How Prince Introduced Us to the “Minneapolis Sound” (Rashad Shabazz, Sep. 7th, 2017, Zocalo Public Square)

Minneapolis’s polka love provided a perfect entry point for wildly creative black musicians like Prince in another way, too: by forcing them to mix with white culture in ways their brethren in other cities never had to. Black people have lived in Minnesota since before the state was founded. Blacks from Canada traded with Native Americans in the 19th century, and slaves (both slaves and escaped former slaves) also were a presence in the state. The first free black settlement in Minnesota was founded along the banks of the Mississippi in 1857, and in the years after abolition, migration increased. Minnesota’s growing liberalism and the state’s willingness to enfranchise black men sent a signal to many that they would be treated fairly in the northern metropolis.

Still, there were never very many black people in the area. Between 1880 and 1930, the black population in Minnesota grew from a negligible 362 to a still tiny 4,276. African Americans made up just 1 percent of the population in 1930; even when Prince was born, in 1958, the percentage of the state’s black population remained in the single digits. (It’s no wonder that the comedian Chris Rock joked in the 1990s that only two black people lived in Minnesota: Prince and Hall of Fame baseball player Kirby Puckett.)

But their small numbers didn’t diminish the impact that blacks had on the music scene—rather, it may have amplified it. While white Minnesotans played their polkas, black music migrated up the Mississippi, with minstrel shows, ragtime, jazz, and the blues all gaining enthusiastic, if small, followings in Minneapolis. Black musicians started thinking of the city as a place where they could live and thrive. Early black musical migrants included Lester “Pres” Young, the talented tenor saxophonist, and the jazz pianist James Samuel “Cornbread” Harris, II (whose son, Jimmy “Jam” Harris, became a well-known R&B songwriter and producer and an important figure in the popularization of the Minneapolis Sound).

Others followed. The parents of producer Terry Lewis (Jimmy “Jam”s’ musical partner), and those of guitarist Dez Dickerson (who played with Prince’s band, the Revolution), migrated to the Twin Cities during this same period. Prince’s parents made the journey too: Mattie Shaw, a singer, and John R. Nelson, a composer and pianist, both moved up from Louisiana in the 1940s. They met through Minneapolis’s small but vibrant black music scene, also known as the “chitterling circuit,” in the 1950s. Like many black migrants, they landed in North Minneapolis, a formerly Jewish area, where Prince was born and raised.

Because the black music scene in Minneapolis was so tiny, black musicians who hoped to make a living by performing played for white audiences whenever possible. Segregation reinforced the musical color line, with most white audiences wanting to hear classical music, jazz standards, polka, or pop music. Black musicians learned to accommodate them, and developed a vast musical range. Cornbread Harris, for example, learned to play “polkas, mambas, salsas, and calypsos,” says Prince biographer Dave Hill. Black musicians’ virtuosity expanded their own community’s musical vocabulary, melding a new family of sounds into the jazz, blues, and R&B they played for black listeners.

Prince’s generation followed the pattern. In the early 1970s, when Prince was a teenager, the numbers of black people in Minneapolis were still “small enough to be ignored,” according to Hill, and white pop music continued to dominate. Prince was schooled in black musical forms like R&B, funk, and soul, but there was still only one small, low-frequency black radio station, so he and his contemporaries also listened to rock and folk artists such as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell.

Prince’s unique virtuosity made it possible for him to forge a new style from the wide variety of white and black genres that he and his city loved. Even as a high school student, he could hear a song in his head and translate it to sound. He played several instruments by ear, including guitar, piano, drums, and bass guitar. He coolly mimicked masters like Carlos Santana note for note. Folk influences like Dylan and Mitchell course through Prince’s work with his first band, Grand Central, which played rock-tinged funk and soul. By the mid-’70s, punk, indie rock, and New Wave—the music that floated around the “vanilla market” in the city at the time—had filtered into his recordings, too. This musical collage is apparent on Prince’s first album, For You, which was less a commercial release and more a statement of what the young musician could do: Minneapolis Sound lite, with flares of the sexually provocative lyrics for which he would become famous.