The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator
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Kamilah Cummings

Editor. Writer. Educator.
Purple, Lace, & Race: Prince and the Art of Protest 

In many ways, Prince’s entire career was a disruption. Although his contributions to racial discourse in the public sphere are often overlooked, from his music and films to his ever-evolving performance of identity, Prince artfully protested the status quo, challenging the music industry and society to re-envision the possibilities of black musicians as artists and activists. In her book Lyrical Protest: Black Music's Struggle Against Discrimination author Mary Ellison observed of Prince, “this is a man that catalyzes rethinking as easily as he gets people out on the dance floor.”

Having emerged as an artist in a highly segregated music industry during a time when American society struggled to form its post-Civil Rights identity, Prince refused to be limited by myopic notions of what it meant to be a black artist. Whether fighting to get his iconic film Purple Rain made at a time when industry executives did not see the commercial viability of a film starring a black musician, countering the violence and misogyny that prevailed in 1990’s black music, rendering his body a site of protest when he wrote slave on his face during his public battle for ownership of his masters, or staging a benefit concert in Baltimore in honor of Freddie Gray, art was the vehicle through which Prince upheld black culture and responded to social injustices that afflicted black people. When few black artists of his status accepted the risk, Prince brought conversations about the black experience into unexpected and uncomfortable spaces, and he endured the professional consequences.

Through analysis of select works, interviews, and news media, this presentation will demonstrate that Prince used his art to disrupt systems of believing, being, and becoming to expand possibilities for not only himself but other black artists, paving the way for today’s bold generation of artist-activists.

Kamilah Cummings is a writer, editor, and visiting senior professional lecturer at DePaul University in Chicago where in addition to her writing courses she created courses on Prince and House music. She has presented her research on Prince and House music at numerous conferences and symposia. Her published work includes the papers “Sisters in the Shadows: an Examination of Prince’s ‘Strange Relationship’ with Black Women” and “Prince: Introduction of a New Breed Leader.” Learn more about her work at www.kamilahcummings.com.