For Prince fans around the world, the recent discovery of the singer who spoke on behalf of striking public school teachers in Minneapolis at the age of 11 is an exciting piece of Prince pop cultural iconography. Like his vault of music that has not been released, it is a find that enriches the public’s understanding of who he was and the forces that helped shape his life.
As the author of an upcoming book about the Minneapolis music scene – and the public school system in that city that helped create it – I find the video particularly exciting.
This footage not only provides a glimpse into the early years of Prince Rogers Nelson – or “Skipper” as he was called – but also offers a look at Black North Minneapolis in the 1970s, which is often overlooked despite the fact that it had two. major uprisings between 1965 and 1967 that brought out the National Guard.
Shadowed by scientific focus on the black culture of places like Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Oakland and Detroit, black people in Minneapolis – at least in my experience as a researcher – often look like an afterthought, as they consider at all.
Seeing young Prince in that footage that already displays the iconic smile that fans would get to know and love helps place him in the tapestry of Black people in the Upper Midwest who created life and culture against the backdrop of icy, mostly white cities.
This footage is also striking because it raises an important question: What motivated him to support his teachers?
Minneapolis made music education compulsory
Indeed, it is remarkable to see that any 11-year-old thinks of anyone other than themselves. Self-centeredness and adolescence often go hand in hand.
While it’s tempting to draw a line connecting Prince’s support of striking teachers to the issues he raised in his music, there is not enough evidence from the video – or elsewhere – to justify it. That said, an understanding of the emphasis that public schools in Minneapolis have placed on music may provide better insight into why he spoke.
Prince attended one of the most advanced, and musically supportive, public school systems in American history. It’s a system that has helped not only educate Prince musically, but also super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, funk master Morris Day and R&B singer Alexander O’Neal, as well as indie rock giant Hüsker Dü and the Suicide Commandos.
Created by its chief architect, Thaddeus Paul Giddings, who was appointed superintendent of music education in 1910, the music education curriculum in public schools in Minneapolis was compulsory for the 50,000 students who attended the schools at the time.
All students, K-12, are trained in music notation, voice, instrumentation, posture, breathing and page reading.
“We learn by doing,” Giddings said, according to the 1967 book “Thaddeus P. Giddings: A Biography.” While the commitment to universal music education lost steam as financial support dried up when Prince entered the school system in the early 1960s, the school system still stood out because it was the first in the country to make music education compulsory.
Music was Prince’s favorite subject at school, which gave him the opportunity to learn and play music every day – from primary school.
If you take this into account, it’s easy to see how a shy child can muster the courage to get on camera and support his striking teachers.
Life for secrecy
Finally, this video is significant because it is one of the few unguarded pieces of his life that fans and biographers have ever witnessed.
Prince spent his career turning himself into an enigma. People could never pin him down or find out the truth from fiction. He achieved this by using myths to keep us guessing. Prince brought to the fore the image of himself as a mixed race black man as his character in “Purple Rain,” the 1984 hit movie loosely based on his life as a rising star in Minneapolis. In it he says that his mother was Italian; in real life, Prince’s mother, Mattie Shaw, was Black.
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He used non-disclosure agreements to keep his friendships, employees and co-workers secret – and any transgression meant you never heard from him again. And in 1993, he changed his name to an unspeakable “Love Symbol”, which he used for almost a decade.
Even after his tragic death, fans never stopped wondering who he is. That’s why this footage of him as a little boy stands out as one of the few unprotected and uncured peeks behind the curtain of a life shrouded in mystery.