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Journal of African American Studies

, Volume 21, Issue 3, pp 296–319 | Cite as

Black Muse 4 U: Liminality, Self-Determination, and Racial Uplift in the Music of Prince

  • James Gordon WilliamsEmail author
ARTICLES

Abstract

Prince’s unparalleled, innovative musical style remains widely revered by his worldwide audience in the wake of his death less than two years ago. Since the late twentieth century, many scholars have used European critical theory to examine Prince’s musical multidimensionality. These important analyses help us understand Prince’s music and performativity in new ways but repeatedly ignore the cultural roots of his music. Indeed, many critical discussions focus on his performance of ambiguous sexualities and sartorial strategies without addressing how Prince’s understanding of his Blackness played a crucial role in his creative practice and theatricality. I contend that exploring Prince’s dynamic oeuvre through interpretive lenses of radical black theory is a productive space for understanding his performance of lyrical and musical liminality, his self-determination in the music business, and his commitment to using his music for racial uplift. Prince’s creative practices were linked to his covert, but avid, support of social justice initiatives that support black humanity. Framing my analysis through Prince’s composition “Black Muse” from his final studio album, I explain how “Black Muse” provides lyrical and musical evidence of Prince’s political thought and deployment of counter narratives. I put “Black Muse” in conversation with “Baltimore,” “Resolution,” and “Planet Earth,” unapologetically activist songs written by Prince that discuss police brutality, warmongering, and climate change. I discuss how Prince’s strategic use of musical liminality in “Lady Cabdriver” obscures his political diatribes through a layer of sonic salacity. Combining close musical analysis with Black theoretical thought that explores Prince’s definitions of Black Muse, I explore Prince’s performances of blues hybridity, his tireless effort in repositioning his relationship with the music industry, and his mission to uplift his people. While Prince had muses, who were both Black and white, Prince’s ultimate creative muse was the Black community and the black experience itself. Prince scholars can benefit from exploring and utilizing various black performance theories to better understand and explain his contribution to global music culture.

Keywords

Black Muse HitnRun Phase Two Prince & social justice Prince & Black lives matter Black performance theory Prince & Black positionality Prince & self determination 

Notes

Acknowledgements

Thanks to special issue editors Judson Jeffries and Shannon Cochran. George Lipsitz and Amanda Eubanks Winkler read versions of this essay and provided valuable feedback at different stages. Herbert Ruffin brought this issue on Prince to my attention and encouraged me to contribute. Kirsty Fairclough, Mike Alleyne, and other conveners of the Purple Reign Conference in Manchester, provided a forum for me to work out my ideas. Musician, friend, and Princeologist Benny Steele provided keen insight. Lastly, I acknowledge the flatted fifth which Prince used effectively as a color.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Syracuse UniversityAfrican American StudiesSyracuseUSA

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