When an icon such as Prince Rogers Nelson transitions, he becomes a torch for both nostalgia and the power of music to unite, proving an artist could transcend race. To be sure, Prince—with songs that included “Controversy” (“Am I Black or White? Am I straight or gay?”)—messed around enough with the grays. The myth of his mixed-race identity even foregrounds his cinematic breakthrough with Purple Rain. But Prince’s choices were concessions to the prejudices of the marketplace, not the lived realities of race.
In ways that reflect his upbringing as a working-class Black kid from the American Midwest (an AFL-CIO statement after his death revealed he was a 40-plus-year member of labor unions), he was always a race man.
Prince came of age as an artist and celebrity in an era when the entertainment industry, if not American society in general, was still deeply ambivalent about Black male sexuality. If Teddy Pendergrass represented the apex of potent Black male sexuality in the mainstream in the late 1970s, it’s notable that the men who vied for that throne in the early ’80s were alternately more flamboyant and subdued. While Rick James, Michael Jackson and Prince all sought to be Black men who regularly adorned the bedroom walls of teenage American girls, Prince’s persona was the one that pushed nontraditional boundaries around gender, sexuality and race.
But as Dave Chappelle and Charlie Murphy made clear a few years ago on Chappelle’s Show, we shouldn’t let Prince’s ruffles obscure the fact that in art, business and philanthropy, he kept an investment in the Black aesthetics and communities that provided him with both his voice and vision.
Many have cited Prince’s 2015 recording, “Baltimore,” as proof of his Black Lives Matter bona fides, as well as his May concert that year in support of both the city and organizers protesting the police killing of Freddie Gray. But nearly 20 years earlier, Prince recorded “We March,” written with Marvin Gaye’s daughter, Nona, in support of the symbolic goals of the Minister Louis Farrakhan-organized Million Man March. Less remembered is the artist’s 2011 cover of the Staple Singers’ “When Will We Be Paid,” which, over a decade before Ta-Nehisi Coates’s celebrated essay in The Atlantic, was a strident call for Black reparations in the popular realm.
Prince’s concern about reparations was the by-product of a musician with a keen sense of the exploitation often experienced by performers, particularly Black artists. Prince’s most pronounced public “statements” on race came via his dispute with his label, Warner Bros. Records, over control of his music catalog and ownership of his master recordings.
In the mid-1990s, Prince scrawled “slave” on his cheek and responded to queries about its appearance with the quip, “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”
In referencing his lack of ownership of this literal physical product of his music, he echoed a dilemma confronted by entertainers dating back to Black blues musicians such as Lead Belly, whose music was transcribed by enterprising Whites for their own profit, and early soul artists including Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and others, who fought for ownership of their music publishing rights.
Ever aware of historic ironies, when Prince independently released his No. 1 song “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” on his own NPG Records in 1994, the single was distributed by Al Bell’s Bellmark Records. Bell is well-known for his successful efforts to rebuild the iconic Stax label in the early 1970s, after the death of Otis Redding and the loss of much of its catalog to Atlantic Records, who distributed their albums. It was under Bell’s stewardship that Stax embarked on an ambitious attempt to “give back” by underwriting a day-long free concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972 that was known as Wattstax.
Prince’s relationship with Bell underlines the late musician’s own philanthropic efforts and his interests in exploring alternative platforms for his music. Many of his monetary gifts remained anonymous during his life, including a financial donation to Trayvon Martin’s family. Like his rival Michael Jackson, Prince was a supporter of the United Negro College Fund, donating profits from his 1992 single “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” to the organization.
The talented singer/songwriter/musician was known as an early adopter of the Internet as an artist platform, even as he later challenged the delivery models established by digital streaming services that continued the exploitation of artists. Prince’s philanthropy and interests in emerging technologies intersected with his support of #YesWeCode, a San Francisco Bay Area organization that aims to train 100,000 Black and Latino youth in coding.
As fans sought to play Prince’s music immediately after his death, many were surprised to find it was unavailable on the major streaming services, with the exception of TIDAL. When Prince reclaimed his master recordings, he eventually chose TIDAL as his streaming service of choice, in part because of their enhanced royalty rates for artists.
Prince was that shining example of a Black person who had won his freedom on a number of levels. In the early 19th century, the groundbreaking musician might have been referred to as a “free man of color.” Today, we can remember him as the race man in purple.
Read the rest of EBONY’s commemorative Prince coverage in the June 2016 issue. On newsstands now! Click here to subscribe.
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Mark Anthony Neal