Richard Rodriguez Navi Pillay
Lewis is Associate Professor of English at Washington State University
Vancouver. He is the author of Ballers of the New School:
Race and Sports in America (Third World Press) and editor
of the forthcoming book Chicago and the Black Arts Movement
(Northwestern University Press).
MODERN ARTISTS SEEK FREEDOM LIKE PRINCE?
Prince as a teen but I grew to really appreciate him even more
for his music, fashion, business sense and artistic creativity
as I became an adult. He is without a doubt a heroic role model
of our era. He never stopped trying new things and challenging
tradition. Undaunted by norms, he was willing to be a daring,
inventive, radical, free and unreconstructed human being.
year is 1984 and the album Purple Rain has dropped along
with the movie of the same name. I saw it twice within 24 hours.
First I saw it with my boy Stephen and again the next day with
my girlfriend. Prince suffered the misfortune of releasing the
most dynamic album and film at the same time that Michael Jackson
took the music world by storm. In the face of stiff competition
from the King of Pop, Prince developed an incredible following.
Prince came to St. Louis to perform in 1984, my cousin, who had
followed him for at least three years prior to Purple Rain,
went crazy. She and my older sister and their friends packed into
her car and spent the night following leads to ‘Prince sightings’
in downtown St. Louis after attending the concert. They got in
trouble for staying out too late, but did not care because they
wanted a chance to glimpse or meet Prince. They loved him for
being sassy, sexy, and cool and wanted to be with this diminutive
fellow -- enraging and baffling me because two of their girlfriends
who gushed over Prince told me I was too short even though I stood
four inches taller than Prince.
Bolden, professor of African American Studies at Kansas University
and guest editor of The Funk Issue in American Studies Journal
(2013) sheds light on the meaning of funk and Prince. “Funky”
says Dr. Bolden, “is honesty of expression at our deepest
emotions. The genre Funk is hybrid forms. And Prince is the exemplification
of that. He rejected categories, opting for Funk’s embrace
of multiplicity of forms. Prince exhibited carefree blackness,”
which Dr. Bolden says, “is funk. In many ways [Prince] reflected
the meaning of the word and the genre.” Indeed he did. Not
only in his music but his interviews where he discussed his struggle
to be free artistically and financially. He often referred to
music executives as Merchant selling artists as merchandise. Prince
realized, much like rappers Too Short and E-40 that one could
do just as well selling their merchandise (their art) without
the greedy merchants getting a cut off every aspect of what is
produced. He realized the math that made selling 250,000 copies
yourself as lucrative as selling 2.5 million copies with the record
merchants taking a cut. His logic was, to borrow from Dr. Bolden,
adult I witnessed Prince’s funk live at his 2004 Musicology
Concert in Portland with my wife and three other couples. We loved
Prince as teens and as young adults and his latest album reflected
the dynamic funky sound that drew us all to him in our youth.
As we entered it shocked me that we each received a copy of the
album that we already had purchased. I smiled and exclaimed, “Genius!
This brother just flipped the script again on the suits.”
By including the album into the price of a ticket, he jumped to
the top of the billboard chart during his concert tour. It was
a funky move.
his career Prince waged battle against the record executives who
controlled artists economically and creatively. Prince
famously wrote the word “Slave” on his cheek during
his battle in the 1990s with Warner Brothers over how often he
could release his music and who owned it. Tied to a contract that
required him to release a fixed number of albums, Prince produced
them feverishly to speed up the execution of the contract. After
leaving Warner Brothers, he formed his own music company, NPG
Records and released a triple album in 1996 -- not coincidentally
looking forward, he also was one of the first artists to utilize
the Internet’s potential. He released his double album Crystal
Ball for $50, selling 400,000+ copies. He famously told Tavis
Smiley to, “do the math” when explaining the profit
that he made from this unconventional approach. Explaining that
he was making sure that his desire to freely play music did not
get him played — pun intended.
forget how he changed his name to a love symbol -- a combination
of the symbol for male and female -- during his epic battle with
Warner Brothers as a statement against corporate greed and in
support of artistic bodies. This move left Warner with no ‘Prince’
to sell, by abandoning that name and wresting control of his body
and art. More than a symbolic gesture, he redefined himself without
words. To put an exclamation point on his effort to release himself
from slavery, he later reacquired the rights to his music.
have written elsewhere Prince’s career undoubtedly situates
him as the epitome of what an artist can become and aspire to
be. Why? Because he challenged notions of race, gender, and sexuality
and owned his masters, career and his art. Also, his masculinity
was secure; he loved the ladies and they loved him, not withstanding
his small stature because he was confident in who and what Prince
One of the things about Prince I admired was his
crazy, cool fashion -- even when it went too far for my taste.
Whether wearing bikini underpants and a trench coat, a pantsuit,
lace, long coat and ruffled shirt, skin-tight leather pants, or
traditional suit, he oozed confidence, style and funk to the stone
cold bone. Even the suits he wore were uniquely tailored with
fresh cuts and slick colors.
a trip to the South of France my wife and I drifted into a men’s
shop that sold the most beautiful clothing: jackets, shirts, and
suits constructed from amazing fabrics. The owner told me that
one of her famous customers – Prince -- was about my build
and that she kept things in his size in stock. My wife decided
to purchase me a spectacular shirt and jacket that cost more than
any suit that I ever owned. The cut, the fabric and the fit were
perfect. If this shop was good enough for Prince, I figured it
was good enough for me. Eerily, I wore that blazer on the morning
when he died.
ethos and his aura embody black American vernacular and culture
to the point where he defined himself by an unspeakable symbol.
There are few if any artists that can be recognized by a symbol.
On close examination his symbol looks like a hybrid peace sign
and cross. He is a child of the Civil Rights Movement (also known
as The Second Reconstruction). Emancipated and determined to be
free, he avoided gimmickry -- after his first few albums -- and
his impetus was usually about expanding the known, stretching
the unknown, refusing to be defined, limited, or owned. A close
look at Prince’s life and career is an education for artists,
for all of us, in the possibilities of self-definition, artistic
control and forward thinking.