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Prince’s gift was that he stepped right out of racism’s symbolic logic

Prince performing during his ‘Diamonds and Pearls Tour’ in London in 1992. Reuters/Dylan Martine

One of the most influential modern artists, Prince, died on Thursday April 21 2016 at the age of 57. The genre-busting pop-funk-R&B-rock singer/songwriter sold more than 100 million records in his extraordinary music career, which spanned nearly 40 years. But his influence stretched way beyond just music. Dr Vashna Jagarnath of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, explains to The Conversation Africa’s arts and culture editor Charles Leonard why she teaches her history students about Prince.

Why does Prince matter?

This is a difficult question for me to answer because there are so many reasons why Prince matters. Prince not only matters for all the apparent reasons – his musical genius, his ability to fuse a range of sounds and create something magical – but also for the cultural work, the political work, he did for so many of us.

At the heart of imperialism and colonialism has been the project of dehumanisation – of what philosopher Lewis Gordon, drawing on Latin-American historian and theorist Enrique Dussel, argues pushes most of humanity to the underside of modernity. Colonial subjects were produced as “natives” and locked out of the modern. Vital to this process of reification and exclusion was the right of the powerful to continuously define and determine the humanity of the powerless.

As a result, black people globally have always been defined, and their identity limited and read, through a variety of discriminatory lenses. But Prince as the body, the spirit and the artist, like his music, has always been indefinable. This inability to define him, to box him up, meant that it was impossible to limit him and his full humanity. Prince took a position at the cutting edge of the contemporary, of the modern.

Prince performing one of his major hits, ‘Purple Rain’, which was first released in 1984.

Prince is often compared with another genius, David Bowie. There are some similarities, but at the same time there is a key difference: Prince was not, like Bowie, a chameleon. While Bowie adopted and discarded different personas, Prince was always one persona that sat comfortably with his myriad of conflicting and complementary selves.

By embracing his full humanity in all its complexity Prince allowed so many of us to see the possibility of living life on our own terms, without being defined from the outside or, as philosopher Frantz Fanon put it, “encased”. Prince did this work for us, so that we could have a vision of what this all-embracing self could look like. After Prince, we knew very well, as black people, that we should not ever limit ourselves, no matter how much we are being externally defined.

And of course part of this is that Prince was a black man in America who owned his sexuality without collapsing into the hyper-masculinity that white racism has often imposed on black men.

Prince’s apocalyptic hit ‘Sign O’ the Times’, which also showcases his guitar-playing prowess.

How do you involve Prince and his music in your lectures?

I always use music to teach. I think music is a fundamental pedagogical tool. It has the ability to convey so much and complements other sources, such a texts, film etc. It has the ability to capture the spirit of a moment or concept.

For example, when I used to teach Karl Marx’s concept of alienation to first-year students I would start the class by playing singer Bruce Springsteen’s Factory. I also teach a course on the history of modern South Africa and every lecture begins with a song. For example, I play Hugh Masekela’s Stimela when teaching the section on migrant labour.

I use Prince when I teach about the decimation of the cotton industry in India. I play Paisley Park. I use this song as a hook. It allows me to tell the history of the paisley design (which Prince so loved) and its etymology, as well as the destruction of the cotton industry in India.

The paisley design is ancient and, by many accounts, originated as a representation of the Zoroastrian tree of life. In different parts of India it came to represent different types of leaves. In the south of India it represents the mango leaf.

In India this design has a variety of different names, including “buta”. But during colonialism the British Raj destroyed the cotton industry in India and moved most material production to Britain.

One of the key towns where the material manufacturing was moved was Paisley, in Scotland. One of the products this town became famous for producing was the Kashmiri shawl, which had the paisley design. Since then the term paisley has been used to describe this design.

How does he resonate with your students?

They like the story and the song, but many of them don’t really think about Prince or understand his significance, which is sad. I then obviously go on a rant explaining the significance of Prince.

Prince composed several songs for other artists – here’s his version of Sinead O'Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’.

What kind of legacy does he leave behind?

In terms of his work he leaves behind an exceptionally rich legacy. There is a huge catalogue of unreleased material that will hopefully make its way to us over the years. As a cultural icon his legacy is immense.

Especially now, when there are serious challenges to what are understood as normative identities, Prince’s significance will grow. Hopefully the younger generation will engage with him around issues of race, gender and art. Prince was free – a free black man in America. He stepped right out of the symbolic logic of racism. That matters.

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