With his own album and the Time’s both more or less finished–emphasis, in the former case, on “more or less”–Prince finally turned his full attention to Apollonia 6 in early February 1984. The two songs he’d completed for the project to date, “Sex Shooter” and (soon to be reclaimed) “Take Me with U,” had focused on the group’s frontwoman and namesake, with some difficulty. Luckily, there were two other members to write for–one of whom could actually sing!
Hi, everyone! As promised/threatened a few times recently, I’ve been doing some thinking about how to improve my Patreon content, and this is my first solution: A monthly video update where I can communicate with you all a little more informally than through the standard blog posts and podcasts. As I say in the video, this is an experiment, and I’m open to your feedback. If you don’t care for it, I’m happy to go back to the drawing board; but if you do like this, I’ll plan on it becoming a regular thing. Please let me know what you think–and, if you’re a patron, watch out for an audio version on the private podcast feed!
I wasn’t planning on posting anything today; my next “proper” post, on “I Would Die 4 U,” won’t be finished until next week, and I usually save my year-in-review posts for the actual anniversary of the blog in June. But it suddenly hit me that the five-year anniversary of Prince’s passing on April 21, 2016, demands more than just business as usual; and so here are what I fully intend to be my brief (yeah, right) thoughts on the subject.
Prince and I were on a break at the beginning of 2016. To be honest, we were usually on a break. I took what I would call an orthodox critical perspective on Prince, or what hardcore fans might recognize as the Questlove school of thought: I considered his “peak” era (roughly 1980–88) to be among the most incredible, groundbreaking music ever recorded, while his later work alternately underwhelmed, baffled, and only occasionally moved me. My first deep dive into his catalogue, during college, happened to coincide with 2004’s Musicology album and tour; so I followed him in real time for a few years, but fell off by the end of the decade. Years later, 2014’s ART OFFICIAL AGE pulled me back in–only for 2015’s HITnRUN Phase One, and a wasted free trial for TIDAL, to push me back out with a quickness. I distinctly remember driving to my job at IKEA (!) in Northern Virginia when the announcement of the Baltimore “Rally 4 Peace” came on the radio, and I was struck with the sudden urge to pull over and try to get tickets; but I was broke (IKEA, remember), and anyway Prince toured every couple of years. I’d catch him next time.
That’s the thing about Prince: There was always a next time–until, of course, there wasn’t. His passing, a little less than a year after I skipped the Baltimore show, threw into sharp relief just how much I’d taken him for granted. And I think that’s why I felt his absence so acutely: more than any other public figure–even David Bowie, whose own death just three months earlier felt in retrospect like a dress rehearsal for the main event; more even, I should probably be ashamed to say, than many of my own family members. Within hours of hearing the terrible news on April 21, I was making my way through his albums from beginning to end–catching up on everything I’d missed, or simply glossed over, when he was still here and his music felt like an infinitely renewable resource. Within days, I had started to write this very blog.
I’ve shared before that Dance / Music / Sex / Romance began as part sustained writing project, part act of public mourning. Five years later, though, I no longer think “mourning” is the right word. Prince’s death was a shock and a tragedy, no doubt; but his life was almost impossibly rich, lived to the fullest extent and only ever on his own terms. I understand and respect that for many fans, April 21 will always be an occasion for grief; but for me–someone who never knew Prince and, frankly, didn’t appreciate him enough while he was with us–I feel that the best thing I can do is to celebrate his work, to keep it alive in whatever small way I can.
In the past five years, I’ve also found myself focusing less on what we lost on April 21, 2016, and more on what we gained. This project–but really, Prince–has introduced me to dozens of people from around the world. Some I now consider friends; some are people whose work I’ve admired and who are now, unexpectedly, in my orbit; some are people whose work I didn’t know before, but now value greatly. The sad truth is that I probably wouldn’t have met any of them if Prince were still here. And while I obviously would have preferred for us to meet under different circumstances, I’d be hard-pressed to trade their presence in my life for anything.
When Prince died five years ago today, he left a space for the rest of us to fill. D / M / S / R remains my way of filling that space. It is, in the grand scheme of things, an insignificant one: The real measure of Prince’s legacy is in something like his funding of Black Lives Matter, the movement which effectively made possible yesterday’s historic guilty verdict for the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. But there’s also something to be said for giving his music the sustained, exhaustive critical examination it deserves; and, while I’m far from the only person doing this, I’m proud to be among their number. Five years ago, I stopped taking Prince for granted; now, I’m spending as many years as it takes encouraging others to do the same.
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.
Prince’s adoption of a punk aesthetic in late 1980 and early 1981 was, as we’ve seen, an act of calculation; it would be a mistake, however, to assume that it was only that. For one thing, Prince’s New Wave songs were simply too good to have been born of strategic considerations alone. For another, as his cousin Charles Smith recalled, the artist was a known fan of “the whole English scene… He’d always been into David Bowie and that kind of stuff” (Nilsen 1999 72).
So it stands to reason that when Prince made his way to punk’s epicenter, London, in June of 1981, his P.R. approach combined thinly-veiled opportunism with genuine homage. He promoted his one-off date at the West End’s Lyceum Ballroom with a pair of high-profile magazine interviews: one with Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker, and the other with Chris Salewicz, whose tenure at NME alongside writers Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill had helped frame the discourse around British punk. Warner Bros. even took the opportunity to release a U.K.-exclusive single in advance of his visit: a distinctly New Wave-flavored outtake from the Dirty Mind sessions called “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About).”