Prince, who died today at 57, was more cultural force than musician. While his soaring guitar riffs and piercing falsetto voice spoke volumes about his talent, it was what he didn’t say that changed our views on race.
Prince, in daring to combine the black musical virtuosity of R&B with the structured chaos of white hard rock, forced us to move beyond the segregated musical paradigm that had taken hold in the music industry.
Prior to Prince, music was a strident reflection of America’s racial barriers. And while American musical traditions borrowed heavily from each other in unspoken ways—think Country and Western and R&B—the similarities were always expressed separately. That changed, if only for a moment, with the advent of Disco in the 70s.
The blockbuster success of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever temporarily allowed for black artists like Donna Summer to share top billing with white artists like the Bee Gees. But when rock-oriented radio stations that catered to largely white audiences began switching over to the more integrated Disco format, the backlash was swift. The “Disco Sucks” rallying cry culminated in Disco Demolition Night at in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979. Throngs of mostly-white patrons brought Disco records to be blown up on the field. The promotion was a key moment in the destruction not only of a musical genre. It also did damage to the notion that black and white artists could coexist.
But if American music was a segregated lunch counter, where blacks and whites were served separately, then Prince was the leader of a sit-in.
In 1978, when the music industry was recalibrating itself as a racially segregated entity, Prince, at just 19, was releasing his first album, “For You.” In doing so, the young man born in Minneapolis as Prince Rogers Nelson was challenging taboos and establishing an identity that defied categorization.
His musical style — hard-driving rock anthems and tender ballads with pop music in-between — mirrored his personal identity. Prince, who identified as black, appeared to be of mixed race. And like his racial identity, his music was more difficult to pigeonhole.
Prince’s songs were controversial, creative, and unique. They mixed religious and sexual themes, melded musical genres, and forced listeners to confront their own stereotypes. The controversy worked for him, so much so that he released an album by that name in 1981.
In 1983, Prince released his fifth album, titled, 1999. It included hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “1999.” That album’s commercial success set the stage for Purple Rain, the 1984 soundtrack album featuring songs like “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry.”
But Prince, who went on to win two Grammys, an Academy Award, and a Golden Globe, was much more than a musical genius. He was, intentionally or not, a cultural change agent who forced the industry to move beyond racially tinged segmentation. In many ways, he set the stage for black artists to do what white artists had always done—borrow from other genres and repackage the music for different audiences.
Without Prince, there would no Jay Z—who established his crossover appeal by using a sample from the musical Annie on the smash single “Hard Knock Life.” Likewise, the journey of Kanye West, who has sought to be a fashion and culture icon, was made easier because Prince did it first.
In fact, Hip Hop, the ultimate crossover genre, owes a huge debt to Prince. Though others had tried it before — the “Walk This Way” mashup by Run-DMC and Aerosmith comes to mind—it was Prince who demonstrated that combining divergent musical styles could lead to consistent commercial success.
So while I, like many fans, will miss Prince’s presence, I am grateful for the musical legacy that smashed the racial lines in American music.
As listeners, we are all better off because of him.
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