The late songwriter and guitarist Prince was known for his eclectic compositions, as well as his flamboyant dress and stage presence. An academic conference to be held at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, later this month seeks to examine the deeper meanings of his musical legacy.
W. Russell R. Robinson, a professor of mass communication at North Carolina Central University, will be among some 60 scholars to present papers at “Purple Reign: An Interdisciplinary Conference on the Life and Legacy of Prince.” The event is the first academic conference about Prince, and will run May 24 through 26. The conference, according to its website, blogs.salford.ac.uk/prince-conference, will look at Prince’s contributions through the fields of popular music, gender and culture studies, television studies, film and celebrity studies, and other disciplines.
Robinson and Kimberly Moffitt, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, will present a paper titled “Transgressions in Purple: The Prince protest mixtape vol. 1.” When the University of Salford issued its call for papers, Robinson and Moffitt decided to submit their proposal. “It’s a long shot, but why not?” Robinson said in a phone interview.
Robinson grew up listening to Prince’s music, and realized that Prince addressed political and social issues in his lyrics. When Robinson was in high school, he would listen to “Sign O’ the Times,” and the lyrics (”At home there are seventeen-year-old boys / And their idea of fun / Is being in a gang called The Disciples”) were comparable to “looking at CNN through R&B music. I look at that song now and I find it circuitous because a lot of the issues in the ’80s are prevalent today,” he said.
He and Moffitt focused on some key songs of Prince’s career and did a lyric content analysis. “He was very political,” Robinson said. “He was very interested in politics, and not just of race and class.” Prince was androgynous, and his lyrics also brought conversations about sex into the public conversation, he said. Robinson cites the song “I Would Die 4 U” as an example, with its lyrics “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.” The song was written in the 1980s, “which were exceptionally conservative,” Robinson said, yet Prince “was clearly engaging in conversations about sexuality. ... That definitely was pushing the boundaries for that particular time.”
Scholars also could study Prince as one of the first video artists of the MTV era, for the visual art of his album covers, and his disputes with record labels over artistic freedom and control, Robinson said.
Keynote speakers at “Purple Reign” will be Dez Dickerson, who played guitar in Prince’s band The Revolution; Sarah Niblock, co-author of “Prince: The Making of a Pop Icon”; and Ken Paulson, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University.
North Carolina Central University offers courses in the history of hip-hop music, as well as the practical aspects of the music business. The academic world did not immediately embrace that genre, Robinson said, and he wants scholars not to make that same mistake with the Prince legacy. Scholars will have to decide which disciplines would govern those classes, and how to fund them. He and Moffitt are tentatively considering a call for papers, and perhaps an edited volume of papers addressing those concerns. “I’d love to see a text on Prince’s work, and how do you teach that,” he said.