Prince, died on Thursday, Apr. 21, 2016 at the age of 57. The genre-busting pop-funk-R&B-rock singer/songwriter sold more than 100 million records in his extraordinary music career, which spanned nearly 40 years. But his influence stretched way beyond just music. Dr. Vashna Jagarnath of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, explains why she teaches her history students about Prince.
This is a difficult question for me to answer because there are so many reasons why Prince matters. Prince not only matters for all the apparent reasons—his musical genius, his ability to fuse a range of sounds and create something magical—but also for the cultural and political work he did for so many of us.
At the heart of imperialism and colonialism has been the project of dehumanization, which philosopher Lewis Gordon (drawing on Latin-American historian and theorist Enrique Dussel) argues pushes most of humanity to the underside of modernity. Colonial subjects were exemplified as “natives” and excluded from modern ideals. Vital to this process of reification and exclusion was the right of the powerful to continuously define and determine the humanity of the powerless.
As a result, black people globally have always been defined, and their identity limited and read, through a variety of discriminatory lenses. But Prince as the body, the spirit, and the artist—like his music—has always been indefinable. This inability to define him or to box him up meant that it was impossible to limit him and his full humanity. Prince took a position at the cutting edge of the contemporary, of the modern.
Prince is often compared with another genius, David Bowie. There are some similarities, but at the same time, there is a key difference: Prince was not, like Bowie, a chameleon. While Bowie adopted and discarded different personas, Prince was always one persona who sat comfortably with his myriad conflicting and complementary selves.
By embracing his full humanity, in all its complexity, Prince allowed so many of us to see the possibility of living life on our own terms without being defined from the outside—or, as philosopher Frantz Fanon put it, being “encased.” Prince served as an example for us, so that we could have a vision of what an all-embracing self could look like. After Prince, we knew very well as black people that we should never limit ourselves, no matter how much we were being externally defined.
And of course, part of this is that Prince was a black man in America who owned his sexuality without collapsing into the hyper-masculinity that white racism has often imposed on black men.
I always use music to teach. I think music is a fundamental pedagogical tool. It has the ability to convey so much and complements other sources, such a texts, film, etc. It has the ability to capture the spirit of a moment or concept.
For example, when I used to teach Karl Marx’s concept of alienation to first-year students I would start the class by playing singer Bruce Springsteen’s Factory. I also teach a course on the history of modern South Africa and every lecture begins with a song. For example, I play Hugh Masekela’s Stimela when teaching the section on migrant labor.
I use Prince when I teach about the decimation of the cotton industry in India. I play Paisley Park. I use this song as a hook. It allows me to tell the history of the paisley design (which Prince so loved) and its etymology, as well as the destruction of the cotton industry in India.
The paisley design is ancient and, by many accounts, originated as a representation of the Zoroastrian tree of life. In different parts of India it came to represent different types of leaves. In the south of India it represents the mango leaf.
In India, this design has a variety of different names, including “buta.” But during colonialism, the British raj destroyed the cotton industry in India and moved most material production to Britain.
One of the key towns where the material manufacturing was moved was Paisley, in Scotland. One of the products this town became famous for producing was the Kashmiri shawl, which had a paisley design. Since then, the term paisley has been used to describe this design.
They like the story and the song, but many of them don’t really think about Prince or understand his significance, which is sad. I then obviously go on a rant explaining the significance of Prince.
In terms of his work, he leaves behind an exceptionally rich legacy. There is a huge catalog of unreleased material that will hopefully make its way to us over the years. As a cultural icon, his legacy is immense.
Especially now, when there are serious challenges to what are understood as normative identities, Prince’s significance will grow. Hopefully the younger generation will engage with him around issues of race, gender, and art. Prince was free—a free black man in America. He stepped right out of the symbolic logic of racism. That matters.