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My Name Is Prince: On Race, Identity & The End Of The Love Symbol
Soma Ghosh , May 18th, 2020 11:22

Twenty years after Prince abandoned the Love Symbol to reclaim his own name, Soma Ghosh explores what lay behind this subversion of gender and racial identity

May 2020 marks two decades since Prince reclaimed his real name after living as a symbol for seven years. “You’re different,” remarked Larry King, interviewing Prince about his name change, in 1999. “Compared to what?” Prince shot back, with velvety quietness. Building on the slippery campness of Little Richard and the studied self-play of Bowie, Prince’s redefinition of Prince laid the foundation for today’s non-binary artists. Digging for his roots, he’d clash with the demands on artists, especially black artists, to be ‘real’. And since Prince’s legacy was, as he remarked, “embodied in the recordings”, the consequences would be for all time.

In 1993, fighting parent company Warner Bros. for ownership of his named works and master tapes, he’d shed ‘Prince’ for The Love Symbol, a curvaceous cross blending the male and female genders. “If you don’t own your masters,” he said, famously, “your masters own you.” If Warner Bros. wanted to promote a story on Prince, they had to send critics a floppy disc of his new name. Rolling Stone deplored him for confusing “his loyal following”. Making journalists wait in line, while declaring himself enslaved, seemed the latest contradiction from an artist who’d fused funk and rock to become an icon who was queer as fuck yet priapically heterosexual. As he’d sung in ‘Controversy’, Prince’s image was “not black or white… not straight, or gay”. But in the row over his name, Prince came out as black - slave-black.

“Prince,” he asserted, “is the name that my Mother gave me at birth. Warner Brothers took the name, trademarked it… I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Brothers.” He split his prismatic sound, largely cleaving the white rock of ‘Bambi’ or ‘I Could Never Take the Place of Man’ and ridiculing the country influence in his songwriting in ‘Dinner With Delores’. Delores is a “whore”, “dancing like a white girl on disco floors” – an analogy for Prince’s relationship with Warner Bros. He appeared in chains; with ‘slave’ written on his face; screamed hoarse hip hop with a stage mob of rappers. Introducing The Love Symbol album, Prince spoofed a riot in his video for ‘My Name is Prince’. Was he joking? In 1995, he announced, “Prince is dead. They killed him.” Prince was making a prickly stand for his people. “Maybe at one time they could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken,” he scoffed, later. “We don’t roll like that no more.”

In 2000, ‘Prince’ again, he invited fans to a week-long ‘Celebration’ at Paisley Park where they supposedly got to critique his forthcoming album, The Rainbow Children. This new Prince appeared less reclusive. Suddenly, you were buying lifetime membership of his private music club, chatting to him online and visiting him at home. And instead of that twentieth century Prince, swishy of hair and twisty of panties, you met an Afro-centric patriarch. “What people want now,” he intoned, “Is order.” Returning to his name, Prince took his place in black history.

Well, sort of.

Prince’s name, like his music, was a compound of tradition and rule-breaking. ‘Prince’ was his father’s stage name. In his unfinished memoirs, Prince describes his mother’s eyes lighting up, teaching him to write it, conferring onto him his father’s sexy authority. Prince never tired of trying to redeem this frustrated musician. Their collaborations grace, for example, the minor-cadenced wit of Parade. Prince’s aged father, in a purple Regency coat at a piano, mirroring his son, is a tragic image of Freudian entanglement. No matter, because Prince didn’t belong to his Pa. In his last tour, Piano And A Microphone, Prince told every audience how his father would criticise his piano playing. He dedicated his programme to “John L. Nelson, PKA (professionally known as) Prince Rogers 4 all he taught his musical son”. Musically, Prince was his father’s son. Spiritually, he was God’s.

‘Prince’ was also a name derived from 18th century white slave owners, who’d rename their Africans as grand Western characters (Prince, Pompey, Caesar). But Prince inverted the semantics, dressing up as royalty and hinting at the Christian casting of Jesus as a Prince. He urged colleagues, like photographer Steve Parke, to resist the history of conquest when naming their children. Parke writes, “He said that having the name Prince gave him no choice but to live up to it.”

Perhaps what Prince loved best about his name was that it marked him as singular. When fellow pupils teased him over it, he writes, “it never bothered Me, because (my name) was unique.” Like God, Prince capitalised his pronoun. He called his son Ahmir, meaning Prince: divinely inherited greatness. “There are no kings on earth,” Prince would say, primly, swiping at his ‘kingly’ predecessors in rock, like Elvis, or funk, like his friend George Clinton, “only Princes.”

Then he’d skip off to play as one of his alter egos, like Jamie Starr, Joey Coco, or Camille.

Prince’s otherworldliness – claiming, for example, that he’d shed his name after a “call” from God – clashed with 90s mud-slinging around R&B authenticity. It was a polemic often so crude that Sandra Bernhard slagged mixed-race Mariah Carey for being a “phony white bitch… gettin’ real niggerish up there … with Puff Daddy and all the greasy, chain-wearing black men.”

After all, Prince’s metamorphosis into a Symbol might be seen as another erasure of race. While Public Enemy hailed Prince as a black urban hero, fighting the white music man, Missy Elliott skitted him as a traitor to black identity, even after he’d reclaimed his name. In their unpalatably anti-Semitic song, ‘Swindler’s Lust’ (1999), Public Enemy aligned Prince to Rosa Parks, “at the back of the bus”. Prince’s dictum formed their chorus: “If you don’t own your masters, your masters own you.” But Missy Elliott cast him as a slave to the white man in her 2002 hit, ‘Work It’ (“Prince couldn’t get me to change my name”). Only a superstar backed by white power would toy with his name like that. Prince had fallen foul of what African-American Studies professor Caroline A. Streeter calls, “the imperative for multi-millionaire music stars to stay ‘real’ by remaining linked to the black urban underclass".

It wasn’t the first time that Prince had been coruscated for being insufficiently black. In 1980, as a support act to Rick James, Prince had upstaged the headliner. James spat, “He doesn't want to be black. My job is to keep reality over this little science fiction creep. He's so far out of touch with what's really happening, it makes me angry.”

Gayle Chapman, who simulated sex with Prince in the show, later recalled how black fans had screamed at her: “White bitch, get away from him!”

After Prince’s death, a New York Times writer implied that Prince’s success depended on the “strange accolade” and “lie” of “racial transcendence”. Like O.J. Simpson, Prince had conspired with whites to be beyond blackness.

If that was true – and in ‘Sexuality’, Prince had rejected race (“we don’t need no segregation, we don’t need no race”) – the orthodoxy of The Rainbow Children was revolutionary. His first release since becoming Prince again, this fulminating and broadly magnificent album provides Prince’s reply to those charges of unreality and racial betrayal.

Pitched down like Darth Vader, Prince narrates a psychedelic jazz opera. Betrayed by his woman (first wife Mayte Garcia), his fortress beset, The Wise One (Prince) recruits a new following, The Rainbow Children, going door to door (Prince was now a Jehovah’s Witness). Kingdom renewed, he marries his ‘Muse’ (new bride, Manuela Testolini). His world flowers, with Loony Tune guitar riffs, bluebird flutes and a gospel hymn on helium (‘Everywhere’). But this Prince, despite his “rainbow” following, is black – and vengeful. He growls that “they’ll call you a spade”, if you’re black and act against “the flag”. He rues the “displaced bloodlines” mated “with the white jailbait”.

At the time, I was devastated by Prince’s shift towards tribalism. As a bullied, brown bisexual girl, painfully unstreet, I’d loved Prince as a portal to a unisexual, multi-racial paradise.

“Of all the things that base a rhyme,” Prince had sung in ‘Race’ from the 1993 futuristic and menacingly funky album, Come, “How is it that you every time/Regurgitate the racist lines that keep us apart?”

I was down with that Prince, who’d refused to pick racial sides. I’d known the humiliations of being accused of passing as less ‘ethnic’ in order to appease white privilege. We had, I agreed, to destroy the stigmatised “false picture” of black and brown persons he describes in ‘The Work Part 1’. But I wasn’t down with The Rainbow Children’s theme of white devilry, continued in Prince’s next major studio album, Musicology. My musical father was abandoning the standards by which he’d brought me up.

But today, I savour The Rainbow Children as an Old Testament fantasia. True, the music recognises race, time and place, as Prince, who said time was a construct, had rarely done. The title track samples Martin Luther King’s, “I have a dream” speech. A live band sweats the conscious soul of Prince’s teen years in black North Minneapolis. Hulking testosterone basslines from Prince and Larry Graham reek against John Blackwell’s Herculean drums.

But musically, even as he shackles himself to the “Reproduction of a new breed leader” Prince emerges as an irreducible hybrid of sci-fi wooze, lush soul, celestial jazz, dirty guitar and hilarity. Indeed, these words conceal a get-out – Prince is quoting his lyrics from ‘Sexuality’. There’s no new leader, only Prince.

In ‘Family Name’, Prince’s monstrous bass personifies his African American heritage, attacking the slave traders who debased African names. But since Prince has received “a slight electrical shock” in his ass from a gene-reading computer, caricature diffuses horror. It’s hard to think, when a groove is this filthy. Similarly, in the James Brown-influenced ‘The Work Pt 1’, Prince’s call to dismantle “devil designed” society rides our pulses like a Vegas showgirl. This pecking brass is smoking hot.

The real Prince, to me, is one who lives in his innermost mind, a land he calls “rainbow psychedelia” in ‘Mellow’, a tip-toeing celebration of female masturbation. Such songs of genius – like, ‘Terminal Condition of the Heart’, ‘Lady Cab Driver’, ‘June’, to name a few – harmonise a shifting nexus of ecstasy and melancholy, dancing about space and time. I’ve lived with the ancestral damage of a degraded racial identity addressed in The Rainbow Children. It must be faced. But if Prince was naïve to say, in 2004, “we were taught race – it wasn’t something we were born with,” he was as naïve as a photon.

Until he retrieved his masters from Warner Bros. in 2014, the true victim of Prince’s struggle was his ongoing music, flattened to suave, populist R&B. Naturally, he rocked an eerie synth in ‘Black Sweat’ and smacked our pumps with ‘Lolita’. But he often sounded bored. In 2005, he won a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal for ‘Call My Name’. With heart-tumbling snare and toms, prettily descending bridges and a singalong chorus, it was a real-soul formula he’d repeat, commencing a run of three R&B awards that validated his ‘blackness’.

Prince said that ‘Call My Name’, was inspired by hearing his “beloved” call him Prince for the first time, after he’d reclaimed the name. Deviant monogamy is a central Princely theme, personified by the bride waylaid in ‘Head’. This song acquires heat, liquid keyboards bubbling, as Prince starts imagining adultery with his wife, whose sterling quality is that she is “real”. Melting, cooing and relishing every note, Prince “might have to break the law” if she belonged to another man. Against a background of the Iraq War and conspiracy, he reflects, “My name had never really been spoken before.”

That woman, so preciously real, left. But the love with which he hears his name is forever Prince, holy and sleazy, real and unreal – and singular.

A major reissue series of this period of Prince's activity is out at the end of May, featuring The Rainbow Children, One Nite Alone..., Up All Nite with Prince: The One Nite Alone Collection and Prince Live at The Aladdin Las Vegas on DVD

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