Why Prince Triumphs With Gen X

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From Time Magazine:

Gen Xers grew up in a world that fed them evidence of a growing equality and a preponderance of black leaders and stars they embraced. Michael Jackson became the world’s biggest recording artist. Eddie Murphy became the biggest star in Hollywood. Bill Cosby had the best-rated show on television. Michael Jordan became the biggest star in the sports world. Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for president twice. Oprah began constructing a TV empire. Spike Lee became a major Hollywood filmmaker. And Prince became a megastar.

Hanging over all this was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose shadow loomed over the 1980s as the ultimate example of a black American who whites and blacks both could and should idolize (as opposed to Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Minister Louis Farrakhan, who were idolized by many blacks and had no crossover appeal). In 1986, as Gen X was growing up, the King holiday was first observed. A few years later, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after twenty-seven years to reveal himself as yet another a towering global symbol of what can be achieved by a man who refuses to let racism turn him angry and bitter.

Gen X responded to these shifts with a new cultural biraciality: White kids became knowledgeable about black culture and black kids grew more knowledgeable about and open to white culture. In 1989, author Trey Ellis published a now legendary essay called “The New Black Aesthetic,” which talked about blacks who had a multicultural fluency powering their work. “A cultural mulatto,” Ellis wrote, “educated by a multi-racial mix of cultures, can also navigate easily in the white world. And it is by and large this rapidly growing group of cultural mulattoes that fuels the New Black Aesthetic. We no longer need to deny or suppress any part of our complicated and sometimes contradictory cultural baggage to please whites or blacks.” Within this movement Ellis identifies “the initial shock troops,” that is, the culture creators who are leading this charge. He names Eddie Murphy, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and, of course, Prince. In a recent interview Ellis said, “Before, there would be a stigma for black artists taking from white culture because [blacks] have such a sense of cultural supremacy so we’d think why are we gonna borrow from some inferior culture? But Prince says I’m gonna take from everybody and he was kind of, like, talking white through his guitar.”

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