Last Thursday, after weeks of rumors and leaks, it finally became official: the next expanded reissue from Warner Bros. and the Prince Estate is Sign “O” the Times, and it’s a doozy: 8 CDs (13 LPs, for the wax-inclined) and a DVD covering the full breadth of Prince’s output from late 1985 to early 1987. I won’t be “officially” writing about this music until 2021 at the earliest (more on that later), but damned if I can’t share some preliminary thoughts about it now. Here they are, disc by disc (and, in the case of the Vault discs, track by track)…
I was looking forward to De Angela Duff’s virtual symposium celebrating 40 years of Dirty Mind and 30 years of Graffiti Bridge. But I didn’t know I needed it until I was there. It’s been, I think, a rough year for everyone. Those of us who listen to epidemiologists are about to enter our fourth month of staying home and staying isolated to flatten the curve of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, police brutality is running rampant across the country, with yet another man in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks, joining the depressingly long list of recent victims of state-sanctioned murder, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and David McAtee. Under conditions like these, it’s hard to feel much enthusiasm about anything. Speaking for myself, I’ve been at a low ebb in creativity and motivation for a while, even before everything went to shit.
It’s hard to overstate, then, how energized I felt from the first moments of the symposium last Friday. Seeing familiar “faces” in the chat (Darling Nisi, Harold Pride, Erica Thompson, Arlene Oak, Annie Ward, Chris Aguilar-Garcia, Zack Stiegler, and Jason Breininger, to name just a few), and hearing from others who know me from my work, was a timely reminder that I’m not out here alone; that there is a vibrant, welcoming community that shares my passion. The whole thing felt like a warm hug–something that, in these times of social distancing, is in desperately short supply.
I’d also forgotten how exciting it is to hear new research from others in a shared area of expertise. I’ve been out of the academic game for a while, and my last conference even as an independent scholar was Prince from Minneapolis back in 2018. I didn’t realize how much I missed the intellectual stimulation events like this provide. As this blog attests, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Dirty Mind, but last weekend’s presentations gave me new ways to think about it: from Christopher A. Daniel’s vital excavation of contemporary discourse by music critics of color; to Steven G. Fullwood’s acute analysis of the ways Prince synthesized punk and disco to carve out liberatory new territory in popular music; to C. Leigh McInnis’ rousing, almost Pentecostal oration on the “street philosophy” of Dirty Mind and the ways it reshaped Black masculinity in the early 1980s.
Even more impressive were the ways presenters found to cast Graffiti Bridge–a project that has never been among my favorites–in a new light. Both Monique W. Morris and Robert Loss applied a richness and rigor of analysis to the film that was, frankly, above and beyond what the script demanded; while Kirsty Fairclough (of Salford Purple Reign conference fame) and Casci Ritchie made solid arguments for the film on the basis of its aesthetics. I don’t think I’ll ever be a Graffiti Bridge convert, but I thought more about the movie last weekend than I’ve thought about it in the past 30 years, and that in itself is an achievement.
What made DM40GB30 especially timely, however, were the ways its hosts, guests, and presenters spoke directly to the current historical context. The keynote by André Cymone and Jill Jones (see above) included lengthy discussions of what it was like for a Black person to grow up (in André’s case), or move to (in Jill’s), Minneapolis: a city that, as we know all too well, has often failed to live up to the “Uptown” mythology Prince helped invent. Journalist Hasit Shah also spoke to this context in his presentation, making the argument that “Uptown” is not the uncritical celebration of multiculturalism which it has become in some sections of the fan community, but “a fucking protest song.” Even the weekend-closing musical set by musician Chris Rob incorporated numerous shout-outs to George Floyd, demonstrating that the music Prince recorded in 1980, 1990, and everywhere in-between has lasting social relevance beyond basic fan nostalgia.
If you were at the symposium and noticed I didn’t mention your favorite presentation, it’s probably because I didn’t catch it. I regrettably missed the majority of both the Dirty Mind roundtable, with BBC Manchester presenter Karen Gabay, musician Nicolay, journalist Keith Murphy, and former Right On! magazine editor Cynthia M. Horner (!); as well as its Graffiti Bridge equivalent, with the recurring panel of De Angela, Zaheer Ali, Anil Dash, Miles Marshall Lewis, and Elliott H. Powell. I plan to rectify this–and rewatch a lot of other presentations that I missed, in full or in part–once the video archive of the symposium is available in July.
Mostly, though, I intend to ride the creative and intellectual high I experienced last weekend for as long as humanly possible. I came out of DM40GB30 feeling renewed, inspired, and ready to throw myself into this and other projects–something I haven’t felt in a good, long while. I would, of course, jump at the chance to participate in next year’s symposium, which will celebrate 40 years of Controversy, 30 years of Diamonds and Pearls, and 20 years of The Rainbow Children. But even if I don’t get that chance, I will definitely be attending. Events like this are much too precious and rare to take for granted.
(Thank you so much to De Angela Duff, who clearly put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears–and a decent amount of her own money–into making this thing happen; and to Arthur Turnbull, who did a great job helping to steer the ship. Also, thanks to everyone who tuned in to my roundtable on the Time’s Pandemonium with KaNisa, Ricky Wyatt, and Ivan Orr on Sunday evening–I hope you had even a fraction of the amount of fun I did!)
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about the uprisings against police brutality currently going on in the United States and elsewhere; to be honest, it feels a little self-aggrandizing to insert myself into the conversation. But for better or worse, dance / music / sex / romance is the biggest platform I have, and I would be remiss if I didn’t use it to add my voice to those calling for justice and long-overdue, radical change.
Believing that Black lives matter is the only reasonable or appropriate position for a blog about Prince to take. Prince was a Black man who centered his Blackness in every aspect of his life and work. He was famously a major financial contributor to the Black Lives Matter organization before his death in 2016; he used his platform as a presenter at the 2015 Grammy Awards to shout out the movement; and after the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police officers that same year, he wrote the song “Baltimore” and organized a benefit concert to help heal the city after days of unrest. According to co-writer Dan Piepenbring, he wanted his unfinished memoir to “solve racism.”
All of this indicates a shift, late in his life, to overt political activism; but even at the height of his crossover success, he was already trying to imagine a better world for Black people. “Uptown” is a vision of racial unity, set in a city whose history often does not live up to its inclusive reputation. “America” is a Hendrix-esque reappropriation of “America the Beautiful” with sardonic new lyrics about inner-city desperation. Even “The Cross” draws from the long African American spiritual tradition of using scripture to advocate for liberation. And this isn’t even to mention the litany of songs released later in his career that are even more forthright in addressing racism: from “The Sacrifice of Victor” to “We March,” from “Dreamer” to “Black Muse.”
As a rule, I try to avoid speculating on what Prince would have thought or done had his time on Earth not come to an end four years ago. But I am confident that, had he lived to witness the police killings of Philando Castile in July 2016 and George Floyd last month–not to mention the countless other acts of police brutality, fatal or otherwise, against Black people in the Twin Cities and elsewhere–he would have been fully in support of these protests. And, while I am also usually not one to say that we should do or believe everything that Prince did, in this instance, I can’t think of a more productive way to honor his memory.
But enough from me. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some critical perspectives on Prince from Black writers and podcasters. Please feel free to share more in the comments:
- “Reclaiming the Black Prince” by Scott Woods (also check out his book, Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods)
- “Unpacking Race in the Legacy of Prince,” a great conversation by Darling Nisi and Erica Thompson from the Muse 2 the Pharaoh podcast
- “Prince in/as Blackness,” a special issue of the Howard Journal of Communications
- The Journal of African American Studies’ Special Issue on Prince (full disclosure: I’m in this, but just a book review–read for the essays!)
- I Wonder U: How Prince Went Beyond Race and Back by Adlifu Nama
- “Prince and the Black Experience” by Prince’s Friend
- “Black in Minneapolis,” The Podcast on Prince’s interview with journalist Ralph L. Crowder III
Also, please consider donating to these or other resources supporting the struggle for Black lives in Minneapolis. If nothing else, this is something we know that Prince would have done:
In lieu of suspending Patreon payments this month, I will be donating all patron fees to the above organizations. Thanks for reading, take care of yourselves, and I’ll be back at a time when it feels appropriate.