At some point during the second week of the post-Prince era, the shock of grief that first accompanied news of my favorite musician’s death gave way to bittersweet reminiscences. I slowly moved from sorrow to celebration. As I read the obituaries, essays, and think pieces that seemed to dominate social media in late April, I noticed a similar trend with fans and music critics. I also noticed that when writers wanted to point out a specific example of Prince’s genius, they often cited two ubiquitous lines from 1980's "Uptown":
"White, black, Puerto Rican
Everybody just a-freaking"
An ode to one of Prince’s favorite parts of Minneapolis, “Uptown” has remained one of the most beloved songs from the album Dirty Mind. Countless writers have noted the lyrics’ affirmation of difference. In a beautifully written obituary, Michaelangelo Matos quotes the lyrics to highlight “Prince’s misfits-united inclusivity.” Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield uses the same words to describe “a free-love utopia full of fluid boundaries and open possibilities.” Prince reproduced that vision in the bands he assembled. From The Revolution to New Power Generation to 3RDEYEGIRL, his multiracial, mixed gender bands looked and sounded like the funky urban paradise described in “Uptown.”
Much has been made of Prince sonic and visual disruption of the black/white color line. In “Controversy,” he asks: “Am I black or white; am I straight or gay?” He also managed to disrupt the rigid segregation found on the FM dial in the 1970s and early 1980s. “When U Were Mine” captivated the largely white audiences of rock radio stations, while “Do Me, Baby” became an R&B hit.
But, as “Uptown” reminds us, Prince was also keenly aware of and influenced by the presence of Latina/os. For example, in his cinematic portrayal of Minneapolis, Purple Rain, his protégé Apollonia Kotero, a Mexican American performer from California, played his love interest and fronted the girl group Apollonia 6. Over the decades, Brazilians, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican Americans (to name just a few diverse groups) have played in his bands, danced on stage next to him, and acted in his films.
Prince was not alone in his incorporation of Latina/o performers in his art. When he became a recording artist in the 1970s, Latin rhythms permeated genres like disco, rhythm and blues, and funk. This wasn’t new, of course. Afro-Cubans introduced clave rhythms into jazz during the Swing Era. But in the 1970s, the merging of African American and Latina/o sonic traditions influenced multiple genres. Guitarist Chuck Brown played with a salsa band called Los Latinos before helping to establish go-go as Washington D.C.’s most beloved genre. Akron, Ohio’s Fred Lewis, who played percussion for the funk band Lakeside, drew inspiration from Afro-Latin drumming. One band mate described Lewis as being “like a Black Latin guy, because he was into the Latin culture.” Farther west, acts in California fused African American and Mexican American sounds. Formed in the late 1960s, WAR recorded songs like “Lowrider” and “Cisco Kid” that reflected the racial dynamic of their Los Angeles mixed neighborhoods. As historian Gaye Theresa Johnson asserts, WAR’s music “was created from the fabric of South and East Los Angeles’s Black-Brown aural integration.” On the jazz scene, George Duke frequently employed Latina/o percussionists. Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena played bongos, congas, and other percussion instruments on 1977’s Reach for It. And in 1978, a young Californian who went by the stage name Sheila E. was playing drums in Duke’s band when she first met a rising star named Prince.
Born to an African-American mother and Mexican-American father, Sheila Escovedo came from a family of musicians. Her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo, played in Santana’s band. Her uncle, Alejandro Escovedo, is a Texas-based rock/country artist. By the time she met Prince in the late 70s, Sheila E. had already made a name for herself as a percussionist. Besides playing with Duke, she had worked with Herbie Hancock and played percussion on Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” though she wasn’t credited.
Nevertheless, when Sheila E. introduced herself to Prince after his show at the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, California, she was startled to realize he already knew who she was. As she recalled, “I’d already released my first record with Pops and had performed on multiple records for other artists, in addition to being on national tours and television shows. It dawned on me then — I didn’t need to be nervous. I suppose I was a ‘somebody’ before he was.” Prince wanted to hire her for his touring band immediately, but he couldn’t afford the salary she was already earning with Duke.
They did begin playing together, though. Pretty soon Prince was joining Escovedo family jam sessions in northern California. His first recorded collaboration with Sheila E. was “Erotic City” in 1984. When she decided to pursue a solo career, he mentored her. As a solo artist with hits like “The Glamorous Life,” Sheila E. opened for Prince and The Revolution during the Purple Rain tour. They also briefly became engaged, though the relationship was complicated by the fact that Prince already had a girlfriend named Susannah Melvoin, the twin sister of Revolution guitarist, Wendy Melvoin. The romance between Prince and Sheila E. ended fairly quickly, but they continued to work together. She joined him as a drummer for the Sign O’ the Times tour in 1987 and served as his musical director.
In the mid-1980s, Prince and Sheila E. built a sound that illustrates what scholar Marco Cervantes calls “afromestizaje.” For Cervantes, afromestizaje “underscores the complex fusions of culture among African Americans and Chicana/os in the United States.” The song “Holly Rock,” which appeared on the Krush Groove soundtrack in 1985, showcases that fusion. Escovedo’s Afro-Latin-tinged drums introduce the rousing party jam. The rest of the song is reminiscent of other Prince productions that find him in James Brown mode, trading high-energy call-and-response phrases with an audience while directing a funk band. In this case, though, Sheila E. takes on the role of a rapping bandleader, while Prince contributes background vocals. The result is a synthesis of funk, salsa and rap, a sound that embraces the complex interactions between African Americans and Latina/os.
Prince and Sheila E. parted ways in the late 1980s, but Prince continued to employ Latina/o instrumentalists. Brazilian-born Renato Neto, who joined the New Power Generation as a percussionist, influenced the sound of the band’s recordings and live performances. “Indigo Nights,” recorded live in London in 2007, especially bears Neto’s imprint. That year, Prince played an unprecedented 21 straight nights at London’s indigO2. "Indigo Nights" spotlights Neto on keyboards. Prince implores, "Gimme some salsa on the piano," and Neto obliges, transforming the song into a full-blown Afro-Latin funk jam.
From Apollonia 6 to Sheila E., some of his most memorable protégées have Latin American roots. And as some of his later work with NPG shows, Latin rhythms continued to inspire the sounds he cultivated. As an innovator and mentor, then, Prince added an important chapter to a larger history of musical interplay between African Americans and Latina/os.
AllMusicBooks continues to celebrate Prince and his enormous contributions to music, and have asked authors to share their thoughts on Prince. This latest piece comes from Tyina Steptoe, author of "Houston Bound," an innovative historiography about migration and immigration. She also wrote a piece reprinted on this blog about Beyoncé, Creoles, and Modern Blackness. Ms. Steptoe is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arizona.