Prince: Mercurial, gender-bending, African-American to the core

Prince: Mercurial, gender-bending, African-American to the core

Saturday, April 23, 2016 4:19 am

Prince at a concert in Paris 26 years ago

Prince at a concert in Paris 26 years ago

New York (AFP) – Among rock stars, Prince came off as almost otherworldly, an effete pansexual who cherished his own seclusion. Yet through that very image, and occasional forays into more direct advocacy, the artist became a unique political force.

Relishing the fluidity of his own image — Prince was a straight African American yet was often mistaken for white, Hispanic or gay — the gender-bending singer presented a new form of black masculinity in the age of hip-hop.

Prince, who was fond of showing up unannounced, appeared at the 2015 Grammy Awards in a shiny orange suit, but made a bigger statement in his brief remarks.

“Like books and black lives, albums still matter,” Prince said with his boyish grin, in a reference to the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality.

The jolt by Prince, who died unexpectedly Thursday at age 57, marked a turn back into an overtly political role in the final year of his life.

Soon afterwards, he released “Baltimore” — a tribute to slain African Americans belied by an upbeat closing chant, “If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace” — and performed a charity show in the eastern city in the wake of sometimes violent protests against alleged police brutality.

Prince’s transformation from a reclusive eccentric to a community healer was abrupt but was not out of character.

On his 1981 track “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” Prince aimed his infectious funk at newly elected president Ronald Reagan, voicing fears that his initially hawkish stance against the Soviet Union would trigger world war.

Prince turned bleaker toward the end of the Reagan presidency with the stripped-down R&B sound of “Sign O’ The Times,” an indictment of the social destruction he saw around him including the AIDS crisis.

Prince was similarly distraught over the state of the world in 2004 on “Dear Mr. Man,” which came out soon after president George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, yet expressed a futility about voting.

“Who said to kill is a sin / Then started every single war that your people been in?” sang Prince in a song rich with biblical allusions.

– An alternative masculinity –

Yet Prince’s most lasting political impact may not have come from his protest songs but through his own idiosyncrasies, both musical and stylistic.

The Purple One was an undisputed master of the electric guitar, so much that Eric Clapton once responded when asked how it felt to be the greatest guitar player alive, “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Prince.”

With his ability to play behind his back and blindfolded and to bring the audience into a trance with his solos, Prince would have been the envy of bands in the largely white genre of metal, yet the era’s guitar virtuoso was a proud African American.

And Prince pursued a distinctly androgynous style — he would sing in high heels and for years represented himself with the unpronounceable “love symbol.”

His creation of his own sexual identity paralleled another music legend who recently died, David Bowie, who went further by considering himself bisexual.

But Prince’s example took on a new dimension as he was an African American whose career started amid the birth of hip-hop, a genre often marked by hyper-masculinity.

Judith Peraino, a professor of musicology at Cornell University, noted that Prince welcomed women musicians in his bands and often presented himself lyrically as the receiving partner in heterosexual relationships on songs such as “Do Me, Baby.”

“That’s quite revolutionary in that he’s presenting masculinity, and actually heterosexuality, but giving it a passive side — a womanized masculinity,” she said.

Prince created a space for African American men to see a way “that can be sexual and masculine, yet not predatory, not aggressive, not denigrating to women, but rather a relationship that empowers women in the dynamic,” she said.

– Political surprises –

Despite his vast influence, the rarely predictable Prince often baffled fans with his views.

In 1990, he donated money in his home state of Minnesota to Republican senator Rudy Boschwitz, who was not known to be close to the singer and lost to the left-wing icon Paul Wellstone.

And as a Jehovah’s Witness in the final 15 years of his life, Prince surprised many in his large gay fan base by appearing to oppose same-sex marriage equality in 2008.

But less than a year before Prince’s death, he was invited to give a private concert at the White House for President Barack Obama and a largely African American group of friends.

Obama, known as a Prince fan, mourned the singer as “one of the most gifted and prolific musicians of our time.”

On a visit to London on Friday, Obama said he got ready for his day with the help of the turntable at the US ambassador’s residence, turning on Prince’s “Delirious” and “Purple Rain.”

*Shaun Tandon/AFP


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