Now where I come from
We don’t let society tell us how it’s supposed to be
Our clothes, our hair, we don’t care
It’s all about being there
In Uptown, a track from his extraordinary 1980 album Dirty Mind, 22-year-old Prince sings about a place where “black, white, Puerto Rican, everybody’s just a-freakin’.” The album itself is the first in a sequence of works in which Prince redefined black music, putting Minneapolis on the map alongside the larger, more established centers of popular culture. While the city’s most famous and well-loved son was black, his community has always struggled there.
The death of George Floyd, a black man pinned down by the neck by a white police officer as he begged for mercy and stopped breathing, has destroyed the myths of Uptown. It’s now a protest song. And despite its reputation as a proudly progressive town—according to The Economist in 2014, the sixth most liberal city in America—most African Americans in Minneapolis have still not had the opportunity to reach economic parity with their white neighbors.
I first visited the city in early 2016, to attend an intimate Prince concert that would become the main location for a piece for National Public Radio about his contentious relationship with technology and digital media. Following his death in April that year, I returned several times as part of my research for a book project about Prince, and began to get to know Minneapolis.
“The only black people in Minnesota are Prince and [baseball star] Kirby Puckett!” Chris Rock joked in an infamous bit from 1996’s Bring the Pain. Despite the racial utopia Prince seems to have described—and maybe genuinely felt, too, as a beloved young homegrown superstar—Minneapolis has never been a black city. Or at least, one in which the small black population was considered a threat. It is not Detroit or Chicago.
“There were no direct train lines from the south to Minnesota,” said Rashad Shabazz, a geography professor at Arizona State University. ”In Chicago, for example, the black population was so large, and 10,000 people a month were moving up from the south in the 30s and 40s. This threw white Chicago into anxiety and fear, and they responded with measures of containment and punishment.”
Minneapolis wasn’t like this. When Prince was born in 1958, African Americans comprised around 1% of the city, Shabazz says. In 2020, it’s still only around 19%, with Somali refugees the most recent black migrants. Mogadishu-born Ilhan Omar now represents Minnesota’s fifth congressional district and regularly infuriates conservatives in the US.
Prince’s old junior high school in south Minneapolis is now the Sabathani Community Center, founded by members of a local Baptist church to help “well-meaning but restless” neighborhood kids. When I visited in 2018, with Minneapolis historian Karen Cooper, there was an exhibition with large maps that showed the extent to which black people were kept in small, relatively deprived zones.
“This was the kind of racism that white people wouldn’t have even noticed,” Cooper told Quartz. “In those days, people from any racial background other than white European were never able to make it to the top in anything.”
The practice of redlining—red lines drawn on maps by city planners to prevent one group from living near another—was prevalent in Minneapolis in the first half of the 20th century, just as it was elsewhere. The Mapping Prejudice project, led by University of Minnesota historian Kirsten Delegard, offers visual analysis of historic data and a stark assessment of the city’s failures:
In Minneapolis, these restrictions served as powerful obstacles for people of color seeking safe and affordable housing. They also limited access to community resources like parks and schools. Racial covenants dovetailed with redlining and predatory lending practices to depress homeownership rates for African Americans. Contemporary white residents of Minneapolis like to think their city never had formal segregation. But racial covenants did the work of Jim Crow in northern cities like Minneapolis.
A report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2017, based on analysis of census data, showed the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul had the lowest rate of homeownership for black households in the country. That gap has been widening, too. There have also been serious disparities in income. In 2015, white households in Minnesota reported an average income of $67,000. Black households earned less than half—an average of only $30,300.
In a New Yorker piece drawing upon his Pulitzer-winning book Evicted, Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond argued that “if incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women.” Housing is one of the most important components of economic stability. The basics of decent-quality, affordable accommodation in a neighborhood with amenities, alongside some protection of tenants’ rights, could enable residents to focus on education and ambition.
Better jobs and houses wouldn’t necessarily save anyone from police brutality, of course, but could put fewer black people in harm’s way. Prince risked his career in the 1990s to campaign for black economic empowerment, fighting a long, ultimately successful battle against his record label for his master tapes and the right to distribute his music as he wished. Younger black artists regularly cite Prince as a template for the way they now conduct contract negotiations. “He really opened doors and made artists think about royalties and things like that,” singer Bilal told me in 2017. “A lot of things he did beyond music were inspiring.”
“If you don’t own your masters,” Prince warned his community in 1996, “your master owns you.”