Beneath the glyph, the flamboyant outfits and all that purple, a sociocultural revolution was brewing.
Decades before “celebrate diversity” became a corporate buzzword, Prince was doing just that with his music and persona — blending races, blurring genders and paving the way for people trying to stake out an identity outside traditional boundaries.
For Mike Mattison, a biracial boy adopted into a white family living in a white neighborhood in Minneapolis, Prince symbolized a “crazy, multicultural world” of inclusiveness.
“Here was this guy you could identify with,” said Mattison, “singing about these magical places like Uptown. He created this wonderful metaphor that invited everybody — black, white, Puerto Rican, gay, straight, male and female — a world that really didn’t exist, but that we craved. It kind of seeped into reality.”
It also encouraged Mattison to aspire to a career in music. “This guy comes out of nowhere and becomes not just a local hero but an international phenomenon,” said the singer, who now lives in Atlanta and is touring with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. “You think, ‘That’s possible.’ You could be from Minneapolis. You didn’t have to go to Hollywood or New York.”
For Chelsea Reynolds, who grew up in Des Moines, Prince represented freedom to explore gender identity. “He showed our culture that men can embrace their femininity,” said Reynolds, a doctoral candidate in mass communications, gender and sexuality in the media at the University of Minnesota.
Prince’s style and lyrics (“I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. This is something that you’ll never understand”) expanded the boundaries of what’s acceptable for heterosexual males, particularly black males, said Andrea Jenkins, a poet, transgender oral historian and librarian who oversees the University of Minnesota’s LGBT collection. He also cut a path for today’s transgender community. “He opened up a whole lot of space for people,” Jenkins said. “A big part of the legacy he left has been moved forward.”
Even his sound fostered diversity, said Jenkins. By blending black and white musical genres, he invited listeners across the racial spectrum to dance side by side.
But his biggest contributions, in Jenkins’ opinion, were to social justice and black liberation. When Prince renounced his name for a symbol and appeared with “slave” scrawled on his face during a dispute with his record label, it may have seemed like a stunt to white observers, but it had a deeper resonance in the black community.
“Black creativity has been exploited for so long,” she said. “It’s crucial for black people to own their creative output,” to achieve financial equality and to have control over the way their stories are told. Inspired by Prince, Jenkins established Purple Lioness Productions to publish her work, including her recent book of poetry, “The T Is Not Silent.”
But Prince’s inclusiveness has also come into question. After his death, some in the LGBT community pointed to his views on gay marriage after his religious conversion to Jehovah’s Witness. “There have been comments that he was homophobic,” said Jenkins. “But his actions, through his music and lyrics, really let in the LGBT community.”
Reynolds agreed: “I saw so many articles in the queer press, disputing his status as an icon. But that’s erasing the entire history Prince had before his conversion.”
It’s safe to say Prince will continue to influence future generations. Katie Dohman, for one, is making sure of that. After his death, the West St. Paul writer penned “Lessons I Hope My Kids Learn From Prince,” posted on a wellness website.
“He made it OK to love what you love,” she said. “Nothing in the mainstream handbook about sex appeal or masculinity suggested Prince could become a worldwide sex symbol, but he did it anyway. He was bending our ideas about what it is to be male, to be female, and showing us that you didn’t have to follow a stereotype to be sexy and appealing.
“But really, he had a bigger-picture [message], whether he overtly intended it or not.”
That message — of freedom and independence of spirit — will endure, according to Jenkins: “He left an indelible mark.”
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784