By Karas Lamb
“Is Prince dead?” The question flooded in on the morning of April 21st, 2016. A rush to communal panic that fed my gut the truth faster than any search engine could ever deliver a credible source. Prince was, in fact, deceased. Found slumped in an elevator at his famed Paisley Park complex in Chanhassen, Minnesota. A hop and a skip from First Avenue. Floating somewhere in the ether just beyond our grasp, where he had always truly been most comfortable.
This was the second time in life that I had spent an entire week in my pajamas, digesting headlines with my jaw planted squarely on the floor; the first was 9/11. This scene, however, was colored by a dread that left me wondering aloud whether the bootleg hoarding Prince disciples in my social circles were managing to breathe. Worried that black music might not survive the sudden departure of a man who was arguably its most fearless leader.
Amiri Baraka famously eulogized James Baldwin as “God’s black revolutionary mouth.” Much less loquacious, but no less brash, Prince may have been God’s beautiful black revenge. A fiercely private, arguably maniacal prodigy whose distant nature, physical ambiguity and staggering musical genius afforded him super powers that had evaded the grasp of his forebears. This diminutive and strikingly beautiful sensation was the kind of middle finger to the establishment that only black music could produce. In his assessment of Baldwin’s life and work, Baraka made a point that would later apply to Prince.
‘When we saw and heard him, he made us feel good. He made us feel, for one thing, that we could defend ourselves or define ourselves, that we were in the world not merely as animate slaves, but as terrifyingly sensitive measurers of what is good or evil, beautiful or ugly. This is the power of his spirit. This is the bond which created our love for him. This is the fire that terrifies our pitiful enemies. That not only are we alive but shatteringly precise in our songs and our scorn.’ (Baraka, NYT - 1987)
The most obvious heir to James Brown’s throne, bedazzled and doused in indifference, Prince was an exacting bandleader and prolific creator with little time for outside opinions or anything short of absolute risk. If the recording industry had captured lightning in a bottle with the commodification of our blues, the birth of Prince Rogers Nelson was the rare seismic event just cold enough to shatter the glass. Prince arrived and obliterated the idea that any one ad man, disc jockey, blue-eyed soul sensation or well-heeled industry exec could ever possibly have black music - let alone black people - all figured out.
A one-man synthesis of righteousness, raunch, macho and sass, Prince embodied every melodic translation of black struggle and chewed its most poignant statements into a frenzied other-worldly funk that oozed from his pores and dripped down the fretboard of his guitar into the mouths of a generation thirsty for some sign that it was okay to disrupt for reasons other than color-coded provincial turf battles or the historically holy grails of the black working class -- education, economic opportunity and access to the ballot box.
In Prince, black youth found its collective creative possibility and a pass to experiment. An intersectionality underpinned by the shouts of the church, the stomp of the jook joint, the angular poses of the ballroom and the inescapable stank of a sexually charged funk gestated in a post-”free love” era just loud and proud enough to push America’s lingering Puritanical notions from a speeding drop-top to preserve the life of the party. He spoke our language but was not ashamed of the black body or governed by the strict directives on social etiquette fed to black children through clenched teeth by justifiably fearful parents. Living and creating outside the monolith, Prince was tangible evidence that burning the rule book might not get us all killed. A unique station described by Questlove in a 2016 editorial for Rolling Stone.
Prince was singular in his music. He was his own genre. That same singularity extended to everything. He went the other way in life, too. As he got older, the way he managed his career showed off that contrary streak. It came to the forefront in the way he mastered his records, in the way he handled reissues, in the way he used (or didn't use) the Internet and online streaming services. In the summer of 2014, his old band, the Revolution, reunited at First Avenue in Minneapolis. They were all set up for him to join in and play. He drove right past. Prince was a great drummer, and he was always marching to his own beat.
With that particular strain of individuality foremost in their minds, a burgeoning mass of new black leftists followed suit, marching past the rhythmic constraints of the standard and the first tastes of pop culture visibility on the Soul Train line to test the limits of society and sound. This legion of fans would produce more devotees invigorated by constant threat of damnation for playing the devil’s music and the seductive allure of a transcendent “post-black” identity where the overstatement of a perpetually apparent racial identifier was much less important than the perfection of craft, the erasure of binaries and the proliferation of an explicitly black art.
Described as “the liberating value in tossing off the immense burden of race-wide representation, the idea that everything they do must speak to or for or about the entire race,” post-blackness seems a necessary component of the rebuilding process as black America collects itself in the wake of Prince’s final curtain call. A loss mourned with memes and dance parties and exacerbated by the anxiety of a fraught election year peppered with instances of state-sanctioned violence. A loss punctuated by the imminent departure of the first sitting black president, who would ultimately pass the keys to a fascist demagogue.
Not to be confused with the deceptive buzzword “post-racial,” the term coined by artists Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon is a call to abandon the one size fits all blackness dictated by policy and propaganda, to do away with abusive intraracial identity politics, and be black however one sees fit. An embrace of that kind of individuality ultimately creates room for life and art to transcend the boxes we are otherwise corralled into for everything from federal identification and police profiling to public congratulation for creative works; projects often judged and awarded by those still invested in the perpetuation of oppression with little to no proximity to the black experience as it exists outside of pop culture.
My devastation at the death of a musical icon could technically be filed under first world problems until you consider that black music is the most unadulterated, uninterrupted telling of the black experience in America. A prolonged circumstance of collective suffering and systemic injustice proximate to the wealth of almost every world power. One that is often glossed over as little more than an innocuous dalliance with inhumanity that should have no bearing on the modern American psyche nor be of any tangible benefit to the people that continually survive and serve lemonade.
Combined with the lack of a decisive heir to Prince’s musical legacy and a minority of musicians fluent in his particular tongue, the vacancy created by his passing forces creatives of color to step to the plate in numbers. To bury the dead, bathe in the waters of Lake Minnetonka and summon the chops necessary to spit the next chapter of the story -- one that began in languages broken bylaws and distance and chains, which only remain fresh in our minds because they are sequenced into our blood and our drums. One that has been slow to surface as artists at the top of the pile drag their feet or face being silenced altogether when it comes to the work of change.
The Black American musical tradition is necessarily derived from black discomfort. The future of it, however, cannot be informed solely by savage inequalities or scorned love. The relative lack of mainstream innovation in recent years should also drive the evolution of the sound; a hybridized chromatic vamp from a strata above the abiding hum that girds our churches and the fragrant Adhan that billows from mosques, blanketing our ghettos.
Past the loud affirmation of “black lives matter” and the rattle of trunks teeming with balls out posturing and bass, the music must empower a new generation of singular talents to rise to the occasion in a time of revolution as rights are restricted, rules of engagement are erased, people are targeted, and citizenship is decided by an economy of fear. It must be a sound as reflective of micro-aggressions, political resistance, queerness and personal trauma as it is aspirational, opulent, and indicative of the future. It must continue the conversation.
Something stronger than the myopic lens of major radio programming and the capitalist appropriation habits of off-white pop stars that portray songs penned in the latest African dialects as the property of everyone but blacks. A product bigger than the tall tales that convince rising artists to trade the noble tradition of running the baddest band in the land for fast publicity. Something better than the derivative movements that reward culture vulture cool kids for disrespecting foundational artists with half-baked versions of their hard fought work. This blues need be wholly representative of each individual committed to burning the existing paradigm to make clear that blackness is much too vast, varied and involved to be mass produced.
After all, it was not grace but guts that fueled Prince - the man who notoriously gilded his own ass and gave it to the world to kiss. Who stalled the label gaming him and had the last laugh. He spent his career insisting that we are not obligated to perform our grief for pennies. We are indebted to the colossal talents we cannot thank enough, to create outside of the matrix of fear induced by constant policing and the respectability politics of the American caste. To boycott the gatekeepers that refuse to get us or give us an inch unless they stand to get a check.
To live outside the lines on blocks where the wrong uniform can get you rejected by the tribe. To speak our pidjin and flip our birds and fly our spacecraft. To put our titties on the glass. To love openly in a time of narcissism. To canonize our respective wounds and create ourselves beyond the palette of police sketches and alien rubrics for excellence. To be exactly who we say we are, because a people can never be fully realized through the repetition of hymns made in a vacuum of homogeneity and threats aimed at every enemy except the one that has sterilized our bodies, stuffed our mouths with treasury notes and promoted the myth that nothing else matters. We matter. Now is not the time to fake the funk.
‘I just had another phone meeting
Felt like I was all alone speaking
To the clones keeping, black music soul weeping
I'm a new angel, and they only want the old demons
Glorifying music, that's abusive and a threat to us
And if you got a message in your records
You collecting dust upon the shelf
They selling us components meant to self-destruct
To shelter us in skelter in disguise of something helping us
So I'ma build a bunker now, in the underground
Surviving with that other sound
Clipping magazines, repeating this ain't had to be
Self-published, but we're still running for covers now
Imagine me in pageantries, we branded as awards
What's the difference 'tween them auction blocks and cooning for applause
Even selling out, or buying something that you can't afford
It ain't a plan to keep us poor, it's just a plan to be ignored’
- Oddisee, “Want Something”
Karas Lamb is a writer and fledgling techie working between Philadelphia, PA and New York City. Concerned with the intersection of arts and activism, Karas is committed to the study of black music and its role in American socio-political movements and popular culture. She might be your favorite rapper's favorite writer.