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


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.

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  1. Prince’s “Darling Nikki” was highlighted in 1985 by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker of the Parents Music Resource Center as one example of an artist out of the “Filthy 15” who created music deemed harmful to American children.

  2., Retrieved on May 11, 2017

  3. While Paisley Park website states that Prince eventually would have opened Paisley Park to the world, I have often told my music colleagues that key parts of Paisley Park should be preserved as a national archive for music researchers and serious musicians instead of a wholesale tourist attraction.

  4. Retrieved on April 28, 2017

  5. I attended Prince’s Rally 4 Peace concert in Baltimore on Mother’s Day at the Royal Farms Arena in 2015 and witnessed how Prince brought attention to the militarization of Black communities while highlighting the link between poverty and police brutality. The death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody was the catalyst but Prince was critiquing the socio-political circumstances that created the conditions for Gray’s death.

  6., Retrieved on June 2, 2017,

  7. Retrieved on June 2nd, 2017

  8. Retrieved on May 9th, 2017

  9. A discursive formation is a collection of statements about a subject that share the same institutional strategies and political patterns as it constructs a meaning within a discourse. For more information on discursive formations, see Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge (1969)

  10. Ibid, Rhodes

  11. Red Bull Music Academy interview with Susan Rogers 2016

  12. Founded in New York City 1985, the Black Rock Coalition (BRC) has sought to make an intervention into racist American music industry practices that define rock music as white while denying Black artists their music heritage of creating the music they call Rock. Rock as a moniker, a shortened version of the term “Rock and Roll,” has been used for generations by white music business persons to obfuscate the Black origins of rock music while privileging white artists as the most visible players of Rock and Roll music.

  13. Ibid, Rogers

  14. Retrieved on January 14th, 2017

  15. Alma Bazel Androzzo’s work was written in 1945 and made famous by Mahalia Jackson.

  16. Chopin (1810–1849) was a Polish virtuoso pianist and composer from the Romantic era of Western music who is revered for his lyrical and harmonically complex solo piano music.

  17. Jazz and contemporary music programs are common today in the USA but Black musicians had to develop their own ways of theorizing because official Black music programs did not exist. Jazz musicians studied harmony books on their own, imitated recorded improvised solos, and improvised along with rhythm sections on vinyl recordings. They read jazz publications such as Downbeat, which codified jazz vocabulary licks that would be internalized to the point of becoming natural when performed. Most importantly, jazz musicians developed their own theories for their own music where none previously existed. Black musicians have historically been suspicious of academia, which they felt diluted the cultural foundations of their music.

  18. Ibid, Monson 2007


  20. From the 1990s onward Prince understood contracts within the master-slave relationship.

  21. Retrieved on May 10, 2017.

  22. Retrieved on Sunday May 7, 2017

  23. There is a great discussion of music as the practice of freedom in Robin D.G Kelley’s book on Thelonious Monk. Freedom for Monk was not just bending notes. He inherited the memory of freedom that his ancestors felt during reconstruction and also the obliteration of those gained freedoms due to Jim Crow laws. This memory is as important to Monk’s musical innovation as knowledge he must have gained from his peers.

  24. Warren Anderson and Thomas J. Mathiesen. “Muses.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 31, 2016,

  25. “Erato (i).” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 31, 2016,

  26. Prince was a sponge who absorbed and incorporated the musical ideas of other musicians and put them into his music. He was known to take other musicians ideas since Junior High School. Renown producer Terry Lewis who worked with Prince in Minneapolis stated, “As great as Prince was, he pulled stuff from all of us” (Jam & Lewis lecture, Red Bull Music Academy 2016).

  27. Retrieved on April 29th, 2017.

  28. Retrieved on May 1, 2017

  29. Through her publicist, I made repeated requests to speak with Ms. Lewis about Prince but she did not respond.

  30. Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935–1977) was an iconoclastic, jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist who played tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet, nose flute, piano, and various types of percussion. Kirk was a visionary whose imagination and dreams launched him past his physical blindness and gave him the courage to break a plethora of musical conventions. Kirk played several instruments at once whereas most musicians play one instrument at a time. Prince was also a multi-instrumentalist, although he played one instrument as a time, who was inspired by otherworldly visions and dreams, often biblical in nature. Both musicians were inspired by the sounds of the Black church.

  31. Retrieved on April 29th, 2017

  32. ibid.


  34. Donny Hathaway (1945–1979) most famous for his duets with singer Roberta Flack was an influential African American pianist, composer, singer, and bandleader whose innovative style continues to inspire countless musicians.


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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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Correspondence to James Gordon Williams.

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Williams, J.G. Black Muse 4 U: Liminality, Self-Determination, and Racial Uplift in the Music of Prince. J Afr Am St 21, 296–319 (2017).

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