Prince was a black artist.
Since the visionary musician’s death on April 21, there have been countless tributes in countless formats, scholars, critics, and fans appraising his legacy, and a general outpouring of grief and love for the man who gave us decades of timeless music and expression. But there has also been a bit of revisionism, as Prince’s sometimes-cloudy racial identity became a topic of debate after numerous outlets—including The New York Times—declared Prince Rogers Nelson to be a biracial entertainer.
He was even listed in a children’s book, Biographies of Biracial Achievers. So it apparently needs to be re-emphasized.
Prince was a black artist.
Prince’s hit movie Purple Rain famously depicted his character The Kid as the conflicted son of a dysfunctional, mixed-race couple. The film is iconic and shapes many people’s perceptions of Prince’s persona. But it is wholly fictional. While they both have various ethnicities in their family backgrounds, John L. Nelson and Mattie Shaw were both black.
“I didn’t write [the film] Purple Rain,” Prince said in a 1985 interview. “Someone else did. And it was a story—a fictional story—and should be perceived that way.”
Regardless of that movie’s ubiquity, it’s careless and callous to suddenly turn Prince into a biracial icon; his blackness and what he means to black folks is a defining facet of his legacy as an artist. He was the musical heir to legends like Little Richard, James Brown, and Sly Stone—and also a student of The Staple Singers, Thom Bell and Linda Creed, the Meters, and Rufus. He deconstructed black music and reshaped it in his own, replacing the horn sections of preceding funk standards with synth hits and mastering drum programming when it was still considered novel—pushing funk and the next generation of dance music closer together. He did all of this before John Mellencamp fans ever knew his name.
Prince was also recognized fairly early as someone who was reshaping perceptions of black culture and black manhood.
“Prince has brought a boldness out of black entertainers again,” Alexander O’Neal told Rolling Stone in 1983. “Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard—they always dressed bizarre. Now Prince is doing it in a new era. He’s making a lot of entertainers wake up to things. You’re making a statement in life. It’s all about being your own self. Like Prince says, ‘It’s all about being free.’”
Early on, Prince seemed committed to promoting his music as the result of myriad influences and as a way for people to see past the binary of race in America. “There was a lot of pressure from my ex-buddies in other bands not to have white members in the band,” Prince said in the mid-’80s. “But I always wanted a band that was black and white. Half the musicians I knew only listened to one type of music. That wasn’t good enough for me.”
There was an eagerness to declare Prince as something outside of blackness. Even in acknowledging his boldness, white rock critics tended to downplay the funk lineage from whence he’d come. And beyond that, there were always those who insisted that he was of directly mixed heritage. An early Rolling Stone interview erroneously claimed Prince to be “the son of a half-black father and an Italian mother” and he became a hero to many biracial kids because of his image and success. It’s something that has lingered in the collective consciousness of casual fans.
The seemingly rose-colored idealism behind statements like Prince’s regarding his multiracial band was and is often praised by critics and fans wanting to celebrate an iconic black artist who they feel “transcended race,” but blackness is not something to transcend—white supremacy is something to overcome. And Prince repeatedly and consistently flew in the face of white supremacy.
Prince never behaved like he was desperate to be validated by critics or even fans; and he embraced that defiant ethos even as his generation of black artists were becoming mainstream crossover superstars at an unprecedented level. Prince emerged from the world of R&B and electro funk and embraced New Wave, hard rock, and dance pop as he transformed into a pop superstar. But as soon as he reached the pinnacle of commercial visibility, Prince began deconstructing the sound that got him there. As critics and record buyers dissected and dismissed Purple Rain follow-up like Around the World In A Day, Prince was proving that he was not going to be imprisoned by anyone’s expectations but his own. In doing so, he asserted himself as a black artist who wasn’t going to pander to anyone.
He never worshiped at the established rock hierarchy’s altar. An obviously gifted guitarist, Prince would often downplay connections to the Rolling Stone-approved rock gods of the ’60s and ’70s—even Jimi Hendrix. Prince once cited Santana as a bigger influence because “Santana played prettier.” Prince’s adoration of Hendrix is well-established, but lazy analogies—mostly fueled by white rock writers comparing the two artists simply because they were both black guys famous for rock guitar—weren’t something he was comfortable with. “It’s only because he’s black,” Prince told Rolling Stone in 1985. “That’s really the only thing we have in common. He plays different guitar than I do. If they really listened to my stuff, they’d hear more of a Santana influence than Jimi Hendrix.”
Prince once bristled at being compared to Led Zeppelin. “Jimmy Page was cool,” Prince told MOJO, “but he couldn’t keep a sequence without John Bonham behind him.” When critics compared Around the World In A Day to the Beatles, Prince said to Rolling Stone: “The influence wasn’t the Beatles. They were great for what they did, but I don’t know how that would hang today.”
Friendships with guys like Ronnie Wood notwithstanding, when Prince tipped his hat to the rock generation that preceded him, it was more often than not to celebrate women—he was famously enamored with Joni Mitchell’s music and artistry and he collaborated with Stevie Nicks. He wasn’t interested in being embraced by rock’s boys club. He didn’t feel the need to defer to the McCartneys or Claptons in order to gain anyone’s approval.
Conversely, if he was coy about treating white classic rockers as any sort of musical standard, he was adamant about making sure the black artists who shaped him were always recognized and mentioned. “James Brown played a big influence in my style. When I was about 10 years old, my stepdad put me on stage with him, and I danced a little bit until the bodyguard took me off,” he said. He studied (and would eventually play alongside) Sly Stone bassist Larry Graham. When asked about Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, Prince told Le Monde that “It is always sad to lose someone you loved.”
And, having witnessed firsthand how quickly a superstar can go from praised to ridiculed, he was frank about the standards black artists were often held to.
“Didn’t you know that black people don’t get a second chance?” Prince asked in a 2014 interview with MOJO.
“It’s like Chris Rock said: Leonardo DiCaprio can make one bad movie after another, and he just keeps going. Chris Rock makes a bad movie, and he doesn’t work again. Black people aren’t allowed to make mistakes.”
Battling with Warner Bros. for control of his releases—and drawing attention to the battle by scrawling “SLAVE” on his face—deliberately evoked the music industry’s heinous history regarding black artists, in particular. Countless stars fell victim to standards and practices that were designed explicitly to rip them off, and Prince publicly pointing the finger helped him to both control the narrative and to hold Warner Bros.’s feet to the fire. Predecessors like Sly Stone lost so much financially and had no say in how their songs were distributed and published; Prince’s fight felt like a fight against history repeating itself. “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you,” he’d famously said.
“The first step I have taken towards the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to [the Love Symbol],” he declared in 1993. “Prince is the name that my Mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros.”
In the 2000s, he became a vocal critic of the War on Terror and often voiced his support of black activism and black causes.
“We live in a real xenophobic place,” he told the Telegraph in 2004, at the height of George W. Bush’s administration and the War in Iraq. “They talk about all these terrorists. But I didn’t feel no terror until the media told me to feel it. Who am I supposed to be feeling terrified of?”
Prince’s history with race could be complicated; his early interviews indicate that he was uncomfortable with constantly having to explain his ethnicity (and sexuality, for that matter) and was stifled by commentators’ need to compartmentalize his music. The leading women both in his life and on-screen tended to be fairer-skinned and ethnically ambiguous—almost female reflections of him. But there was no question that Prince embraced blackness.
“Albums, like books and black lives, still matter,” Prince famously stated at the 2015 Grammys. That same year he wrote the song “Baltimore” in tribute to Freddie Gray and the aftermath of his killing by that city’s police.
This week, CNN commentator Van Jones spoke about the iconic artist, who’d become one of his closest friends. Jones revealed that Prince was a fan of ancient Egyptian artwork and pan-African scholar John Henrik Clarke. Jones also shared that the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin had galvanized the entertainer to help empower young black minds. “We started Yes We Code because of Trayvon Martin,” Jones explained. “Prince said, ‘No, listen. A black kid wearing a hoodie might be seen as a thug; a white kid wearing a hoodie might be seen as a Silicon Valley genius. Let’s teach the Black kids how to be like Mark Zuckerberg.’ Out of that observation, we built a whole organization.”
Prince was black. His blackness informed his art. In some ways, he represented the most unapologetic of black entertainers. Like Miles Davis, he forced you to hear and see his art through his lens; he wasn’t about to conform to yours. If you’re going to honor him or even acknowledge him, do it in a way that doesn’t undermine that. Prince made it clear that he wasn’t going to be defined by anyone else’s agenda.
“One thing I’d like to say is that I don’t live in a prison,” he declared in 1985. “I am not afraid of anything.”