Friday, November 20, 2020

"The Exodus Has Begun" - Black Magnolias Literary Journal

If you're a fan of this blog, you know I often stress the importance of engaging writing and research on Prince by Black writers. Last year, I wrote about the excellent, special Prince issue of the Howard Journal of Communications. I've also had the privilege of participating in professor De Angela L. Duff's symposia on Prince. (You can read my recap of one of her most recent academic events here.) 

This week, I'd like to share some brief opinions on the special Prince issue of the Black Magnolias Literary Journal, edited by C. Liegh McInnis, a professor at Jackson State University, and author of The Lyrics of Prince: A Literary Look at a Creative, Musical Poet, Philosopher, and Storyteller. In addition to being a lovely person, McInnis is a passionate, compelling speaker, who has inspired many audiences of Prince fans with his presentations. 

This issue of Black Magnolias, released last spring, features Black scholars and others who are clearly interested in centering Prince's Blackness in analyses of the artist's work, life and legacy. It's troubling that many Prince fans are hostile at the thought of talking about Prince as a Black man affected by and concerned with systemic racism, and I don't expect a lot of them to come around. But for fans who say they are interested in understanding all aspects of Prince's humanity, I would recommend reading collections like this one. There are a lot of people, including Black writers, who are putting in work.

I haven't finished reading each piece yet, and I am still unpacking what I have read, but I wanted to share some thoughts. One of McInnis' goals for studying Prince's work is to gauge "the full realm of Black diversity," and thus the "full realm of Black humanity." Prince is a perfect subject for this, and the writers worked diligently toward this end. I also appreciated that McInnis stressed the need for Black musicians to be taken seriously ("Unlike the Beatles or Bob Dylan, rarely are African Americans studied for their intellectual value," he writes). Lately I've been thinking about the ways in which my research on Prince was minimized by some when I was working on my master's thesis (thank God for the professors who did believe in what I was doing). It's good to know I am not alone in this struggle. 

I've singled out a few essays/papers that stood out to me so far.

"She's Always In My Hair: Jill Jones--The Unheralded Muse of Prince" by De Angela L. Duff

This piece provides the most comprehensive look at Jones' contributions to Prince's work that I've seen to date. It unpacks how Prince's obsession with creating mystery and being in control had a detrimental effect on Jones' career, and demonstrates her absence from Prince's narrative, even after his death. I was very intrigued by the impact of race (Jones is biracial and fair-skinned) on Jones' marketability for both Black and white audiences. As I read Duff's piece, I thought about Mariah Carey's struggles with racism as a biracial artist in the music industry; they are outlined in her new memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey. Though Carey achieved international superstardom, I think her story is an effective companion piece to this paper; I wonder if she and Jones had similar experiences.

"The Purple Avatar: A Brief Discussion of Prince's Guitar Greatness" by Darryl Pete

We need more scholarship breaking down Prince's guitar playing. Pete's essay is based more on his personal experience as a guitarist than strict musical analysis, but I appreciated his comparisons of Prince's music to work by everyone from Chuck Berry to Ernie Isley. I also enjoyed reading about Prince's guitar work on "Lady Cab Driver," a song I would not have immediately singled out as an example of his impressive technique. Speaking about "Let's Go Crazy," Pete writes, "That heavenly note climaxing at the end of (the song) seemed to sustain forever! The note wasn't just sustaining itself but the possibility of what Black music could be, what it had been, what had been taken/stolen from it, and what it could reclaim." I thought that was the most powerful passage, and it made me hungry for more analysis about Prince, race and rock 'n' roll. 

"How the Exodus Began: Prince and the Black Working Class Imagination" by Robert Loss

This is one of the best papers I've read on Prince, and it should be required reading for all fans and scholars. It's a long one; Loss put in an incredible amount of work in this nearly 60-page piece. Ever since Prince's memoir, The Beautiful Ones, came out, I have been thinking and writing about the order, discipline and utilitarian spirit found in Prince's work. Those attributes come not only from Prince's father and funk conventions, but a longstanding tradition in Black life. It's something that Black people know innately, but it's always important to have it articulated on paper. For example, I knew I got extremely emotional seeing Prince wearing a scarf at the Super Bowl halftime show--one of the most prominent stages in the world--but I didn't really know why until I unpacked it with a Black friend and wrote it down. Loss's essay adds even more context for Prince's signifiers of Black working-class values--like the scarf. Using academic frameworks and citing work by Black scholars (including writing by McInnis), Loss analyzes relevant themes in Prince's art, but also explores the ways in which Prince's art was used by others for social and political gains; for example, his 1995 song "We March" was played at the first Million Man March, which he also donated $50,000 to, according to Minister Louis Farrakhan. And there are numerous examples of Prince donating proceeds of ticket sales to his concerts for the advancement of Black and other marginalized people. 

"The Spiritual as the Political in the Works of Prince and the Staple Singers" by C. Liegh McInnis

If you're a fan of Prince, you should know about his musical relationship with legendary soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples, but you probably haven't broken down the comparisons between Prince's music and the work of the Staple Singers in the context of Black liberation theology. No need to worry, McInnis has done it for us in this excellent paper. Citing specific song examples, McInnis explains how both artists utilized Christian theology as a means to liberate Black people from oppression. He also stresses that Black liberation theology is rooted in African spirituality, which is rarely discussed in writings on Prince and religion. This piece made me think once again about innate understanding; as I've noted previously on this blog, some Black people can listen to songs like "Beautiful, Loved and Blessed," "Black Sweat" and even "Act of God" and feel that Prince is speaking to their liberation, but writing about this for everyone to read is necessary. With that, I'll close with a statement by McInnis:

"For the Staple Singers and Prince, the primary goal of artistry is to appeal to the hearts and minds of listeners to produce the catharsis that moves them to evolve spiritually so that their spiritual evolution manifests itself in the socio-political structure. To do anything else is to be both ungodly and unartistic." 

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