could have asked a slightly different question: "To which part of Minneapolis did Prince belong?" This tweak might have opened up doors to other kinds of photographic images or artistic tributes, for example, by black photographers or artists in North Minneapolis. On the other hand, asking the question this way might have provoked white fragility, a "discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice."22 A vast amount of effort goes into seemingly polite Minnesota narratives that gloss over the history and contemporary practices of urban segregation and white settler colonialism. The price we all pay for this silence is an inability to think clearly about the impact of racism and locality on our cultural experiences. [End Page 229]
White Racial Innocence and Myths of Mobility
When we talk about Prince and his peers blazing a new trail in music that blurred genre and race lines, we can't fully appreciate that narrative without drawing lines across a map of Minneapolis and St. Paul and connecting them to the previous twenty years of African American struggles and triumphs in the Twin Cities.—Andrea Swensson, "Got to Be Something Here": The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound
Prince makes it cool to be from Minnesota; he's our native son.—comment overheard at the Prince Preview Party, Weisman Art Museum, December 8, 2017
Although the exhibit invites viewers to consider the implications of Prince's local origins, instructions are not provided on how exactly to bring together the concepts of race and place. Without guidance, preexisting notions of white innocence and sociospatial mobility can be slapped together without concern for the larger implications or questions that inevitably emerge. These notions trouble residents of Minneapolis—where the exhibit started—as well as Seattle, where the exhibit continued. The eavesdropped, lighthearted comment made by a white fan in Minneapolis had no intentional malice. Yet the comment is troubling for how it animates a familiar way of appreciating black striving and success while putting social and structural racism out of view.
For scholars of American studies, "native son" refers to Richard Wright's novel about Bigger Thomas, a young black man from the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s. For music historians, the 1930s offers a rich period of racial and cultural change. In his study of independent radio in the 1930s, Derek Vaillant analyzes how Chicago's "sound of whiteness" enabled a diverse ethnic population of European immigrants and working-class people to identify as racially white. African American jazz and blues excited and invigorated white sound, but the radio airwaves and studio orchestras that generated music for white listeners were mostly closed to participation by black people.23 The fictional character of Bigger Thomas surely would have been excluded from the dance halls, recording studios, and radio stations that white people enjoyed. Worse, he would have been "represented" within those places only as a buffoonish minstrel figure. Obviously, racial exclusion did not make Chicago "cool" for people like Bigger.
Was there an analogous historical situation in Minnesota? Swensson's book indicates that the 1970s Minnesotans did align their sound practices with racial categories, limiting the reach of black radio airwaves and venues for [End Page 230] black bands and performers. We do know that Prince was exposed to a range of sounds despite, and also because of, racial segregation in Minneapolis. Because his parents chose for him to be bussed to a mostly white high school in South Minneapolis, he heard the music to which his white peers listened. This cross-listening enabled his musical imagination and eventually provided a path to megastardom. The question about the marginalization and exploitation of Prince's black musical predecessors in order to advance and unify a racially white Minneapolitan sound deserves further research.
To take yet another approach, we could ask: Under what conditions does being "local" matter? When native Minnesotans claim Prince, do their voices carry a certain level of anxiety that is not present when they speak about Bob Dylan or Hüsker Dü? To what extent has white music and white culture become interpreted or normalized as global or universal, even when it has particular, Minnesotan roots? In the case of Dylan, whose Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 cemented him as a figure of international impact, it does not seem to add to our understanding of his work if we imagine him as a white boy from Hibbing or Duluth in the remote northern reaches of the Minnesota. Or does it?
Karín Aguilar-San Juan is professor and chair of American studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
. This essay benefits immensely from interviews and communication with Diane Mullin, senior curator at the Weisman Art Museum, and Arun Saldanha, professor of geography at the University of Minnesota.
2. Afshin Shahidi, Prince: A Private View (New York: St. Martin's, 2017).
3. "Cream," official music video on YouTube, accessed March 4, 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gET9RBKNYcM. Cream, produced in 1991 with Prince and the New Power Generation, was his last number one hit. According to Songfacts.com, the original liner notes to "The Hits / The B Sides" say Prince wrote this song "while standing in front of a mirror."
4. With support from a significant Imagine Fund grant awarded by the University of Minnesota, Saldanha's plan included a museum exhibit, a weekend symposium, and a book. Weeks and months of meetings with experts and activists on campus and in Minneapolis—especially North Minneapolis, Prince's community—intended to form cross-cultural relationships and break down segregation that would ultimately inform all aspects of the project.
6. Minneapolis is the financial center of Minnesota, while St. Paul is the state capitol. Just as New York City is located in the state of New York but bears its own symbolic and global meaning, Minneapolis is located in Minnesota, but due to the history of economic and political growth the city is not culturally equivalent to the state.
7. Emma Balazs, a scholarly collaborator on Saldanha's Prince symposium, more directly addresses the divide between so-called serious professional art and what is sometimes seen as its naive cousin, fan art. See "The People's Museum for Prince," accessed August 16, 2019, www.peoplesmuseumforprince.org/
8. Prince and Terry Gydesen, Prince Presents the Sacrifice of Victor (Chanhassen, MN: Paisley Park Retail, 1994).
9. The term Minneapolis famous applies to artists and musicians whose fame is limited to the confines of this city. See "The Purple Hour: Prince and the Minneapolis Sound," 1A (blog), accessed March 3, 2018, the1a.org/shows/2017-10-23/the-purple-hour-prince-and-the-minneapolis-sound.
10. Prince's lawyers issued Gua a "cease and desist" letter, a situation that Gua explains in a curious six-minute video on his website, troygua.com/. Prince's death at fifty-seven was unexpected, but Bruce Lee was only thirty-two when he died. Like Prince, Bruce Lee was subject to both adoration and "Bruceploitation." Unlike Prince, Bruce Lee's legacy has been curated almost exclusively by his widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, and his daughter, Shannon Lee. Where is the line between preserving a legacy and seeking to profit off one?
12. Kurt Loder's 1987 review of Prince's ninth album, Sign o' the Times, originally appeared in Rolling Stone magazine ("Prince Reigns," accessed March 15, 2018, www.rollingstone.com/music/features/prince-reigns-19840830). It is reproduced in the Prince Online Fan Community, accessed March 14, 2018, prince.org/msg/7/33713.
13. In fact, Prince was credited for all vocals and instrumentation and all arrangements and production in "For You" (www.princevault.com/index.php?title=Album:_For_You, accessed March 14, 2018).
15. The second most prominent memory of that evening was Prince throwing his guitar into the air and no one seeing what happened to it afterward (www.thecurrent.org/feature/2018/03/15/what-happened-to-princes-guitar-after-while-my-guitar-gently-weeps, accessed December 14, 2018).
16. Mark Hinog, "Remembering Prince's Incredible Halftime show," February 5, 2017, www.sbnation.com/2017/2/4/14463094/super-bowl-halftime-show-prince-2007-purple-rain-retrospective.
17. In her eloquent tribute to Prince, Alicia Garza writes: "Early on in the evolution of Black Lives Matter and this new upsurge of Black freedom dreams, he quietly and yet deliberately made sure that we had what we needed to be successful" ("Prince Rogers Nelson by Alicia Garza," Purple Reigns: A BlackLivesMatter Tribute to Prince [blog], accessed March 18, 2018, prince.blacklivesmatter.com/prince-rogers-nelson-by-alicia-garza/).
18. Owen Husney recalls "Funkytown" hitting number one on all the charts even though Greenberg was relatively unknown. Right away, Prince learned a lesson about racism and vowed not to be pigeonholed as a "black" artist (quoted in Andrea Swensson, "Got to Be Something Here": The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017], 181–82).
19. Swensson, "Got to Be Something Here," 153.
20. University of Minnesota Law School, Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity, "Why Are the Twin Cities So Segregated?," February 2015, www.minnpost.com/politics-policy/2015/03/why-are-twin-cities-so-segregated-new-report-blames-housing-policies-and-edu/.
21. Jeppe Trolle Linnet, "Money Can't Buy Me Hygge: Danish Middle-Class Consumption, Egalitarianism, and the Sanctity of Inner Space," Social Analysis 55.2 (2011): 21–44.
22. See en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/white_fragility, accessed March 18, 2018.
23. Derek W. Vaillant, "Sounds of Whiteness: Local Radio, Racial Formation, and Public Culture in Chicago, 1921–1935," American Quarterly 54.1 (2002): 25–66.