Prince & Eye
What’s This Strange Relationship?
It would, perhaps, take the professional insight of a psychologist or a sociologist to divine what it is about our society that makes us love our musical stars so devoutly – that makes our adoration cling so desperately to them – from their nova heights to their ignominious falls and all the scandals in between. If everyone else’s obsession is somewhat like mine, perhaps it all starts in pre-adolescence – that quixotic time when we become aware of our own being and struggle desperately between individuality and conformity with those earnest eyes that glaze over with age. Those confusing times when we first hear “Fly Me to the Moon” or “Hound Dog” or “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and glean from those tunes the profundity that only a 12-year-old can find. And we find ourselves in an adulating fervor and an attachment to those singers even when they become an Alzheimer’s mumble on stage or die in an overdosed heap on the toilet or sell their souls, schlocking their own peculiar brand of Liverpudlian U.S. nationalism. No sin, no shame, or embarrassment can be great enough, the deterioration of talent can’t be disgraceful enough for us to realize, to abandon those stars, to excise that special place they hold in our hearts. If it sounds like there is any amount of arrogance in this pen, it is not intended – for I have a ventricle or two dedicated to a star of my own: Prince.
No, there’s no shame in my game. I am a Prince fan. I have been for most of my life. I had the posters, the pins, the albums, even the purple vinyl 45 of “When Doves Cry.” I collected the 12-inches for the B-sides. 1999 was my first concert. And I’ll probably be there for his last. I know the lyrics, The Revolution’s membership by name, and all sorts of trivia that a grown man really shouldn’t know about another adult he’s not sleeping with. Yes, I am a fanatic.
Now, I know I’m not alone in this. The Prince fan club is enormous. In fact, I bet if you are an African-American male aged 28-38 (like me), you’re a fan. But his club is much larger than that demographic, and at times you can see that legion of freaks in purple trench coats, high-heeled boots, and mascara, screeching, “Come back, Nikki! Come back!”
I don’t know all their stories (perhaps they simply love genius), but I’m writing this (obviously) to tell mine. It’s been something I’ve been trying to figure out for years: why do we attach ourselves so readily and steadfastly to other peoples’ stories? Why do we take something that can’t be more impersonal (mass-produced entertainment) and make it our own to the point that we – and millions of others – can personally identify with it and its creators?
For me, it starts with being an Integration Baby. Though the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating schools had been handed down over 20 years before I entered school, it was still a challenge for a black child entering a majority white school. There was a lot of shit to get over. The Civil Rights backlash was in full swing. The North had been sympathetic to those “poor Negroes” being beaten up trying to get a cup of coffee down in Selma, but, when those same blacks with their “militant” afros started shipping their kids to white schools in places like Sewickley, PA – well, that was a different story. Bussing, affirmative action, and equal opportunity, white privilege, the riots of the late ’60s and early ’70s gave rise to Spiro Agnew’s “Silent Majority,” Dirty Harry and Death Wish safari fantasies in the “untamed” inner city, and a schizophrenic tug-of-war between liberalism and racism – often being waged within individuals themselves. There were also the recalcitrant, deeply-rooted Stepin Fetchit images of blacks as slaves and coons, phrenologically and genetically inferior beings who were too stupid to handle anything as hard to spell as “Education” and were simply not deserving of the “better things in life” – just like our neighborhoods, we’d only destroy them, soil them with chicken grease or watermelon seeds. As I said, a lot of shit for an eight-year-old.
That year – 1978 – was the year I moved from Cannonsburg, PA (the home of Perry Como and Bobby Vinton) to Carnegie, PA (it was also the year Prince’s debut, For You, came out, but his Royal Badness doesn’t enter the story quite yet). By that time, for me, there had already been several “nigger”-inspired fights inside and outside of school. My mother’s was the biggest conflict, though: to get me a proper education. Our beloved principal at First Street Elementary firmly believed that blacks were intellectually inferior and should be tracked as such (therefore proving himself right). Even when test scores from the University of Pittsburgh showed his brilliant thesis to be more than erroneous in the case of this student, he refused to relent, and I was stuck in the “dumb” track until Mom broke camp and sent me to Catholic school.
Despite what Hollywood tries to tell us about good and evil, even with the issue of black and white, there is no black and white. No total barbed-wired walls of hatred and no all-encompassing embraces of love. Especially in those rapidly changing times when some blacks were earning enough to actually move into white neighborhoods. There was an odd mixture of love and hate. There were neighbors who did accept us and neighbors who didn’t. Neighbors who acted as though they did who really didn’t. And neighbors you’d expect to hate us who really did love us. That was Carnegie. That was St. Luke School.
There were only two other black families in our neighborhood. One was an offensive lineman for the Steelers, who’d gained the acceptance four Super Bowl rings will get you. The other family had a boy who wasn’t too bright and all too willing to play the clown. My arrival was too much, the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was greeted by one girl who told me that I didn’t deserve to live there and a group of boys who tried running me out with stones and a BB gun. However, since the concept of race and all that that means wasn’t firmly implanted at eight, I was befriended by a very popular, portly kid, T.G., and was soon incorporated into certain areas of the neighborhood.
Catholic school was definitely an opportunity. There were fights – but they were mainly personal, not racial. And the only form of discrimination I received at first was a C in Religion among straight As because I wasn’t Catholic (that practice soon ended and I became a straight A student). I even became class president in fourth grade.
But things change. These were the 1980s, and this was western Pennsylvania. The Silent Majority had spoken with razor tongues. Reagan had ridden their chorus into the White House with his revisionist, alabaster Leave it to Beaver 1950s platform. He was making people proud to be “American” again. Hearken back to a Donna Reed, Ward and June Cleaver ’50s that had no black faces (being lynched because they were impertinent enough to want to vote) and where women stayed in the kitchen (though not all the Rosies had given up the rivet) and the white man ruled his pot-roast-and-potatoes domain with a sagacious fist. One could completely forget Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” – forget those damned terrorist A-rabs and their oil embargoes, forget that ass-whipping the gooks gave us in Viet Nam, those bull dyke bra-burning bitches and their ERA, the pinko commie fag hippies with their free love and costly drugs, the Stonewall homos, and the inner city jungle bunnies who were ready to mug, rape, kill any “honky” who dared to stumble into their concrete forest.
The white-washed Reagan ’80s was a time of convenient amnesia, where the troubling questions of the previous 20 years were swept away in a fantasyland America that never truly existed. In a time where white, male privilege was being challenged on all fronts, Ronnie eschewed soul-searching for a new vision of America fashioned out of his Hollywood past, where minority, feminist, and Third World claims for self-determination could be derided as “anti-American.” These peoples’ claims were to be relegated to a very familiar space – out back – and the white man, the “American,” was to reassert his primacy.
The entertainment industry took the hint. Gone were those movies that questioned the American (“white”?) experience. Joe, Easy Rider, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now no more. This was a different America. Sylvester Stallone takes a down-and-out shakedown thug for the mob in Rocky, slicks him down and sleeks him up and has him do battle with the inner-city beast (Mr. T) and then the Communist menace (Dolph Lundgren). The same actor gives the ostracized Viet Nam vet, Rambo, a shave and has him win the southeast Asian war our own military could not. Chuck Norris, Gene Hackman, Patrick Swayze, and a whole slew of B actors return to Viet Nam with him, creating the myth that we had actually won the war. Fred Dryer goes to Lebanon to erase the humiliation our Marines suffered there. Clint and Charles Bronson were still painting the dark streets of the inner city red with the blood of blacks and browns, making it safe for whites again. Outside the ’70s hold-over, The Jeffersons, and Eddie Murphy, you had two ghetto urchins living high off the hubris of a rich white man (Diff’rent Strokes), Nell Carter’s Mammy (Gimme a Break), the token Tootie (Facts of Life), or the stereotypical dark beasts on cop shows like Hill Street Blues.
The music industry was even worse. With the Nuremberg rally at Comiskey Park in 1980, where the crowd burned every disco record they could find, disco died. The dance form had taken the nation by storm and had sold more records than any preceding genre. And, just as has happened when a black musical form levels the country with its popularity, there was a white backlash that attempted to erase all memory of its previous fervor. The jazz of the ’20s was forgotten in the Depression until white acts like Benny Goodman, the Dorseys, Frank Sinatra, and the like could put their own bright faces on the dark form. Early rock ‘n roll was banned until Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Pat Boone could put a more palatable, brighter facade before the institution. Black doo wop artists were kicked aside by the British Invasion, many of whose members were simply covering previous doo wop hits from black artists (now, who was it who covered The Isley Brothers’ “Twist And Shout”?). So, why would Reagan’s Back to the Future ’80s be any different?
Top 40 radio stopped playing disco or any other “urban” music. Thanks to Billboard’s peculiar tracking system, which did not tally actual sales of records but what record owners said sold, African-American releases rarely made the Top 40. In your larger retail outlets, it was difficult to find releases by blacks. And the Bull Conners at the nascent MTV had a “Whites Only” policy so that, unless your name was Michael Jackson (who was getting whiter with each video), your black ass was not even seen on the video station (take for example Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” where Herbie’s rarely seen – and only through a filmed TV screen – because the video’s producers knew that MTV would not play it if Hancock, an African-American, were prominent). So, even music, once again, was becoming racialized.
St. Luke School, where I was the first and only black child to attend (until eighth grade), was to suffer the same fate. There was the beautiful, sagacious Mrs. DiPaolo, who was kind enough to bring in stories about black “welfare mothers” with 20 children and stories of inner city violence and proceed to tell the class how “fortunate” little Billy was to go to school with “us” so he’ll hopefully one day not turn out “like the rest of them.” She also thought that Europe was a country and shared the same beliefs as my old principal. She would chronically give me Fs on tests, and, when I’d go back and correct them to find that I’d actually gotten an A, she would fail me for my “bad attitude.” Much to the school’s credit, they fired her after my Mom and the Filipino kid’s mother put pressure on them to do so.
But, Mrs. DiPaolo was not the only culprit. Things had changed. There were titters and looks and jokes. Kids were being taught at home. The very parents who greeted Mom and me at school were telling their kids the funniest anecdotes and most hysterical quips, and I suffered for their lessons. It’s not as though I hadn’t been warned. I still remember that Sunday afternoon when the elders took me aside and told me not to trust them white folks, that they’ll turn on you, and I defended my white friends with the fervor of a pre-adolescent and cried and cried and cried – because how could T.G., B.G., D.F., P.J.M., C.B., how could all my best friends turn their backs on me?
Well, you can figure out what happened. School had become a war zone. Fights were no longer personal. There weren’t many, but they all started with “nigger” (or “niger,” when they had to revert to spelling). But, mainly, it was jokes and comments and a collective turn of the back. I was no longer to play in their reindeer games. T.G. and the crew let me know I wasn’t welcomed in the neighborhood. If I were invited to anything, it was because the whole class was. The Filipino kid, P.J.M., who’d been a really good friend, now hated me because no one knew what a Filipino was to hate one and he, I guess, feared the proximity of our skin tones would dump some of the hate on him. I remember one of the girls to whom I’d grown close, K.B., withdrawing after being called a “nigger lover” (the sin of all sins). And, despite the grades and intellect, I was no longer “the smart kid,” the mantle involuntarily being passed to another kid, R.Z., because there was no way in hell a black kid could be smarter than whites.
At the time, if there were any friendships (and there were with R.Z. and S.H.), I no longer trusted them. I trusted no one because at any moment they could and probably would turn on me. It was so easy – too easy. And, who needed that shit? Besides, I was now the outsider – and everybody seemed to hold me at arm’s length. What I needed was a friend I could trust, a black friend, someone who couldn’t easily stab me in the back for a cheap laugh and easy acceptance. Well, there wasn’t one to be found. However…
…there was Prince.
1999 had just come out. I was 12 and friendless. A fly in the milk who everyone hated and ignored. Much like the artist himself. The tiny black man with straight hair, high heels, and make-up, who talked about the weirdest kind of sex humanly possible – and, damn, was he funky!
Now, even in retrospect, Prince is a very peculiar mantle on which to place one’s racial pride, but my discovery of Nikki Giovanni, Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton were a couple years away. Damned peculiar when you take into account his lying about his own racial make-up (“Am I black or white?”). Not to mention his androgyny (“Am I straight or gay?”). But, here was a freak. I was considered a freak. He was damned proud of it. Why shouldn’t I be? And while Michael Jackson was dating Brooke Shields and Emmanuel Lewis and was being embraced by the white establishment (MJ had even left Motown!), Prince was being played by that same establishment despite itself. He was funky and dirty and kinky (though his hair wasn’t), singing about things you just didn’t sing about and he was doing it funky, doing it black – spraying his sex all over the place. None of that sanitized popsicle crap that even the whitest girl on the planet (Brooke again) could find acceptable, but the stuff her mother would’ve sent her to the convent just for listening to.
And, when those white kids found out I listened to Prince – well, he wasn’t Duran Duran or Def Leppard or Van Halen, Black Sabbath, The Who, The Beatles, or Night Ranger – you know, real music. He was a dirty little nigger faggot who played jungle music. My love for the man’s music thickened my lips and limped my wrist. When I tried dancing like him or singing like him, a bone zipped through my nose and I ate human flesh for lunch.
But, by then, I didn’t care (sort of). By seventh and eighth grade I knew I was the outsider, the pariah. I knew everything I did was wrong. And no matter what I did, people weren’t going to like me for it (like on The Jeffersons when George gave that Klansman CPR to save his life and, upon finding out, the supremacist wished they would’ve let him die). I was anti, but now I had an anti-hero. And Prince’s music let me be proud of that. Every time I listened to the nasty songs (“Sister,” “Head,” “DMSR,” “Lady Cab Driver”), my 13/14-year-old self knew that it was cool to be an object of derision, to be someone everyone else looked down upon, to be black. Maybe it was because we were nastier, sexier, more talented, or more intelligent than the rest of them; it didn’t matter. Let them talk down at us, call us fucked-up names – they were just scared. And their fear wasn’t going to stop me from being what I am: black.
So, I went to the concert. I loved every bass-thumping moment of it (thanks, Uncle Rod!). I became a fanatic. I wore my “Prince 1999” pin like a badge of honor. And to damn near everyone’s derision, I bought all the albums, had all the posters (even that Controversy one where he’s basically naked in the shower – I gave that one away), and reveled in the new reason behind my ostracism. Because I didn’t need their approval.
Who am I kidding? I was a kid. I did need their approval. I just thought I didn’t. But, with high school around the corner and the acquisition of a few black friends from the Art Institute, their approval was not as important as it had been. And it wasn’t until I’d been graduated from St. Luke that that approval did come.
It was 1984. We were all leaving eighth grade and going off to our separate high schools where we’d get a fresh start with a new, “more mature” crowd. “When Doves Cry” was rocketing up the charts, and Purple Rain had just come out. Even though I was only 14, there was no stopping my going – several times – to see the movie. Of course, I was not alone. Purple Rain was the surprise runaway hit of the summer, and Prince had gone from the “nigger faggot” to the superstar. Even MTV played his videos!
That July at a “graduation” party all the kids were talking, with enthusiasm, about their upcoming high school careers and my anti-hero, Prince. Suddenly, everybody loved him – and were actually a bit cooler with me. It’s funny, because it was an approval that I’d thought I hadn’t needed and an approval I haven’t even bothered looking for since (in fact, two years later, when I let hip-hop into my life, I loved the fact that white kids hated it – parts of me wish they still did); but it’s hard to express how proud I felt when these kids who’d made my life hell the past three years were lauding the same musician that they’d derided even a few months before. And I can’t tell you what joy I felt when B.G., the coolest kid in our class who, of course, really didn’t like me all that much, said, “Campbell, I don’t know, I used to hate him. But I saw Purple Rain, and Prince is pretty cool.” ◼