At a time when stories of racial inequality and injustice weigh heavy on our minds, we turn to the comforts of music for reassurance and empowerment in the form of protest anthems, Black resistance in hip-hop, and Beyonce making history at Coachella. But in popular music specifically, Black artists continue to resist expectations that a largely white industry places on them. Conventions of genre are upended in controversy. Black artists continue to challenge image expectations in the cases of Migos draped in Gucci or Kanye West pushing for Black representation in high fashion. The question of Black sexuality in music is all but taboo, with Tyler, the Creator facing murmurs of is-he-or-isn’t-he long obsolete in the historically white realms of pop and rock.
There is perhaps no better example of how the salient elements of identity converge than Prince, who actively redefined common perceptions of both race and gender in popular music some 40 years ago. Through his self-presentation as racially and sexually ambiguous, Stan Hawkins and Sarah Niblock say “Prince explored representations that challenge the power relations of the very binaries, Black-white, straight-homo and boy-girl,” and deliberately sought to de-ghettoize American popular music and de-stigmatize queer identities.” In an era where the very meaning of Blackness is repeatedly redefined and challenged, Prince’s unique manipulation of race early in his career, especially in combination with his lifelong gender bending, acted as a kind of futuristic take on what it meant to be a Black pop star in the late-twentieth century.
Though Prince’s sound and image were firmly rooted in African American culture – his funk arrangements, afro, and James Brown dance moves – he presented an early persona that blurred racial lines in interesting ways. On his third studio album, 1980’s Dirty Mind, Prince positioned himself “as a racially ambiguous prophet whose music signals a growing ‘biracial orientation’ in the future of American popular culture,” says James Gordon Williams.
The video for 1980’s ‘Dirty Mind’ features Prince in a one-piece jock strap and stockings.
Two sonic aspects of the album illustrate that racial ambiguity. Prince sings the entire album in his trademark falsetto, thereby masking the soulful quality of his lower register. More notably though, Dirty Mind features the extensive use of synthesizers to propel the album’s disco-funk beats, which Lucas Hilderbrand says, “defies what we may now think of as ‘Black music,’” in that synthesizers had increasingly become the domain of white artists. In the late-1970s and early-1980s, synthesizers came to be synonymous with the New Romantic movement – an almost exclusively ‘white’ genre.
The very idea that Prince may have ‘sounded white’ to unfamiliar radio audiences was no coincidence; he would likely have been aware of how the preconceived sound of Blackness could be manipulated. Sociologist Stewart Hall famously argued for an understanding of race as a social construct rather than a natural trait, and that the latter way of thinking dictates a whole range of behaviours expected of a particular race. Music is not biologically universal though. Instead, it consists of conventions dictated by the cultural conditions in which it is produced. Hall says that a biological conceptualization of race dictates not only what type of art a white or Black artist may produce, but also the quality of that product.
In the late-1970s and early-1980s, this would have meant that Black musicians were to produce primarily funk, disco, and early incarnations of hip-hop, and that their renditions of those genres would be more valuable or sincere than similar attempts by white artists. While Prince undoubtedly incorporated those genres into his own music, his rock guitar mastery and extensive use of synthesizers blurred his sonic racial identity beyond accepted norms of the time.
We know that Black and white are not simply physical characterizations; they work within a power dynamic that rears its head every day, from police brutality and corporate structures to routine social interactions. Prince, aware of the ways in which the music industry continued to segregate Black musicians into R&B, soul, funk, and disco, subverted sonic racial expectations and boundaries with the specific goal of greater radio airplay and album sales. This is not to say, however, that he shied away from his Black identity. Rather, he deliberately worked in both Black and white musical traditions, which Williams says, “was thought to enable him in synthesizing Black and white popular music codes, leading to an intervention into the ghettoization of American popular music” by way of his pushing of racial boundaries.
The idea that ‘codes’ exist within the music of Black and white artists is central to the concept of race as a language. Of course, racial differences are not inherent to genre. Hall says, “it’s only when these differences have been organized within language, within discourse, within systems of meaning, that the differences can be said to acquire meaning and become a factor in human culture and regulate conduct.” In this sense, the notion that funk, soul, and R&B were and continue to be the domain of Black artists and that Prince deliberately made music that occasionally ‘sounded white,’ are evidence enough of the arbitrary nature of genres.
There is some indication that Prince was actively thinking about how race could be performed and transgressed, “and deliberately avoided adhering to the prescribed clichés of what was supposed to be a Black sound,” as illustrated by ‘When You Were Mine,’ a track from 1980’s Dirty Mind. The song features a simple synthesizer melody and drum pattern, accompanied only by bass and Prince’s falsetto. There is no trace of traditionally Black musical forms; rather, the song reads as new wave and mainstream teenybop pop – both white genres.
Prince’s racial ambiguity is also clear in the album’s cover artwork: he poses center-stage donning an overcoat, scarf, and briefs, with his torso exposed. Interestingly, the image is black-and-white with the word ‘PRINCE’ in white typeface. The intense exposure renders Prince’s skin pale – more white than black. This cover artwork, along with some of the album’s racially ambiguous sounds, would have rendered Prince’s race confusing to casual fans. The intention of this ambiguous self-presentation is clear; Williams makes the point that “Prince did not have an ambivalent relationship with race but an ambivalent relationship with being defined solely by race,” unsatisfied with being relegated to traditionally Black genres.
Aside from challenging audiences’ expectations of Black artists, the most notable and controversial element of Prince’s early persona was his performance of androgyny. This blurring of gender lines was apparent in both his music – lyrics dealing with homoerotic subjects (‘Jack U Off,’ ‘Sexuality’) and a hyper-feminine falsetto indicating the limitations of the male body – and his physical appearance and stage performances. Despite the overtly sexual nature of Prince’s lyrics, the gender of his sexual object-choice was often unclear.
Consider the 1981 track ‘Controversy’. Prince acknowledges the confusion he had caused on his previous album, Dirty Mind, in terms of both his race and sexuality on the track. The lyrics address perplexed fans and critics in the lyrics “Am I black or white? / Am I straight or gay?” – yet another indication that Prince’s blurring of racial and sexual norms was deliberate. Despite acknowledging the confusion, however, Prince furthers his queer image in the lines, “I said life is just a game / we’re all just the same / do you want to play?” wherein the sexual undertones are obvious.
Eve Sedgwick suggests that despite the relationship between gender and sexuality, “many other dimensions of sexual choice…have no such distinctive, explicit definitional connection with gender; indeed, some dimensions of sexuality might be tied, not to gender, but instead to differences or similarities of race and class,” which makes the interaction between Prince’s sexuality and his African American identity even more fascinating.
It’s fair to say that the ultimate effect of Prince’s gender and sexual ambiguity was heightened by his perceived ‘Blackness,’ despite his transgressions of racial identity. Surely, non-heterosexual orientations – despite still being marginalized in the late 1970s and early 1980s – were more salient and expected among white people (hence modern-day discussions of intersectionality), and Prince’s combination of ambiguous sexuality and Black performance tradition was new and perplexing to mainstream pop audiences.
Early critics, confounded by Prince’s self-presentation as androgynous, queer, and racially ambiguous, pointed to his hometown as explanation: “he was from Minneapolis, a city imagined as a queer bubble removed from more familiar regional music scenes or even normative American Blackness.” At once removed from normative blackness and exposed to non-normative sexual orientations, Prince would have been attuned to the flexibility of both race and gender from a young age.
The effect of Prince’s racial and sexual ambiguity on his ‘authenticity,’ or what Philip Auslander calls “a perceived quality of sincerity and commitment” is interesting too. The distinction between rock and pop historically lies in “the distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic, the sincere and the cynical, the genuinely popular and the slickly commercial, the potentially resistant and the necessarily co-opted, art and entertainment.” It’s an ideological difference, and one that pervades both genres to this day. Despite Prince’s position in the ethos of pop music, his instrumental virtuosity, his lyrical mastery, ability to recreate his music in a live setting, and the political nature of his racial and sexual ambiguity place him firmly within that concept of rock authenticity.
Concerts specifically allowed audiences to see Prince’s androgyny and participation in both Black and white musical traditions. Whereas recorded music is produced like a commodity no different from cars or blenders, it is the performance of rock music that lends credibility to the manufactured production of the music. Having heard Prince’s music but not seen it enacted in a live setting, his persona might have been construed as a costume assembled for promotional purposes. While Prince’s persona was indeed manufactured and carefully curated, his concerts would have convinced audiences that he lived his racial and sexual ambiguities.
‘Controversy’ plays on listeners’ perceptions of Prince’s race and sexuality
The audience’s knowledge or preconceived notions about a performer dictates their degree of authenticity also. Along this line of thinking, listeners’ knowledge of Prince’s ambiguous identity resulted in the perception of his music as ‘authentic’; his willingness to challenge notions of race, gender, and sexuality at the risk of his reputation and career lent a degree of honesty and sincerity to both his music and live performances.
Within the rock community, authenticity is often determined quite separately from the music itself. Auslander says, “the creation of the effect of authenticity in rock is a matter of culturally determined convention, not an expression of essence,” an idea that highlights both the importance of Prince’s ambiguous style and the notion of race as a social construct. Prince’s music could not have been perceived as inherently authentic or honest; it was the cultural implications of his image that were manifested in the music that lent authority to both his recorded output and live performances.
The overlap between Prince’s manipulation of race and what fans saw as authenticity is also seen in the role of the synthesizer within rock and popular music in the early 1980s. The advent of digital musical instruments like Roland’s TR-808 changed the historical status of the synthesizer relative to authenticity. In contrast to the past, “playing analogue synthesizers was now a mark of authenticity, where it was once a sign of alienation,” says Auslander, lending Prince’s use of the instrument a degree of honesty. Along with this change, the synthesizer had become associated with whiteness as well, having featured prominently in bands like New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Kraftwerk, and other notable New Romantic groups. In this sense, Prince’s racial and musical transgressions rendered both his music and persona ‘authentic’ according to cultural standards of the time.
While Prince arguably stopped his race-bending by the mid-eighties, those initial efforts paved the way for future artists crossing over from funk, R&B, and soul into the limelight of mainstream pop. His gender-bending worked in a similar way, making a space for Black femininity and non-hetero sexualities in the charts. Of course, that battle continues to challenge audiences and make headlines; artists like Frank Ocean, Kevin Abstract, Tyler, the Creator, and Kaytranada still hold a kind of outlier image in the world of popular music despite their popularity and critical acclaim, casting unfair expectations on Black artists to uphold stereotypes of both race, gender, and genre.