‘Prince shaped Minneapolis’: Symposium panel explores Prince’s pivotal impact

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This is what Prince scholarship looks like: Zaheer Ali maps Prince’s musical network. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Any good writer will tell you that sometimes the best way to touch on universal truths is to get specific and nail the details. That fact was in evidence this morning at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, as the symposium Prince from Minneapolis convened what The Current’s Andrea Swensson called “a supergroup of Prince nerds.” Examining Prince’s Minneapolis roots and his impact on the city opened the door to a wide-ranging discussion of race, class, and sexuality in Prince’s life and legacy.

Swensson got a big laugh with a shot of Prince giving side-eye as she told the story about the young musician going on American Bandstand, where Dick Clark declared, “This isn’t the kind of music that comes out of Minneapolis!” Swensson’s new book Got to Be Something Here is part of a long-term, wide-ranging effort by many individuals and organizations to document and celebrate the rich African-American musical communities in Minnesota, communities that produced Prince but that the world’s Dick Clarks were unaware of.

Clark wasn’t the only one. Steve McClellan, general manager of First Avenue from the mid-1970s into the early 2000s, described how hearing the Numero Group’s Purple Snow compilation (2013) opened his ears to just how many amazing local R&B and soul groups weren’t even on his radar back before Prince changed everything.

McClellan described being proud to employ black staffers and book black artists, but he admitted that it was only in the later 1980s, when First Ave actually began to attract predominantly black audiences for some shows, that he more fully understood the kind of institutional racism that had led to the forced closure of venues bringing African-American entertainment downtown.

One of the panel’s themes was that as scholars bring Prince’s Minneapolis roots to light, the next step will be to explore how Prince changed his home town. “He used the corporate capital of Warner Bros. to refashion this city for himself,” said NYU lecturer Zaheer Ali. In other words, instead of leaving Minneapolis behind, Prince brought his international fame and his fortune back to the city — where he took the heart of the city’s white punk scene and turned it into the first church of his pioneering hybrid of rock, R&B, and electronic music.

Ali made an even finer point of that argument near the panel’s end, in response to a question raised by a white baby boomer: why is Prince’s sound called “the Minneapolis Sound”? Isn’t there much more to Minneapolis music than Prince? He cited groups like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü.

Defining the Minneapolis Sound, argued Ali, was a “power move.” After Prince, a city that had always been associated with anything but funky and innovative African-American music became synonymous with that music. Geniuses like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis could have found fame even in a world without Prince, but Prince became the iconic catalyst that turned that music into a scene that shook the world.

Chazz Smith, Prince’s cousin and an early member of his first band, added that if any musicians deserve more credit for shaping Minneapolis music, it’s the mentors who were inspirations to his generation: jazz veterans and R&B greats who he knew Prince looked up to, and who generously extended their encouragement.

MnDOT historian Kristen Zschomler made the case for continued research not just to understand Prince’s legacy, but his life. Until just a couple of years ago, she pointed out, few people outside of Prince’s family had any idea where in Minneapolis it was that Prince first learned piano and picked up the guitar.

She also noted a detail that was hiding in plain sight, but that opens fascinating new questions about Prince’s early life. He was certainly bused to schools outside of his North Minneapolis neighborhood, she acknowledged, but contrary to popular belief among Prince fans, that wasn’t because of desegregation efforts.

In fact, during Prince’s school years, Minneapolis schools were in open defiance of a desegregation order, which became the subject of a pitched legal battle that finally forced the city to adopt desegregation efforts in 1972. Why was Prince bused to junior high in South Minneapolis? He may have transferred there for its superior music and sports programs.

Rashad Shabazz of Arizona State University described his research into another under-appreciated aspect of Prince’s story, and the story of Minnesota music: the way that for decades, Minnesota was a leader in music education. From the 19th century until the devastating funding cuts of the 1980s, musically gifted kids in Minnesota found it relatively easy to get their hands on instruments. From the polka boom to the Minneapolis Sound, our musical legacy reaped the rewards of that investment.

Closing out the panel was Andrea Jenkins, a newly-elected member of the Minneapolis City Council and a longtime force in the fight for rights and visibility among women, people of color, and LGBTQ communities. She pointed out that Prince inspired her to publish her own work as a writer, and said he opened spaces that made her more comfortable expressing her identity as a transgender woman of color. Prince’s inspiration, she suggested, extended all the way to the Oval Office: when Barack Obama wears a purple tie, she believes, he is sending a message of hope.

Displaying a long list of Prince songs that make geographical references, most to Minnesota, Ali pointed out that for Prince, geography was about place — but it was bigger than that, as in the notion of “Paisley Park” as a state of mind. “Prince’s Minneapolis” evolved over his career, from a utopian vision of “Uptown” to a place that was increasingly black and increasingly political. When Prince sang about Baltimore, in other words, he was singing about Minneapolis too.

Prince from Minneapolis continues through tomorrow. Breakout sessions are full, but space is still available for plenary sessions.

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