The Class Consciousness of Graffiti Bridge

Throughout his career Prince’s ideas about class and capitalism, and specifically the tensions between the Black American working-class and middle-class imaginations, evolved greatly. This presentation examines the album Graffiti Bridge as a turning point in that evolution, a moment and work of art in which Prince for the first time in his career understands and explicitly presents himself as a class-conscious, historical subject. While this subjectivity is more overt in the Graffiti Bridge film, we can listen for ways in which the album’s dialogue between Prince, Morris Day and the Time, Mavis Staples, George Clinton, and Tevin Campbell juxtaposes intersectional ideologies regarding class, history, spirituality, and Black American culture. Graffiti Bridge was Prince’s way of resetting that conversation in his own work and for the sake of his audience, and not coincidentally, it finds him embracing the contemporary musical forms of rap and especially new jack swing, the popular late 1980s hybrid of hip-hop’s programmed beats and R&B crooning, pioneered by artists such as Teddy Riley, Bernard Belle, Keith Sweat, Janet Jackson, Jimmy “Jam” Harris, and Terry Lewis. In dialogue with those genres and Prince’s own legacy—nearly every song Prince sings on Graffiti Bridge had been recorded no more recently than the summer of 1987 or prior, the exceptions being “Thieves in the Temple” and “New Power Generation” (the second album track and its reprise)—Graffiti Bridge confronts the attempted foreclosure of the Black American working-class imagination as well as the opportunities, real and imagined, seized upon by a rising Black American middle-class at the close of the 1980s. In doing so, Prince situates himself in this conflict, affirming his ties to and love for Black America, and subtly foreshadows his future critiques of American capitalism and how its white-dominated power structure exploits Black aspirations, innovations, and labor.

Robert Loss

Robert Loss is an associate professor in the Writing, Literature, and Philosophy department at the Columbus College of Art and Design. He is the author of Nothing Has Been Done Before: Seeking the New in 21st-Century American Popular Music (Bloomsbury Academic) which includes a chapter on Prince’s later work. His writing about the intersections of culture, politics, and aesthetics in American popular music has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, Cleveland Review of Books, Ghettoblaster, and PopMatters. He has presented at numerous academic conferences including the “Prince from Minneapolis” conference in 2018. His essay “Prince and the Event: August 3, 1983” will appear in the forthcoming anthology from that conference. He lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and their cat.

Nothing Has Been Done Before