“Art among us blacks has always been a statement about our condition, and therefore it has always been political.” —Ossie Davis
Richard Iton’s In Search of the Black Fantastic is one of the most important book written about popular culture and politics ever written. Iton (who also passed way far too early—I wish he could’ve been here to write this piece) quoted Davis above to drive home the deep connection between popular culture and politics in black life. And Davis’ quote works as kind of a truism in black spaces. Of course all black music is political.
But this explains everything and nothing. That is to say if black art (and by extension popular culture) is and has always been political, if we can simply lump together John Coltrane’s Alabama and I don’t know….Ace Hood’s Hustle Hard as both being statements about the black condition—then we’re still left unable to either explain the nature of that condition or to prescribe the precise solution to that condition.
Prince is dead. Fuck.
Because it’s hard for me to imagine Prince in the past tense, much less take all 39 studio albums (this counts none of the albums he produced under pseudonyms much less the thousands of records in the Vault), over 100 singles, and more than a dozen EPs, in a single post, I’m not going to spend a great deal of time talking about Prince’s politics. Now that the embargo he imposed on his friends has been lifted, we know that Prince routinely spent resources on progressive causes including but not limited to Black Lives Matter. And it doesn’t take that much digging to find evidence of progressive stances on war (Dirty Mind’s “Partyup”, Controversy’s “Ronnie Talk to Russia” , 1999’s “1999”) corruption (Controversy’s “Annie Christian” contains a reference to Abscam) the environment (Planet Earth’s “Planet Earth”) liberation (Controversy’s “Sexuality”, 1999’s “Free”, Emancipation’s “Emancipation”) and sex (INSERT ANY TRACK HERE). Further we don’t have to look hard to find evidence that he stood for artist’s rights against corporate extortion and expropriation (he was a union member for almost forty years, he went so far as to change his name in an attempt to get out of his contract with Warner Bros).
So instead of doing that what I want to do is take a different approach.
One of the questions people have asked of Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street before them can be boiled down to this: The odds are dead against you. Why do you try?
Answering this question the right way has obvious political import. In as much as the two movements have done more to not only bring our attention to anti-black police brutality on the one hand and rampant income inequality on the other, it’s worth figuring out why people did what they did, and why they continued in the face of long odds.
I think the people asking this question misunderstand the role of public action. It’s likely some of the people involved with both movements believed they could win, not all did. In fact I think it’s likely most of the people involved didn’t have “winning” in their calculus. That is to say, they didn’t fight because they thought they could win.
So why did they fight?
While they fought for as many reasons as there were people, I think many of them fought because they understood the power of public action. They knew if they fought in a way that was visible and public, they would do two things. First they would increase the likelihood that other people in the same time and space would join them. Second they would increase the likelihood that other people in different times and different spaces would join them. These two actions would increase the possibility of resistance in other spaces and other times, and would increase the nature of resistance in that time.
What does this have to do with Prince?
If we’d have conducted a survey in 1977 or so, just asking one simple question: where are you most likely to find the center of 1985 black culture….you’d probably get four or five answers, Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and then maybe some would say either Atlanta or Detroit. If you’d have asked that same group of people to tell you the most important pop culture figure of black masculinity you’d have likely either gotten Isaac Hayes, Teddy Pendergrass, or Jim Brown. There’s no way in hell even a significant number of folk would’ve located the center of black pop culture life in Minneapolis. And definitely no way that we’d have thought that the person who’d do more to change and reify our understanding of what black masculinity was and could be would stand 5’6 in heels, would appear so effeminate it’d at first be hard to tell whether he was a boy or a girl.
Here’s another take on it. If you’d have asked Prince himself when and where he’d have garnered his most support…he’d probably have said either NYC (before hip-hop made it hard for his more fluid concept of black masculinity) or L.A. (who was seemingly more open to fluidity, sexuality, and racial integration). Perhaps one of the last places he’d have mentioned would’ve been Detroit. Trying to think through his perspective I imagine he’d have thought it too “black power black” and not cosmopolitan enough. He wouldn’t have known that a local DJ by the name of Charles Johnson (stage name: Electrifying Mojo—you think Prince was mysterious, Mojo was so mysterious most of the thousands of listeners never knew what he looked like) with an eclectic listening palette would be drawn to Prince’s music. And among those listeners would be the mother of a little boy who’d fall so in love with his music that when Purple Rain was finally released in theaters he walked 4.9 miles to see it with his best friend.
In 1941 Richard Wright published 12 million Black Voices. The book documented the lives of black people during the Depression using a combination of photography and text. There hasn’t been a lot written on it (in fact one of my grad students hipped me to it), but I think one of the things he was trying to do with it was drive home how heterogeneous black life was even in the presence of back breaking poverty. In the contemporary moment there are a number of things to take from Prince’s life. And one of them is the fact that black life is far richer, far more powerful, far more beautiful, than any of us can possibly imagine.
But for someone with my politics, with our politics? My takeaway is pretty simple.
Prince is dead.
And organize, and plot, and plan, and think, and strategize, and dissent.
Not so we can win.
But because sooner or later someone will come along who can.
And they’ll need us.