Utopias’ positive qualities [include] their illumination of the non-utopian societies from which all utopias spring. The potentiality rather than reality of America as a utopia must be emphasized.”
Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities
My first memory of Prince changed my life. I was nine years old, visiting my stepdad’s wife’s house. In my sort-of half-stepbrother’s room I heard this music coming out that was exciting. He had just left the house, but he had left his stereo on. All I remember about the next moments were me going into his room and beginning to jump on the bed.
Frantically, rhythmically, with the beat. Not dancing, per se, but not not dancing, either. For the entire song I danced-through-jumping to the frenetic beat of “Uptown” from 1980’s Dirty Mind. When it was over, I played it again. And I dance-jumped again for the entire song. Hard. To understand the impact Prince’s death had on me, you have to picture this little kid jumping on a bed, hearing “Uptown” for the first time. Because while the infectious groove caught me, the spirit of the song changed me. I played the song three or four more times before someone in the house yelled, “Stop playing that damn song!”
She saw me walking down the streets of your fine city
It kinda turned me on when she looked at me and said, “Come here”
Now I don't usually talk to strangers, but she looked so pretty
What can I lose if I just give her a little ear?
At this, I was intrigued. I was also of the generation that had been taught not to talk to strangers. And that idea was new enough that I could imagine that there was a time in America when you could talk to strangers. Prince had written this song when he was only about ten years older than I was at the time, but I did not know that then. Neither did I know that the “strangers” children were told they could not talk to would soon be me.
Beginning in 1979, the National Crime Prevention Council and the Ad Council coproduced a series of public-service announcements (PSAs) featuring a trenchcoat-wearing crimefighting bloodhound named McGruff who advised people to “take a bite out of crime.”
These ads gained traction in the early days of a Ronald Reagan Administration that had been voted in on a promise to “get tough on street crime.” Since so many suburban housing developments of the early 20th Century had been created with racist covenant restrictions, fear of “blackness” was a fairly easy sell. In a few years when my body would mature and begin to make grown white men uncomfortable, I would become the “other” that the McGruff ads were warning against, creating the need for whites to flee the suburbs and create a narrative of a lost America “where you could trust strangers.” But it wasn’t so much that America was lost, it was that it had been abandoned and then reconstructed and walled away. This was when planned communities with guards and high hedges became the rage. But I didn’t know any of that then. And Prince mediates his wariness of strangers by the rationalization that a pretty girl was a good excuse to break the rule. The rest of the song proves that Prince is in fact wildly opposed to this idea of avoiding the “other.” “Uptown” is, in fact, a raucous embrace of the other.
What's up little girl?
I ain't got time to play
Prince was a bad man. Even at 19. He knew the street lingo. He knew how to deploy his urban-hustler identity. But we know that this is not really Prince. By his allowance of us into his inner monologue—the first lines of the song—we already know that Prince is somewhat cautious, not dangerous. So here he is allowing us to see the adoption of his “tough-guy” identity by telling us exactly what he said to our street muse. I deduced this even when I was nine, jumping on the bed. “He’s acting all bad, but he’s just as scared of her as she is of him, probably,” I remember thinking, vaguely. My mom had recently imparted this piece of wisdom to me in regard to bees, all of whom I was convinced were out to get me. But now I had begun applying this new premise to analogous and not-so-analogous situations. Most of the time when you were scared, the other person was just as scared as you were. Winning was all about attitude.
Prince was already at that moment far more complex than most artists I had been exposed to, betraying a conflict with the identity forced upon all men of color in the urban context—we were all the intimidating “other” in the eyes of mainstream society. If we did not act like thugs, then the opposite end of the binary must apply: that we were soft; book-smart; a mark. Neither Prince nor I knew it then, but we were both hyperaware of the identities we would only feel comfortable exposing in what Shane Vogel calls the “Harlem cabaret.”
New Negro Movement scholars had been arguing that for black
people to seem “civilized,” they would have to conform to Victorian
standards of morality. But countercultural critics of Victorian
standards like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Lena Horne
resided in the Harlem cabaret. It was only at certain times and only in certain spaces that these blacks felt free to express themselves: after hours, after any decent hours, mostly after mainstream clubs closed; in Harlem, a segregated suburb of Manhattan just outside the limits of municipal oversight, a subliminal expression of Manhattan’s cultural progressivism, just outside the limits of social acceptability. It was here (and when) that you found normalizing of queerness, what was called “sexual deviancy” back then; people who had sex with people, in numbers, or in contexts contrary to accepted Victorian mores.
And in the same way Harlem cabaret artists challenged Victorian morality, Prince’s oppositional aesthetic was the new urban folk hero who was thriving in the industrial milieu. Once offering the promise of a better life, “industrialization” by the mid-20th Century had come to mean “blight” and “despair” amongst the many disaffected travelers of the Great Migration. During the migration’s many waves, the utopian life-is-better-here rhetoric of the time referred to economic opportunity and freedom from explicit racial discrimination, but it seldom referenced the “dollar drain” that often accompanied the white flight. But here the remarkable capacity of New World blacks to adapt to their environment was made evident. Here in the urban-industrial milieu to which blacks had been getting accustomed since the end of the Civil War, black culture created a new kind of archetype that people like Prince and I could utilize.
Cue the urban-hustler identity.
By the 1960s, the most predominant African American folk hero was not the urban collaborator who studied hard and got good grades, but was instead an urban hustler—someone who could use their wits, sexuality, or fighting prowess to “get over” on the oppressor. The urban hustler made himself known in books such as Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of Life and Donald Goines’ Daddy Cool
and in movies such as Shaft and Superfly.
Central to the urban hustler’s mystique is his willingness to use heterosexual prowess in order to achieve his objectives. His gendered masculinity was never in doubt. I was getting that idea, even at nine. I knew I had to deploy a street-smart, hypermasculine sensibility whether I felt one or not. Black boys come in both sensitive and insensitive forms, but society imposes an “insensitive” identity on black urban boys, so half of them have to act like tough guys or get labeled “marks.” So, as far as Prince was concerned, he did not have time for any B.S. He had hustling he had to get back to.
But this stranger had a trick for him.