Editor’s Note: Welcome to the launch of “Purple Music: Musings on the Minneapolis Sound,” a new column by writer Tony Kiene. With this column, Kiene will highlight the lasting legacy of the late Prince, and by extension, the many artists who have played a pivotal role in shaping what’s commonly known as “the Minneapolis Sound.” Enjoy the first installment below.
In the introduction to their September 2017 special “Prince” issue of the Journal of African American Studies, co-editors Judson L. Jeffries and Shannon M. Cochran write that the “primary responsibility of the scholar is to put in historical, political, and social context that which has not only shaped our thinking about people, places, things, and events, but give meaning to them.” And, as they underscore the prominence of Prince in the history of popular music and culture, Jeffries and Cochran appropriately add that Prince was so much more than music.
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Back in 1996, when I was a wannabe scholar myself, I wrote my master’s thesis on the meaning of Prince and The Minneapolis Sound. Mind you, I was no pioneer. A year prior, C. Liegh McInnis published his dissertation from Jackson State University titled The Lyrics of Prince. At Purdue University, where a couple of my professors enthusiastically supported my research interests, namely Floyd W. Hayes, III and the late Anthony J. Lemelle, the majority of their colleagues, as well as a fair share of my peers, questioned the legitimacy of Prince as an intellectual enterprise.
Whether their derision was due to academic snobbery, simple-mindedness, or perhaps another form of chauvinism, who cares? I certainly didn’t. It was not as if there wasn’t already a tradition of studying Black musical forms and their social, cultural, and political power.
“There has also been a tradition in America’s ivory tower of marginalizing the significance and contributions of Black art, music…”
Take, for example, Frank Kofsky’s Black Nationalism and The Revolution in Music or Ben Sidran’s Black Talk, among others. That said, there has also been a tradition in America’s ivory tower and the larger culture of marginalizing the significance and contributions of Black art, music, and literature, making the meticulous study of someone like Prince and a myriad of other extraordinary artists even more essential.
Now before I go any further, I wish to stress that this column (and in particular, its first installment) is not about why Prince should be studied in the academy (he should). But rather, why the thoughtful and extensive exploration of Prince and his art should transcend all boundaries, disciplines, and circles of discourse, as did he.
In making this point, I want to briefly reference some of the standout work that has been done on Prince over the years, as well as survey some of the scholarship, journalism, and other historic and artistic ventures that are being undertaken today in honor of Prince’s life and legacy; if for no other reason than to highlight the broad scope and diversity of such efforts and to provide a foundation for the future of this column.
In the 1980s, journalists such as Greg Tate, Armond White, and Nelson George elevated the discourse on Black popular music including more than the occasional nod to Prince – oftentimes in admiration of, and sometimes not. Their quest to advance the discussion of Black music and culture both within and beyond academia was followed by scholars such as Tricia Rose, Cornel West, and Michelle Wallace, who helped to usher in the new era of the “public intellectual.”
And, over the years, as more and more people spoke, wrote, lectured, and even preached about Prince, the substance and vigor of such musings inexorably had to rise in order to keep pace with their subject.
In recent years, both prior to and following Prince’s untimely passing, there have been insightful and multidimensional texts by the likes of James Perone, Ben Greenman, Joseph Vogel, and Duane Tudahl. The authors of Prince: The Making of a Pop Music Phenomenon, Stan Hawkins and Sarah Niblock, who while acknowledging the inherent value of the Prince biographers that have exhaustively presented “chronological facts, journalistic anecdotes, and performance stats,” sought themselves to explore what makes Prince “so profound.”
Questlove and Touré, a pair of African American cultural icons in their own right, have also made significant contributions in advancing Prince’s legacy with the former teaching a Prince class at NYU, among other related projects, and the latter having delivered a series of lectures at Harvard which inspired a contemplative book of his own.
Since the beginning of 2017, alone, there have been academic conferences on Prince at Yale University, the UK’s University of Salford, and NYU Brooklyn. And then, most recently, there was the expansive three-day “Prince from Minneapolis” symposium organized by University of Minnesota geography professor Arun Saldanha, which when it comes to local tributes to Prince, is part and parcel of a much larger movement.
Author Andrea Swenson’s Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of The Minneapolis Sound is a deep dive into the history of the local Black music scene, revealing the social and racial politics that once relegated African American artists to the musical periphery of the Twin Cities.
Kristen Zschomler, historian and archaeologist with the State of Minnesota, has chronicled much of that same history in her mission to register several Prince and Minneapolis Sound-related sites with the US Department of the Interior’s National Register of historic places.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde and John Chang-Yee Lee of the United Theological Seminary have delved into Prince’s provocative and complex spirituality with their Theology of Prince project, plus we now have the inspiring, labor of love known as The People’s Museum for Prince, curated by interdisciplinary artist Emma Balázs.
On the nonprofit side of things are Heidi Vader’s Purple Playground, which will soon launch its music education initiative The Academy of Prince, and the philanthropic vision being carried out by former Prince associates who have established the prn alumni foundation.
Going forward, future installments of this column, with Prince as its seminal figure, might feature thoughts about a particular song, album, tour, event, or theme. It will also give attention to some of the aforementioned contributions to the preservation and expansion of Prince’s legacy.
In addition, the column will lift up the stories of others who played a critical role in the development of the Minneapolis Sound, stories which otherwise may have been lost to history. More than anything, “Purple Music” is simply a space to honor our hometown hero, his meaning to us, and his meaning to the world.
Perhaps it was Bono who put it best back in 1988 when he said that soul music is “not about being Black or White, or the instruments you play… It’s a decision to reveal or conceal. And without it, people like Prince would be nothing more than a brilliant song-and-dance man. That he is… but he’s so much more than that.”
Yes, that he is. Moreover, some might even say that he’s the best there’s ever been.