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Race, Gender, and Identity in the Career of Prince

In celebration of Black History Month, Douglas Rasmussen is discussing Prince’s career and his relationship with race, gender, and politics.

By Douglas Rasmussen

Early in his career, Prince felt he had to change his racial heritage, telling an interviewer that “My dad is Black and Italian. My mom is a mixture of a bunch of things,” even though both his parents were African American. Prince’s obfuscation of his racial identity has been the subject of much criticism, especially in the early stages of his career, but it was also a necessary strategy that Prince felt he had to use in order to traverse genre boundaries in a segregated music industry.

Isobel Wilkerson contends in her book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” that the dominant power structure that seeks to enforce rigid hierarchies “will always question a person whose race is ambiguous until they are satisfied of an origin.” Prince, despite having two African American parents, was dealing with a segregated music industry that demands a rigid demarcation between Black and white performers.

Prince and Strategic Biracialism

This strategic biracialism early in Prince’s career has been subjected to much debate. James Gordon Williams notes in his article “Black Muse 4 U: Liminality, Self-Determination, and Racial Uplift in the Music of Prince” that “Prince’s strategic biracialism was thought to enable him synthesizing Black and white popular music codes, leading to an intervention in the ghettoization of American popular music.” As to the purpose of Prince’s strategic biracialism, Williams continues “Perhaps Prince did not have an ambivalent relationship with race but an ambivalent relationship with being defined solely by race” Understanding the nature of the business Prince knew to be identified as being Black by the music industry would mean he would be allocated less resources for marketing, distribution and promotion. Twila L. Perry makes this point in her essay “Conscious and Strategic Representations of Race: Prince, Music, Black Lives, and Race Scholarship”: “Prince likely made conscious and strategic decisions about representing his radical identity as a response to his understanding of the reality of racism in the structure of the music industry at the time he was beginning his career. He wanted to have access to a wider audience.” To have access to a wider audience Prince had to play the game, so to speak, at an early stage in his career. For Prince, strategic biraciality had, as Perry argues, a “cultural power” which he understood in “the American racial hierarchy, to have more cachet with white audiences than a monoracial identity.” Prince, then, was not actively trying to ‘pass’ as white, or in the proximity of white via biracialism, but was negotiating with a music industry driven by segregated standards for Black and white performers. But, as Nic John Ramos observes in his essay, “since race is still inscribed on the skin, we still receive Prince as black.

Since race is still inscribed on the skin, we still receive Prince as black.

— Nic John Ramos

The effect of Prince’s strategic biracialism was not to transcend race or to disguise his racial heritage, a criticism levied at him early in his career, but as a strategic biracialism that navigated the tricky waters of a white-male-dominated genre of rock music. In fact, Prince made the Warner Bros. studio promise they would not market him solely as a ‘Black’ entertainer, as urban markets received less resources than mainstream white rock markets. Kamilah Cummings in her essay “Prince: Introduction of a New Breed Leader” in the anthology “Prince and Popular Music: Critical Perspectives on an Interdisciplinary Life” discusses how Prince negotiated his racial identity early in his career: “Given that the entertainment industry is a microcosm of society, it is clear that Prince’s desire not to be made Black was actually a desire to be freed from the imposition of racism, not a desire to disassociate from his racial identity or community.” It was not that Prince was embarrassed about his identity, and indeed he would adopt a more Afro-centric perspective later in his career after his initial success allowed him the financial means to do so, but that he understood that he had to navigate some difficult racial terrain in a segregated music industry. Prince wanted the opportunity to play not only distinctly ‘urban’ types of music, such as dance, electronica, and funk, but mainstream hard rock as well.

The Politics of Dance Music

Steve Perry in his essay “‘Ain’t no Mountain High Enough’: the Politics of Crossover” observes the racial dimensions that characterize the binary of  rock/authentic and dance/inauthentic: “During the interlude between the height of the (tacitly racist) anti-disco backlash in 1978 and Michael Jackson’s breakthrough in 1983, the charts had been as deeply segregated as any time in the rock era.” More than any other genre, rock music has established an unrealistic presumption of ‘authenticity.’ This comes at the expense of other, more dance and pop-oriented genres like disco, funk, or other forms of dance (or ‘urban’) music, some of which have origins in gay Black subcultures. Jack Hamilton in his essay “‘Baby I’m a Star’: Prince, Purple Rain, and the Audiovisual Remaking if a Black Rock Star” believes that it was Prince’s incorporation of androgyny, rock music, funk music, and dance music into a synthesis of form that ultimately threatened the white male rock status: “The roots of rock audience’s hostility to disco were diffuse and complex: At the most superficial level disco was an affront to rock’s white hetero male hegemony: aside from being associated with Black performers and audiences, disco was far more female-centric.” Rock music is predicated on a self-created mythology of ‘sincere expression’ and a distinctly heterosexual ‘working class’ aesthetic that was antagonistic towards the gender-bending and synth-pop sound of a Black performer like Prince. The so-called earnestness of rock music is elevated above the supposed inauthenticity of dance and disco, even as both forms of musical expression benefit from the same commercial practices.

Androgyny and Fluidity in Identity

Prince’s success would disrupt the racist social order that the music industry tried desperately to maintain. As bell hooks contends, “Prince wasn’t about staying within the boundaries of male/female, Black and white, but within the boundaries of freakishness. I identify him as a Black artist who wants to be self-defining and decolonized.” Prince was not comfortable being restricted to artificial categories, and defied the established racial and gender barriers in the music industry. Prince’s subversion of racial and gender norms by appearing as an androgynous Black man on a mainstream outlet like MTV posed a significant cultural threat to classic white rock. Adilifu Nama contends in “I Wonder U: How Prince Went Beyond Race and Back” that “Prince challenged and periodically subverted racial notions for how popular Blackness was imagined, promoted, and circulated in U.S. society by combining image and sound, style and substance, politics and self-promotion.” Nama, then, views Prince as an innovative figure that forever shifted the perspective of a racially segregated music industry in the 1980s.

Afro-Political Consciousness in Late Career Prince

As Grace D. Gipson argues in her essay “Afrofuturism’s Musical Princess: Janelle Monáe: Psychedelic Soul Music Infused with a Sci-fi Twist”: “The appropriation of science and technology by marginalized groups has always been an essential component of resistance, and its signification in the Black diaspora all the more so because of the extremes in brutality, subjugation, and geographic scope.” It can be argued that Prince, as an artist who was always at the forefront of technological change in contemporary music, used technology later in his career to fully develop not only his sound, but also as a method to introduce his more complex approach to identity to his listeners.

Prince is the opposite of someone who crossed over. He crossed over, with “Purple Rain“, and crossed back. That is exactly why he is not the rage he used to be.

— bell hooks

This became evident late in his career when Prince adopted a more Afro-centric political consciousness that worked in concert with his growing musical sophistication. Indeed, bell hooks contends “Prince is the opposite of someone who crossed over. He crossed over, with “Purple Rain“, and crossed back. That is exactly why he is not the rage he used to be.” In bell hooks’ estimation, then, Prince’s commercial decline in his later career—the quote dates to 1995, but became even more relevant in subsequent decades—is the result of alienation by a white audience not receptive to Prince’s embrace of a more political outlook in his music. When considering Prince’s more politically-focused music, with songs such as “Family Name,” “Avalanche,” much of the “Rainbow Children” album,  the Afro-futurism of “Art Official Age“, “Baltimore,” “Colonized Mind,” and “Dreamer,” to name only a few examples, it certainly lends credence to the argument that Prince’s more direct engagement with race and politics as an essential aspect of his identity alienated some of the white male audience established during his heyday of the 1980s.

In his late career, Prince developed his musical style and creative vision into one that is more inclusive and diverse, yet not at the expense of embracing his identity as a Black man in a society still largely racially divided. Having spent his early career having to navigate the tricky waters of race and identity, Prince would achieve a level of financial and artistic success that would allow him the cultural cachet to fully embrace his artistic and utopian vision of racial diversity. Much of his late career in music in the last two decades of his life would focus on enacting this vision in his music, and as such would provide the listener with some of the most complex and sophisticated musical endeavours of his career. 

As a popular musician, Prince broke racial, gender, and socio-economic barriers and contributed to a legacy of artistic expression that advocated for individual freedom and empowerment. Prince played with images of androgyny, race and the cultural signifiers of the time, which were questions that Generation X were grappling with at the time. By the 2000s the culture had changed and the racial and gender dynamics had changed, necessitating a change in Prince’s music. Prince now focused his attention on Black Lives Matter and the injustices of systemic racism and oppression by a white power structure. Prince as a provocateur had to give way to a more complex and nuanced creative vision of racial dynamics in the 2010s.

— Douglas Rasmussen


— Douglas Rasmussen
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About the author

Douglas Rasmussen

Douglas Rasmussen was born on the Canadian prairies, but his maternal grandfather originally was born in Prince's home state of Minnesota.

He has a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Saskatchewan where he majored in American Literature and Film Studies and wrote his thesis on the AMC TV series Breaking Bad. He has published articles on Canadian History and Virginia Woolf, and has chapters in upcoming collections of critical essays on various Film Studies topics to be published in 2020. Discussing film is his first love, but any time he has a chance to discuss Prince, David Bowie, or Tom Waits, he is more than happy to do so.

You can follow him at @grumpybookgeek on Twitter.


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