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A left perspective: Saying goodbye to Prince

By staff

Minneapolis musical legend, Black movement supporter, gender-bending pioneer

Prince fans gather and pay respects April 21 at First Avenue in Minneapolis

“His songs were musical arguments to live free.” -Boots Riley

Minneapolis, MN – In a massive outpouring, thousands of people gathered at First Avenue nightclub April 21 after news spread that Prince was found dead at his home, Paisley Park, that morning. First Avenue was made famous by Prince as he rose to fame. A cathartic gathering on the street outside First Avenue was hastily pulled together, and the club changed their plans for the weekend to host three all-night Prince dance parties. Twin Cities radio stations played little but Prince. People gathered outside Prince’s home, the famed Paisley Park in Minneapolis suburb Chanhassen. Showings of his movie ‘Purple Rain’ are scheduled for everywhere from his old middle school building in South Minneapolis to the Mall of America to Target Field this week. These outpourings were mirrored around the country as people came together to remember the music and life of a person who had so deeply touched people since he burst out of Minneapolis obscurity into superstardom in the early 1980s.

Prince was made by Minneapolis and made Minneapolis. His raw and magnetic talent was legendary. It’s difficult to think of another artist who can match his combination of incredible musicianship, vocal power, performance abilities and showmanship, and deeply honest border-pushing personal, sexual and political content.

From his 1979 debut to the present, he literally put Minnesota on the musical map, defining a new genre-defiant ‘Minneapolis sound’ and pushing forward a range of other musicians and artists, particularly many women, along with him.

But Prince wasn’t just famous for his sound. His early music exudes sexuality and gender-bending from every pore. Prince arose as a kind of negation of the rising cultural conservatism and macho jingoism of Ronald Reagan’s 1980s.

For young people coming of age in the midst of Reagan’s cultural conservatism and the homophobia and sex-phobia that accompanied the rise of AIDS, Prince somehow broke into popular culture and helped lead a generation away from the cultural conservative backlash to a sex-positive, gender fluid, thoughtful, and funky place. Prince smashed through the macho expectations of what a man should be, instead flaunting sexuality and gender playfulness and ambiguity. Within corporate-controlled conformist mass culture he was one of the few artists that provided solace and space for a generation of young queer people to become comfortable with who they were.

While some talk about Prince as being racially ambiguous, making analogy to his gender-bending, this isn’t accurate. He always embraced being Black, and explicitly embraced and supported the Black freedom struggle. Just one recent example is the song “Baltimore” he wrote after Baltimore police murdered Freddie Gray, calling out the police murders of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray that helped give impetus to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Throughout his career Prince wrote several songs with explicitly political themes, though political themes were often more background than foreground in his music. It’s become clearer in the days since Prince died that he was more involved behind the scenes supporting activist projects than most people realized. Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter and Van Jones both spoke publicly for the first time of Prince’s behind-the-scenes involvement with supporting Black activist projects, quietly making sure movements like Black Lives Matter and other projects had the resources they needed. Prince fervently insisted on not receiving any credit for the support he gave to the movement, so most people are just now learning of this for the first time.

While Prince is known for anthems that never fail to fill the dance floor like “Let’s Go Crazy”, “1999” and “Kiss”, he was always more than a dance-hit maker. Even some of his biggest hits also dealt with darker and more philosophical themes than most pop music.

Prince’s years-long struggle with Warner Brothers over control of his music was infamous. Rather than give up control of his artistic creations to an exploitative multinational corporation or continue to churn out hits to make more money for them, Prince instead embarked on a years-long battle against them. He refused to record any more music under the name Prince, infamously renaming himself to an unpronounceable symbol, and waging a very public battle and even controversially making the analogy of artists’ exploitation by music corporations to slavery. Prince emerged victorious from this battle, regaining control over his art and never looking back.

His fight against Warner Brothers was fueled by his deep belief in artistic integrity, but was also informed by a strong belief in working people having control over the fruits of their labor that was also shown in his membership of over 40 years in two unions, the Twin Cities Musicians Local 30-73 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and SAG-AFTRA. In taking on the exploitative music industry giants, he paved the way for musicians and artists that don’t have his power and fame to win more rights and better treatment in the music industry.

Minneapolis and the world will continue to mourn Prince’s passing for some time to come. He has left behind an unparalleled legacy of musical integrity and innovation, along with path-breaking contributions to challenging patriarchal culture and the gender binary, standing up for artists’ rights and control against the corporate music industry, and standing with the Black freedom struggle.

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