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Revisiting Emancipation and Artists’ Rights

The battles Prince was waging against Warner Brothers for control of his music leads to this epic set.

By Douglas Rasmussen
With the release of Prince’s 1996 triple CD Emancipation on vinyl for the first time this past September 2019, it is the perfect opportunity to explore the album and the contexts surrounding its initial release.

Specifically, the battles Prince was waging against Warner Brothers for control of his music that lead to this epic set, now released as a six LP set from the Prince Estate. I was lucky enough to be able to win a copy of the limited edition purple vinyl 6 LP set of Emancipation from a Twitter contest (with much thanks to @darlingnisi who hosted the contest). So it is interesting to look at the reception of the album 23 years later and see how perceptions of the album have changed in the public consciousness.

The discourse surrounding this stage in Prince’s career was divisive, to say the least. This makes it essential to look at Emancipation objectively to determine if and where Prince was either correct or misguided. It is important not to either deify all of Prince’s actions or to just dismiss all of his public battles outright as pure gimmicks, but to look at the core of Prince’s message in Emancipation. The goal is to look at what Prince was trying to accomplish and evaluate the respective merits and demerits of the situation. To do so I will also draw upon a document called “A Message from the Artists” that originally appeared on thedawn.com and was recently reprinted by Anil Dash on medium.com, as well as various interviews he gave at the time and, of course, looking at the album itself.

Prince and the “Slave” Controversy

Media journalists at the time expressed reservations about Prince’s public battle with Warner Brothers, the battles which would inform Emancipation’s thematic scope. The idea that a multi-millionaire would choose to use the language of resistance, use the iconography of slavery in concerts and performances, and write “Slave” on his face sparked a significant amount of anger from the press and fans. One of the questions in Prince’s public battle with Warner Brothers is “Why would Prince use such contentious symbolism and pencil “slave” on his face?” Prince said in a 1996 interview with Oprah Winfrey that “I never meant to be compared to any slave of the past, or any slave of the future.” This quote has been maligned by some writers who feel that Prince had to have known that using the word slave and depicting himself breaking chains on the album art for Emancipation would invoke some sensitivities to such a violent part of American history. There is no way to use that type of iconography without knowing its effects. And Prince being a visual performer coming of age in the MTV era of music videos was undoubtedly aware of the power of this type of imagery. The part of this quote I want to emphasize is the later part where he adds “of the future.” By adding “of the future” Prince is extending the discussion beyond his own personal battles with Warner Brothers and commenting on the fact that it is not just America was racist historically, but is and continues to be, racist in its current actions and motives, and that affects every Black individual, rich or poor.

The song on Emancipation that most clearly addresses this image of slavery is called, quite simply, “Slave.” In the song Prince sings:

Everybody keeps trying to break my heart

Everybody except for me

I just want to play the part

The part of someone truly free

— 'Slave' by Prince (1995)

This verse opens the song and it is curious in its phrasing. The very first line; “Everybody keeps trying to break my heart” relates the experience on a personal level, not a political one. In fact, if we are to read into it a little more, it can be argued that this is an extension of his own ego more than a cause, particularly if we are to read into it the biographical detail that Prince was always mercurial and suspicious of people and their motives. Many biographies and books on Prince, from Per Nilsen, Touré, to Alex Hahn, have noted that Prince notoriously had abandonment issues stemming from his parents’ divorce and being kicked to the street by his father, and this certainly could be read as an aspect of Prince feeling as if he could trust no one but himself.

The next verse, however, does broaden it up to a more sociological level. In the second verse Prince sings:

Like a candle slowing burning, I can feel my world unravel

Hemisphere upon hemisphere lie beneath my soul, my soul

My enemies kept it turning, but now they gavel

And judge me accordingly, I know, I know

— 'Slave' by Prince (1995)

The use of the word “gavel” distinctly brings it to the idea of racial inequality and as a systemic issue. Gavel brings to mind how complicit lawyers, the legal courts, business executives, basically any and all members of the current power structure are engaged in domination and suppression of black voices. While Prince uses the term “my enemies” it is not just Prince’s own personal enemies—namely that of Warner Brothers—but the enemies of the black individual on a societal level.

There is the question of legitimacy, and this issue has been raised by a few writers and journalists. There is no denying that the racial inequality Prince is referring to exist, but the question is if Prince is suffering because of it or is he suffering because of his own actions? And is Prince conveying the message in the best way possible to reach people? For instance, in many bootlegs of concerts during that period Prince had the audience chanting “Free the slave!” Did every one of those concert-goers believe deeply in the message? Or were they just caught up in the spirit? I bring these up only because they are concerns that have been posed before. But I would counter that it is not the artist’s responsibility to concern themselves with how the audience will absorb the message of the music. When Prince sings “Break the chain” he is advocating the idea that no matter how rich and successful, the black man will always be diminished in some way or another.

Prince’s “Message from the Artist” and his Record Deal

For another example of what Prince is trying to accomplish, and to address these criticisms, the document known as “Message from the Artist” gives a bit more insight. In it, Prince writes, “My ultimate message is a cry for solidarity amongst artists and a reprieve from the greed of entertainment executives.” By doing so, Prince is using his clout to rally artists around a cause. Prince is acknowledging his position as a well-known musician who occupies a position in the industry that allows him the opportunity to propel a movement so that “other young artists” are not “mislead in the same way.” So while in some ways Prince is being hyperbolic, the essential core of his message regarding artistic freedom is not as off-base as some of the critics at the time made it out to be. I do think the message got lost in some of the ways he approached the issue, but Prince is an artist in a medium that is as much visual as it is aural. And also, as he says in his “Message from the Artist,” “creativity is my life.” He was experiencing the difficulties more intensely because of his close connection with music, and perhaps that contributed to the added severity of his message and the reason he adorned the cover of Emancipation with images of breaking chains.

My ultimate message is a cry for solidarity amongst artists and a reprieve from the greed of entertainment executives.

Prince (1995)

One of the things compounding the issue is that Prince himself contributed to the problem by rushing in to sign a $100 million dollar deal with Warner Brothers in order to beat Michael Jackson and Madonna, who had just signed $60 million dollar deals (which was a record at the time). Warner Brothers in part wanted a return for their investment, and that meant some guarantees. Perhaps if Prince had negotiated for a lower amount he could have bargained for control of his masters. The essential argument Prince is making regarding artistic control is a legitimate one, and in fact, many artists since Prince have built on his model. For instance, when Radiohead released In Rainbows downloading came with a pay-what-you-can option, building on much like Prince’s earlier, and admittedly messier, efforts in digital distribution. It is a double-edged sword with Prince; his ego and ambition were the aspects to his personality that drove him to such creative and commercial heights, yet it also affected his career trajectory in many ways. And Prince rushing into such a massive deal with Warner Brothers can be seen as symptomatic of that pattern.

However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Prince’s argument was not purely the product of his own ambitions or ego. There is a very real core to his argument for artists’ rights and what role corporations play in the control and distribution of material. As artist-friendly as Warner Brothers were, they did impose some limits on Prince and his music that affected his career trajectory and creativity. The problems seem to have stemmed from Sign ‘☮’ the Times when Prince wanted to release it as a three-record set before Warner Brothers reduced it to a double album. I cannot help but think that if Warner Brothers had allowed Prince a triple album set, especially considering the quality of material he was producing at that time, tensions might have eased a bit.

Prince’s very public feuding with Warner Brothers and his unusual choices (some of which I understand the validity behind, such as writing slave on his cheek, some of which, such as his refusal to speak in interviews and calling himself Tora Tora, befuddles me as to their purpose in the debate) Even the name change, which became part of Prince’s struggle, was dismissed as a gimmick. Rosie O’ Donnell in a Television interview in 1997 kept referring to him as “Taffy” (a derivative of TAFKAP), much to Prince’s visible annoyance. Some interviewers, such as Larry King, did seem honestly curious as to the name change and asked in earnest about its origins and pronunciation, which is why perhaps Prince had granted him an hour-long interview. The general consensus, however, was that Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable name was emblematic of his increasing eccentricities and isolation as a rich and spoiled rock star. A flurry of insulting nicknames followed suit; TAFKAP, squiggle, the artist formerly known as someone we cared about (Howard Stern), Symbolina (Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Cheryl Johnson, the reputed subject of the song “Billy Jack Bitch” on The Gold Experience), and so forth.

Prince’s Name Change

The reasoning behind the name was that Prince felt as if his birth name had been diminished by Warner Brothers trademarking, merchandising, and selling the name as a commercial property. Prince’s choice of a symbol, as he tells Rosie O’ Donnell, was based on prayer and in a 1999 interview with Larry King he states, “I wanted to move to a new plateau in my life and one of the ways in which I did that was to change my name, to sort of divorce me from the past.” And in a 1997 article in Interview magazine where Prince talked with film director Spike Lee, he summarized his name change:

You know, black people still call me Prince. Sometimes I ask them, “Why do you call me Prince?” And people say, “Because you are a prince to us.” Usually when they say that, you know my heart goes out and I have to say, “I don’t mind you calling me that.” If there is a pronunciation to my name in the future, I hope it will be “Prince.” That’s my dream. But until that say, I’ll just go by this. [holds up a necklace with his symbol on it] This is my “X.”

Interview Magazine (1997)

So it would appear that Prince’s umbrage with the name had more to do with how people address him rather than what they address him with. Some journalists and interviewers took on a defensive tone concerning the nature of the name change and its oddness, which in turn put Prince on the defensive in responding. But it is very telling that in that quote he is still allowing the African-American community to refer to him as Prince. Prince very clearly feels as if the merchandising of his name is the result of white corporate executives exploiting him and that his struggle is part of an ongoing conflict stemming from racial inequality.

Admittedly I do not understand the full impetus behind the name and can only speculate, as many journalists have already done. Was it a tactic to simply annoy Warner Brothers? Was its intent to bring into the forefront a dialogue about what Warner Brothers is doing and artists rights? Was the name divinely inspired? If it was truly representative of the next stage in his spiritual evolution than why the change back to Prince seven years later? Does it really comment on the history of slave names? These are all deeply profound questions raised by Prince and his name change to a symbol. So in that regard, the name change was successful, even if commercially motivated, as some speculate. And as confusing as the name change was—amongst my friends I still called him Prince at the time—it hardly mattered to me as it seemed to have to other journalists or interviewers, such as Rosie O’Donnell, Cheryl Johnson, or David Letterman (who mocked it extensively in an appearance where Prince performed “Dolphin”). Confusing and odd behavior, to be sure, but I am willing to cede to the fact that Prince might have had a deeper and more philosophical reasoning behind the name than just pure eccentricity or commercial factors. As listeners, we can only guess as to Prince’s inner motives.

So in my estimation about Prince’s role in the struggle for artists’ rights, his public feud with Warner Brothers, and his use of slavery imagery in his performance or in songs such as “When Will We B Paid?” I would have to say it is a complicated issue. Yes, Prince was prone to some hyperbolic comments and possibly rushed into a deal that aggravated the situation, but that is not to absolve Warner Brothers of any blame. At the core of Prince’s message is a concern for artists’ rights and the exploitation of black artists by large corporations, and those concerns are rooted in a very real concern. And although Prince sang of racial unity, he was always aware of his Black identity and connected to the Black community. As he said at the 2015 Grammy Awards, “Albums still matter. Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” Black activism and the rights of Black artists were at the forefront of his discussion. If not for himself, then for the Black artists who are not making $100 million dollar deals.

Emancipation: the Album

Revisiting Emancipation and Artists’ Rights-Housequake

Lost in the noise surrounding Prince’s name change and public battles was evaluating the quality of the music. Did the newfound freedom improve Prince’s sound? In a manner of speaking, yes. It is somewhat difficult to judge because just prior to Emancipation Prince was burning off his last required albums for Warner Brothers with duds like Chaos and Disorder. Chaos and Disorder was one of the rare Prince albums with really nothing of value to it. Even when Prince was not at his best he always had some material that was interesting. Come had “Come” (at least the version that appeared on The Beautiful Experience music special, which clocks in at less than 4 minutes. I always felt the 11 minute album version was an inferior mixing of the song), “Space”, “Pheromone”, and “Race” were all solid entries (the other tracks, not so much). Even Rave un2 the Joy Fantastic, which is an underwhelming album overall, had “Baby Knows” and “Prettyman.” Chaos and Disorder is one of the few albums that is seemingly without any merit. Even during Prince’s 1990s period when his listenership had diminished somewhat he was still producing interesting material.

Emancipation, however, was billed as the album Prince was born to play. And yes, it certainly was a big improvement over his last few efforts. Like many people, I have played the “What if it was only one album?” game. While I do not usually bother with such things, because, quite frankly, if there were any songs I do not like I can easily skip over them. Indeed, there are definite songs that I skip over: “Courtin Time,” “White Mansion,” “I Can’t Make U Love Me,” “Mr. Happy,” “Emale,” “My Computer,” “Da Da Da,” and “Style,” are all skippable in my opinion. The first album I think is the strongest and has my favorite tracks: “Jam of the Year” (single best song on the record, in my opinion), “Right Back Here in My Arms,” “Somebody’s Somebody” (second favorite song), “Get Your Groove On,” “We Gets Up,” “Damned if I Do,” and “In This Bed I Scream” are all great songs. They are as good and as funky as anything on Diamonds and Pearls or Love Symbol, if not better.

The second album (or, rather, the 3rd and 4th LPs. But on the CD set it was the 2nd disc) things slip a little, but there is still plenty of great material. “Soul Sanctuary,” “Curious Child,” and “Saviour” are absolute standout tracks. Then there are some tracks that are decent, but not exactly groundbreaking or up to Prince’s usual standards: “Sex in the Summer,” “Dreaming About U,” “Holy River,” and “Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife” are all good selections, but not my top favorites. I know “Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife” and “Holy River” have their defenders, and on some level I can understand the appeal, but the songs do not resonate with me as much. Just one of those odd, subjective aspects to listening to music.

The 3rd disc (or albums 5 and 6 on the LP set) is the weakest of the bunch in my opinion. “Slave” and “Emancipation” are good songs, but the rest does not work for me. Even “Face Down,” which I admit is very clever with its lyrical attack on Warner Brothers—I would highly recommend the video by Prince’s Friend where he lays out “5 Reasons why ‘Face Down is a Masterpiece.” I may not agree with his conclusion, but he most definitely outlines a compelling and convincing case for why the song deserves credit—but Prince and rap as a combination never really worked for me. But I would be remiss not to include it on my “If it was only one album” list because of the message behind the song.

Revisiting Emancipation and Artists’ Rights-Housequake
Photo Randee St. Nicholas. From the upcoming photobook My Name Is Prince

The big question is does the sound represent Prince’s newfound freedom in a significantly noticeable way? If we are to compare it to his previous releases, then yes, there is definitely an improvement. Emancipation is still a decidedly mixed bag, but there are moments of musical excellence on the album that make it a worthwhile listen. If you have not heard it I would still highly recommend listening to it. Of Prince’s 1990s efforts it ranks among my favorite albums. Graffiti Bridge, The Gold Experience and the bootlegged The Undertaker edge it out. In fact, The Undertaker ranks among my favorite Prince albums of all time, if only Warner Brothers had not stopped production on it! And there certainly are plenty of online discussions and YouTube videos that have played the “If it was one album” parlor game. The Violet Reality, for instance, released a video called “Prince-Emancipation: The ULTIMATE Challenge!” where they attempted to reduce it down to one album, but settled on a double-disc set. I have only been able to get around reducing it to 12-14 tracks. Emancipation tends to be placed somewhere in the middle in terms of ranking Prince’s albums. Emancipation might not reach the heights of some of his other albums, but of his 1990s output, I would rank it among the top of the list.

As for the discussions about contracts and inequality that surround Emancipation, it is definitely a complicated issue. Neither Prince nor Warner Brothers are completely in the right or in the wrong, and there is a core element to Prince’s discussion about artist’s rights that has a ripple effect in today’s digital and streaming media landscape. His discussions about race and politics are supported by history, it just might have got lost in his rhetorical strategies. As always it is difficult to decipher Prince’s antics, as he moved to the beat of his drum, but those contradictions are what made him such a unique and creative voice in the record industry.

And it should be noted that Prince’s struggles have been taken up by other notable musicians, which helps support Prince’s movement towards creative freedom. Heck, my favorite musician, Tom Waits, struggled to get away from Island Records for years because of a similar artistic conflict. Nowadays Waits insists on distribution only deals with companies on an album-by-album basis, much like Prince did with Arista, and also insists on the artistic freedom to pursue the projects he wants to. Freedom was at the core of Prince’s artistic vision and it is encouraging to know that many other musicians are now echoing his cause. Prince should at least be acknowledged as being the pioneer in fighting for artists’ rights, some of his missteps can be attributed to being one of the first popular musicians to attempt a reformation of industry practices.

— 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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