Prince: Unreconstructed and Free Artist


By Thabiti Lewis
I liked Prince as a teen but I grew to really appreciate him
even more for his music, fashion, business sense, and artistic creativity, as I became an adult. He is without a doubt a heroic role model of our era. He never
stopped trying new things and challenging “tradition”. Undaunted by
norms, he was willing to be a daring,
inventive, radical, free, and unreconstructed human being.

The year is 1984 and the album “Purple Rain” dropped along with the movie of the same name. I saw it twice within 24 hours! First I
saw it with my boy Stephen and again the next day with my girlfriend. Prince suffered the misfortune of releasing the most dynamic album and film at the same time that Michael Jackson took the music world by storm. In the face of
stiff competition from the King of Pop, Prince developed an incredible following.

When Prince came to St. Louis to perform in 1984, my cousin,
who had followed him for at least three years prior to Purple Rain, went
crazy. She and my older sister and their friends packed into her car and spent the
night following leads to “Prince sightings” in downtown St. Louis after attending the
concert. They got in trouble for staying out too late, but did not care because they wanted a chance to glimpse or meet Prince. They loved him for being sassy, sexy, and cool and wanted to be with this diminutive fellow–enraging and baffling me because two of their girlfriends who gushed over Prince told me I was too short even though I stood four inches taller than Prince!

Tony Bolden, professor of African American Studies at Kansas
University and guest editor of The Funk Issue in American Studies Journal
(2013) sheds light the meaning of funk and Prince. “Funky” says Dr. Bolden, ³is honesty. The genre Funk is hybrid forms. Funk is about honesty. And Prince is the
exemplification of that. He rejected categories, opting for Funk¹s embrace of multiplicity of forms. Prince exhibited carefree blackness,² which Dr. Bolden says, ³is funk. In many ways [Prince] reflected the meaning of the word and the genre.²

As an adult I witnessed Prince¹s funk live at his 2004
Musicology Concert in Portland, OR, with my wife and three other couples.
We loved Prince as teens and as young adults and his latest album reflected
the dynamic funky sound that drew us all to him in our youth. As we entered it
shocked me that we each received a copy of the album that we already had
purchased! I smiled and exclaimed, “Genius! This brother just flipped
the script again on the suits.” By including the album into
the price of a ticket, he jumped to the top of the billboard chart during his concert tour. It was a funky move.

Throughout his career Prince waged battle against the record executives who controlled artists economically and creatively. Prince
famously wrote the word “Slave” on his cheek during his battle in the 1990s
with Warner Brothers over how often he could release his music and who
owned it. Tied to a contract that required him
to release a fixed number of albums, Prince produced them feverishly to
speed up the execution of the contract. After leaving Warner Brothers, he formed his own music company, NPG Records and released a triple album in 1996– not coincidentally titled ³Emancipation².

Always looking forward, he also was one of the first artists
to utilize the Internet¹s potential. He released his double album “Crystal Ball” for $50, selling close to 500,000 copies. He famously told Larry King to, “do the math”
when explaining the profit that he made from this unconventional approach.  While the money mattered making the music his way was always deemed a success.  He understood that the business men of music were in the business to make money off music and he was in the business of making his music the way he wanted to and owning his music.
Who can forget how he changed his name to a love symbol–a combination of the symbol for male and female‹during his epic battle with Warner Brothers as a statement against corporate greed and artistic bodies. This move left Warner with no “Prince” to
sell, by abandoning that name and wresting control of his body and art.
More than a symbolic gesture, he redefined himself without words. To put an
exclamation point on his effort to release himself from slavery, he later reacquired the rights to his music.

As one reflects on Prince’s career it is not difficult to see him as the epitome of what an artist can become because he challenged notions of race, gender, and sexuality. His
masculinity was secure; he loved the ladies and they loved him, not withstanding his small stature.

Prince always wore crazy cool fashion, which I respected even
when it went too far for my taste. Whether wearing bikini underpants and a
trench coat, a pantsuit, lace, long coat and ruffled shirt, skin-tight leather pants, or traditional suit, he oozed confidence, style, and funk to the stone cold bone.

During a trip to the South of France my wife and I drifted
into a men¹s shop that sold the most beautiful clothing: jackets, shirts,
and suits constructed from amazing fabrics. The owner told me that one of her famous customers‹Prince– was about my build and that she kept things in his size in stock. My wife decided to purchase me a spectacular shirt and jacket that cost more than any suit that I ever owned. The cut, the fabric, and the fit were perfect. If this
shop was good enough for Prince, I figured it was good enough for me. Eerily, I wore that blazer on the morning when he died.

Prince¹s ethos and his aura, embody black American
vernacular and culture to the point where he defined himself by an
unspeakable symbol. He is a child of the Civil
Rights Movement (also known as The Second Reconstruction). Emancipated
and determined to be free, he avoided gimmickry– after his first few albums‹and his impetus was usually about expanding the known, stretching the unknown, refusing to be defined, limited, or owned. A close look at Prince’s life and career is an education for artists, for all of us, in the possibilities of self-definition, artistic control, and forward thinking.

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Real Power and the Cost of Activism

Thabiti Lewis

Author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (Third World Press)


University of Missouri coach Gary Pinkel’s announcement that he will retire at the end of this season because of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma help me better understand his support of the players and ignited my greatest fear: there will be repercussions for the Missouri 32. While grassroots organizing and the infection of Black Lives Matter certainly played a significant role in getting Tim Wolfe to resign, the threat of 32 black football players forced its immediate manifestation—the courageous young athletes of the University of Missouri football team are all worthy of an ESPY Award for Courage. In the history of collegiate sport athletes have never acted so swiftly—it was powerful. But what is power?

As I argue in Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America, collegiate sport is big business and players (New School Ballers) have enormous untapped power that can force change. And, as sports historian David Zirin has wonderfully pointed out, there is a history dating back to the 1960s of players striking and threatening to strike in the name of diversity demands. But there is also a history of those in power changing the rules, offering token progress, and exacting revenge against those that dare rise up. All of these things scare me as I ponder what is happening and will happen next at the University of Missouri. Soon the real games will begin.

History has also shown us that powerful universities, coaches, and even the NCAA will not go down without a fight. For example, the NCAA lost the Ed O’Bannon (pay players for use of their image) case but they went back to court and got a reversal. And, while black players (who comprise 70% in conferences like the SEC) have historically protested for more black coaches, there are few black head coaches or offensive and defensive coordinators. Sure there are many position coaches, but these positions do not lead to head coach job. It is likely interim University of Missouri president Michael Middleton might be all the diversity the Missouri students can expect.

I raise this concern because many people are not pleased nor feel that justice has been served. There were already two death threats. The blogosphere, where anonymous truth reigns, reveals comments like: “black people are trying to control the administration. This has to stop if America is to have hope of remaining in tact.” Or, “[don’t] allow these people to shout racism against blacks”.

The truth about those with power, without fear of sounding cliché is: “it ain’t over til the fat lady sings” because they are relentless in keeping things from changing.

Those with power know how to give the feel of change when the essential structures remain the same. Although Tim Wolfe is gone, the networks of power have not been restructured. Also, the governing board that watched Wolfe ignore students and faculty has not changed. Ironically, this same group will likely lead the search for a new president.

Power acts as a type of relation between people, a complex form of strategy, with the ability to secretly shape another’s behavior. On the student level we see white people willing to do the heavy lifting necessary to create change. However not enough of the whites in positions of power have displayed a commitment to altering white cultural imperative in favor of a diverse cultural imperative. Michel Foucault explains that power is a producer of reality, impacting entire networks, practices, the world around us, and how our behavior can be affected: “it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth”.

Here are the moments of truth that will signal true change: (1) Middleton immediately delivers on the list of demands; (2) racially diverse top administrators are hired; (3) the football team hires black offensive and/or defensive coordinators; and (4) in 2017 when Governor Jeremiah Nixon is tasked with selecting three replacements to the governing board he makes racially diverse choices.

African American men are over-represented on university basketball and football teams, but underrepresented as students, presidents, deans, vice presidents, tenured professors, full professors, and Trustees.

Thus, Pinkel’s imminent departure leaves me very concerned for the future of the thirty-two young black men that dared buck the system. I promise you it ain’t over. Soon Pinkel’s declaration that: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players” will be tested. I predict there will be repercussions for the Missouri 32, who may be asked to get out.

How long before an academic scandal is reported? How long before reports of criminal behavior among football players surfaces? Will the current athletic director make certain that the new coach protects the scholarships that are annually renewable at the discretion of the head coach?

Change is lasting power. Understanding what power is and how power works is key. As long as people in positions to evoke change do not change then power is safe.





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Changing of the QB Guard in the NFL?

The recent success of Russell Wilson, the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, in the Super Bowl may signal a change in the NFL.  Wilson defied the status quo in leading his team to victory.  He is not quite six feet tall. He is a mobile quarterback, and he is African American.

These are factors that the experts say do not equal success at the position of quarterback in the NFL.  In fact, he completely outplayed the “tradition” in the guise of Peyton Manning, your typical drop-back, stay in the pocket, statue quarterback.  Wilson kept plays alive with his cool, guile, and his feet.  He ran for first downs or significant yardage, he rolled out, drawing the defense toward him because he is a threat to run then completed key third down passes.

You would think that given the success of Michael Vick, Robert Griffen, Jr., and others mobile quarterbacks would be in demand.  In college these dual threat quarterbacks lead most of the top teams yet few get a real chance on the college level.  However, the difference with Wilson is while he is definitely a threat to run, his style of play is very controlled, he runs only when necessary, and is often willing to go down before impact to stave off injuries.  There is no question that the mobile quarterback is the future.  Perhaps when Johnny Manziel enters the NFL it will be okay to mobile and small.  We shall see.

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Professional Sports labor Issues

As things are now, the owners shrewdly use the unspoken racial hostilities of fans against millionaires athletes of color in their favor. Instead of seeing the real picture (which is greed of wealthiest 1 percent), fans and outsiders lock in on the struggle as one of millionaires versus billionaires. This is shortsighted.

I interviewed a labor organizer and attorney and both offered valuable insights regarding NFL Lockout. On the labor side, William Lee explained that this situations parallels the plight of other workers in unions. However he cautions that the success of the industry is as important as the success of a team.  Lee cites the importance of being concerned with how the industry or football or basketball could suffer the plight of the auto industry. What folk seem to miss, says Lee, is that “Because athletes are making so much money it is hard for people who make $50,000, or are among the 11 percent unemployed, to care. Back when athletes made less and worked summer jobs people cared more.”

Although I agree with Mr. Lee that any industry or company must be reinvested in,  I am not certain the revenue must be derived from pockets of workers. William Lee is also quick to explain that, “With a billion dollar pot, players and owners must find a way to work things out; football is the most popular sport.”

Indeed, both parties should be able to figure out how to come to an agreement because they have the most popular sport.  I am willing to speculate that one big PR issue for players is that many working class folk despise how much athletes, especially athletes of color earn.  Perhaps this blinds them from seeing the salient issue:  athletes are, like many workers, are being exploited.

I am wondering why I have not heard more public outcry over the fact that owners want more revenue from the pot, reduced player salaries, and an 18 game season without paying extra. Perhaps Lee is correct that “People liked their star athletes when they were being exploited more” and thus had to work off-season jobs to make ends meet.”  Or maybe average fans do not like the hue of athletes to care enough to unite around the basic principal of exploitation.  It could just be that people too pissed off with being out of work or homeless to care and just want to have their sports distraction on Sundays, Mondays, and occasional Thursdays in the Fall.

The reality is that modern NFL players are in a unique position to be models for the union struggle because they have more leverage and they can make more demands because they are the face of many of the companies they work for. How they push and what they push for can inspire the direction of union struggles throughout the country–for decades to come.

Attorney Levell Littleton from St. Louis, dropped even more science on the situation. He believes that the ruling is legally accurate and will push players to settle soon.  And Littleton predicts players will submit to more demands than they should. “Legally” says Littleton, “The National Labor Relations board has rules in place that allow for the 8th circuit ruling to occur, despite the district court ruling in favor of players that the lockout harms players financially.”

Because most players, no matter how flashy they appear, do not earn the type of money Peyton Manning or Tom Brady earn, I believe that race does factor into blinding fans from seeing the financial harm the lockout presents to players. It also blinds many fans from seeing the larger union and legal dynamics of this situation. Littleton is also correct that “Players look bad because they have not gotten out the point that owners are being greedy, not the players.” Indeed the players have failed to align themselves with fans or labor movements across the country to evoke empathy and support.  This is depressing and unfortunate considering how many players come from working class backgrounds.

Smith, the union president who also happens to be African American, is holding a hard line, and will be blamed if things do not go well for players, AND if the players get a good deal. Goodell will get off clean and maintain respect of players and media.  Maybe race is a factor, perhaps it has nothing to do with what will transpire.  We shall see.

I hope that I am wrong but the capitalist of this era are fed up with the vast number of folk making money, which gives them the leisure to cause trouble. The NFL owners reflect the corporate trend of greed and closing the gap of haves and have nots.

Personally I am pulling for the Lockout to last the entire season so that fans can turn more attention to issues such as politics, discrimination, underfunded schools, families time, job creation, reading books to gain insights and knowledge, and increased work and decreased salaries.  They will have time: Sunday afternoons, perhaps some Monday evenings too.

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Modern Athletes Are Not Paid to Speak–or Think?

Rashard Mendenhall recently committed the ultimate sin of an athlete or entertainer: thinking or asking others to think. Mendenhall has come under fire for his Twitter question which was: “What kind of person celebrates death? It is amazing how many people can hate a man they have not even heard speak.”
Mendenhall is not supporting Bin Laden nor is he supporting death. What he has chosen to do, in this free and democratic country of ours, is ask people to think. It is admirable that a person whose profession is a violent one, seems to be professing anti-hate sentiments and anti-death sentiments.
Who cares that team owner Rooney distanced himself from Mendenhall’s comments. Rooney is only interested in the bottom-line–money.  His response to Mendenhall was weird and failed to capture the intensity of Mr. Mendenhall’s comments.  Mendenhall never tied Rooney or the Steelers directly to his call to urge folk to remain critical thinkers.
What is clear to me, and hopefully soon to others, is how spin masters (PR folk and media) try to control the thoughts and words of athletes when it suits their business interests.
The knee-jerk response to Mr. Mendenhall  proves my point in Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (TWP) that athletes are constantly urged to be apolitical, and are controlled more than they were 30 years ago. Who decides what is politically correct? Whose moral or intellectual compass placed Mendenhall’s thoughts out of bounds?  Who empowered themselves to throw a penalty flag in his direction?

What crime has he committed?  Who did his comments offend?  What is wrong with urging people not to celebrate death.  One hour ago on Patrick Oliver’s radio show, “Literary Nation” I broached this argument. Prove to me that it bad or a crime to urge people not to celebrate death, and I will happily lock myself up.

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Football and Basketball Athletes Barely Allowed to Pursue Degrees?

I am posting this from Rachel Bachman’s “Bachscore” Twitter Page. She added elements from our interview to her Twitter. Before you view my comments below, I must say that I always think about Robert Brooks who while playing football at Ohio State took a year off because he was told that his pursuit of a degree in medicine was in conflict with his job/scholarship responsibility to play football. I recently met a young man who plays in a major university football program who will earn a degree in Engineering this spring. He intimated that he was a 5th year senior and that had he not gotten hurt and been able to spend the previous season on injured reserve he would not have been able to take the labs or complete the projects necessary for his degree requirements.
See “Bachscore” comments below:

Do college athletes have time to study? More with an academic Baller
Published: Monday, February 21, 2011, 10:30 AM
Rachel Bachman, The Oregonian By Rachel Bachman, The Oregonian

Thabiti Lewis is an associate English professor at WSU-Vancouver.
The danger of chasing a college athletic scholarship isn’t just that you might not get it. It’s that even if you do get it, you might not get the education you bargained for.

That’s the assertion of Thabiti Lewis, an associate professor of English at Washington State-Vancouver and author of “Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America.”

In a Q and A published in today’s Oregonian, Lewis laments what he says is an over-emphasis in communities of color on pursuing sports careers, to the detriment of academic pursuits.

Even some of the NCAA’s own data back up Lewis’ assertion that it’s difficult for athletes in high-profile college sports to get the time they need to complete meaningful, useful degrees.
Lewis had some interesting thoughts that I couldn’t fit in today’s print story. Here is a sampling.

On the state of college sports:

I’m not trying to eliminate (college sports), but I’m trying to refocus the mission of institutions of higher education. When you have academic institutions that value more — our values placed where our wallets are — the production and the contributions of coaches and administrators in athletics more so than university professors who are the reason why you’re in this institution….

And people say, No one’s paying to come see you diagramming a sentence or deconstructing a novel. My argument is that they are. Every time they pay their tuition, they’re paying to see me, and they’re paying to see me perform. Sometimes a big lecture hall, sometimes smaller. I’m not on TV as often, but they’re paying for that.

On sport, race and politics:

Because Obama is president, the racial tensions in contemporary society are quite heightened.

I think on one hand, some of the players, I have to imagine (Obama’s presidency) has a bit of a positive effect on them. It has to, this notion of leadership. What’s unfortunate is that because of the highly professionalized nature of sport culture, I just don’t think there are enough balanced, developed individuals. This is what’s so bothersome to me, is that the level of political consciousness or intellectualism is lower than it should be and it’s very sad.

Rachel Bachman’s look at issues, trends and people behind the games.

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I don’t care where you stand, I just want you involved, intelligently involved.

On opening opportunities in sports:

I think we do ourselves a disservice by failing to open it up. We have to approach the diversity of sport and addressing these notions of race the same we approach fielding an Olympic basketball team, right? We’ll at least get 10 or 11 of the very best, because we want to make sure we win. Let’s approach it that way.

My goodness, if (Tennessee women’s basketball coach) Pat Summitt is probably the best person to coach the (men’s) Olympic team, which she could be, because she is really a good coach…. Why isn’t she at least an assistant coach? She knows something. They would give (U Conn women’s coach) Geno (Auriemma) a look.

How come men can have opportunity in women’s collegiate coaching but women don’t have opportunity in men’s collegiate coaching?

Those teams that can’t quite make it off the ground, maybe if you opened it up to get the very best, maybe you’d find that, Wow, we’re [teams that hire candidates without worrying about gender or race] winning now.

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NFL Lockout–Greedy Owners?

How much are people talking about the greed of NFL owners?  They want to lockout the players after the Super Bowl if the NFLPA does not agree to a pay cut for all players.  The owners say they are not making enough money but refuse to show their books.  They also refuse to put the $4 Billion from the new TV deal in Escrow until the matter is resolved.  Does this seem fair?  Unfortunately the owners will resort to divide and conquer.  Leveraging the players whose salaries are lower than stars to agree to the new terms because they do not have enough money to last one year without pay.  There will be star players like Cromartie whose personal expenses are so burdensome that he is willing to take any deal.

Fan will be mad at players for being greedy, forgetting that they want to work but the owners are closing their doors to them.  This might be a good time to start a professional flag or touch league that allows fans to see their favorite players in an Arena Football League stadium playing.  The NFLPA might consider financing such a league and sharing revenues equally with players.  It would earn them some money.  Some players that do not play could function in capacity of operations, etc., making certain the league functioned smoothly.

Perhaps some players can play in Canada until the owners come to their senses?   Ricky Williams had a stint there.  Warren Moon played there rather than be snubbed by racist coaches and organizations unwilling to give Black quarterbacks a chance in the late 70s and early 1980s.

Players have to be creative and fans have to remember and protest the greed of NFL owners once this thing happens.

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