Is it ever OK for a white Prince tribute band to use blackface?

What’s most interesting about the Hastings Star Gazette story about a band using blackface during a Prince tribute at a Minnesota State Fair grandstand concert earlier this month is it apparently escaped the attention of most everybody but the Hastings Star Gazette.

Where were the fans of local music when the tribute band Hairball performed Purple Rain at the Sept. 1 concert? No articles. No tweets. Nothing.

We repeat: blackface.

“Our fan base loves it, that’s the only reason it’s really in the show,” band member Bobby Jensen tells the Star Gazette’s Jackie Renzetti. “If someone has a problem with it, don’t come to the show. That’s all you gotta do.”

“When you’re portraying a brother, a minority, like Prince, it’s a different story,” Pepé Willie, who served as one of Prince’s earliest mentors and who is black, tells Renzetti. “You have to think before you do something like that. Because people will get offended.”

Except in the Minnesota music scene, perhaps.

How far does a musician have to go to pay tribute to Prince? The song wasn’t enough. Neither was the purple suit worn by the band member. That should’ve been enough to suggest it’s about Prince.

“We want to make you believe it was really Alice Cooper … or whoever we’re impersonating at the time.”

Prince is dead. Prince fans know that. It’s not really Prince.

“We don’t care what Colin Kaepernick does. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll show. From the beginning of the show to the end of the show,” Jensen said. “In the world of theater, men are women; women are men; black people are white; white people are black … In order for him to look like Prince, you’d obviously have to do something.”

“We don’t play the race card,” he added.

Elliott Powell, a professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota, says a musician can do Prince without needing blackface.

“It’s odd in the sense that you don’t need to do blackface in order to do Prince. “It shows a kind of fissure within arena rock in terms of how it’s been constructed. The use of blackface highlights the problem around race within arena rock.”

Amid civil rights protests, disco artists were topping national radio play charts in the ’70s — many of whom were women, queer or people of color. Meanwhile, bands such as ACDC were starting to gain popularity with images based on anti-establishment and masculinity.

“For a lot of people who were upset about disco kind of being this dominant genre … it’s like, ‘What about people in middle America? What about white men?’” Powell said. “So hard rock and arena rock become this kind of side of white masculinity and white working class.”

If disco is constructed as a “soundtrack” for people who were black, women or queer, Powell said, then arena rock could be seen as centered on white, male, heterosexual masculinity.

While rock bands likely weren’t intent on countering disco artists’ success, Powell said, the juxtaposition between the two genres — and between artists who were white and of color in the ’70s and ’80s— is complex. For example, in 1979, the hard rock DJ Steve Dahl led a “Disco Demolition Night” where a giant crate of vinyl albums by people of color — and not just disco artists — were blown up at Chicago’s Comiskey Park baseball stadium.

One multiracial patron at the show told Renzetti it’s not a big deal. It’s not a minstrel show.

“That’s not what this was … We’re not there anymore. We’re here. And so let go of there, and let’s worry about what’s going on now,” she said. “None of us were slaves. Yes, my ancestors were slaves … It was bad then. And this is now.”

“It’s about respect. We respect them and their music. We’re not making fun of them,” Jensen said in a second Star Gazette article.

Renzetti says band members told her that until now, no one had ever challenged their use of blackface.

(h/t: Paul Tosto)

  • Erick

    It is an interesting question, can changing one’s skin color be theatrical make-up or is it always “blackface”? Can Othello be played by an actor who is not black? Given the weight of history I would suggest that race bending should be done only in the context of exploring racial issues. Hairball’s performance may or may not have crossed into being a minstrel show, but it is easy to imagine the casual use of blackface going there.

  • Let me guess – the vast majority of their audience & fan base is white?

    White people don’t get to be the arbiters of what’s offensive to Black people – they don’t have the same context or understanding of why it would be hurtful, harmful, etc. So saying “well we’ve never had a complaint” doesn’t make it right or acceptable.

    It’s offensive. In any form. They should be ashamed. As should the people who are cheering this on.

    • John

      I haven’t ever been to their show, but based on their normal touring circuit (MN county fairs, etc.) and my limited experience with MN county fairs, I’m going to go out on a limb and say, yep – mostly (estimating 99+%) white fan base. (As a white dude who occasionally hangs out with people outside the 494/694 loop, I have seen a lot of ads for their shows). I’d go so far as to say mostly white and mostly over 40, but under 60, and male fan base (though the 99% number certainly isn’t true with that many qualifiers).

      As for the rest of it, not that you need me to, but I’m inclined to agree. Nobody gets to define what’s offensive to another gender/religious/racial group.

    • Barton

      There is nothing else that needs to be said after this. Jubilance’s comment says it all.

    • Guest

      Not this case specifically but in general WHICH Blacks get to be the arbiter of what’s offensive to Black people?

      Seriously, is it all each person’s estimation of where the majority view is within the Black community? How do we respect not every Black speaks for all Blacks?

      Repeat for many issues of the day for many groups. I feel the vote is falling to the loudest voice. Thoughts?

      • Rob

        Seriously?

      • RBHolb

        You seem to be saying that, unless there is unanimity, we shouldn’t be too worried about offending anyone.

        In other words, it’s permission to offend.

        • Guest

          I am saying one person offended is one person. No single person speaks for the whole group.

          Get society to agree with your offense and things happen to cause improvement. You don’t need unanimity, but certainly a majority would change things.

          Many different views on “offensive to Blacks” within the Black community.

      • lindblomeagles

        Hi Guest. Thanks for the question. Um, there’s actually 3 – 4 problems here that bear mentioning. 1) Whites, as a group, have always defined people of color FOR whites AND people of color, WITHOUT ever asking people of color. For example, Trump labeled Mexicans drug dealers, rapists, and murderers, even though there are plenty of white people who rape, murder, and deal drugs. Since the days of slavery, there HAS ALWAYS BEEN some musical white group dressing up in Black Face. Regardless of what the band says they are doing, they LEARNED from each successive white generation that this is the way white people should define Black men. The band in this story doesn’t know better because (2) White people, as a group, don’t take people of color history seriously, even when the people of color are American citizens. Many don’t read it at all, and even fewer white educators teach it. You have to understand, Black Face really is no different then placing a feather headdress over an Indian head, adding war paint to the face, then hooping and hollering around to allegedly show reverence for “Indian strength or military tactics.” Which takes me to point number (3) In situations like this, white peoples’ “respect” really isn’t respect to the people of color. What really would have been respectfully is to SAY SOMETHING WONDERFUL about Prince and his music; invite a member of his band onstage to perform with you; or promote another concert in town celebrating the life and times of “Prince.” Dressing up in Black Face while telling a crowd of white people, “Hey, let’s give up for Prince,” simply teaches other white people that black face is respect when the reality is the opposite. I liken it to two white friends telling racist jokes about black people, only to end their conversation with, “but I’m not prejudice or racist.” People of color, Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans, want action from whites, not symbolism from whites — a message people of color have told whites for decades. Some whites, like the members of this band, are (4) basically saying, “Don’t tell me how to respect people of color. I want to do it the white way.” These are the issues here.

        • Guest

          “Don’t tell me how to respect people of color. I want to do it the white way.” = = = thoughtful points.

          I would add because whites don’t see team mascots in silly Vikings costumes as disrespect, we are tone-deaf to how others perceive headbands, war-whoops, confederate flags etc. Kneeling is the closest to whites taking offense I can recall.

    • lindblomeagles

      Jubilance is right, and I really wish Americans would read their own history about the United States of America. Practically all Americans seem to stop caring about U.S. History right after 1776. Black Face is so old, it is ancient, having been around at the birth of slavery, the birth of Jim Crow, and the birth of Civil Rights. It literally isn’t any different than assuming all Hispanics are illegal Mexican immigrants, or that every Native American should wear a crown of Indian feathers on their head, or that a Far East Asian should be super smart. But far worse than maintaining these awful symbols and theology alive is the rant the band went on AFTER somebody told them their black face was offensive. The band figuratively said, “I don’t want to give reverence to Prince in the African American way. I want to give that respect to him in the White way. It recalls to mind the stance around the American Flag when several white people preferred (and expected) African American athletes to revere everything the flag stands for in the “white way.” How are we supposed to come together as a nation if the only people defining the nation and how its members are supposed to respond are all white people?” That’s the question that should have been put to this band.

  • Rob

    Wow. Al Jolson is among us again. And please don’t tell me that these chuckleheads added insult to injury by performing “Controversy” as one of their Prince covers.

  • Gary F

    I can’t get into the story, the link has some firewall blockage.

    1. Why no outrage for the many times they’ve done this before?
    2. Why no outrage from just about every Minnesota media outlet who was at the State Fair?

  • Ben Chorn

    “We don’t care what Colin Kaepernick does. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll show. From the beginning of the show to the end of the show,” Jensen said.

    This seems so out of place because I thought Kaepernick was only doing what he does to disrespect veterans.

    • Jerry

      The fact that felt the need to include him tells me what they really think.

      • Erik Petersen

        I wouldn’t assume that this musician brought up Kaepernick on his own. It very well could have been the reporter framing his question.

        • Jackie Renzetti

          Hi! Reporter Jackie Renzetti here. I’ve had a few people ask me about this and I believe that journalists need to be transparent about their work with readers. So, I wanted to add the clarification that he brought this up entirely on his own. All of what he said regarding that is included in the story. I understand how it may seem random, but this is the full context of what he said: “We don’t care what Colin Kaepernick does. We’re a rock and roll show. From the beginning of the show to the end of the show.”

          From his tone, I took his statement to mean the political issues of the outside world don’t matter during his show — in his view.

          • 212944

            Thank you for adding background and details.

          • Erik Petersen

            cool

          • Erik Petersen

            I am totally pro Colin Kaepernick, by the way. Cuz I’m so very, very woke.

    • RationalThought

      He doesn’t do it to disrespect veterans. He does it to call out injustice in a peaceful way – and frankly, kneeling during something is not anywhere close to the level of disrespect people can show.

      • Guest

        EXACTLY, reading disrespect into his kneeling is not intended. Some are offended regarding vets, some are not.

      • Ben Chorn

        It was sarcasm.

  • 212944

    To answer the question in headline …. no.

    Never.

  • Erik Petersen

    The band explained themselves. They are not mocking Prince or mimicking him as a minstrel act. They are merely going for granular detail in their impersonation. They ought to be taken at their word. Golly, any musician of any skill from low to pro reveres Prince.

    Another place where they went for granular detail in their impersonation is their choice of Prince guitar…they used a tele resembling Prince’s Hohner Madcat rather than one of the cloud guitars. That’s a detail for an advanced eye, the lay Prince fan probably would have expected a cloud guitar (… had they contemplated it at all). Its just to say obviously the band is thinking in terms of granular detail.

    • Jerry

      It’s still racist

      • Erik Petersen

        How. How does it argue for white superiority and the oppression of racial minorities.

        No, its not. Its a rock show done by artists who like Prince, done in a way quite reverently.

        • crystals

          Artists who are not black, and are never going to be black and experience blackness in a way that you can’t when you are able to wipe off your makeup at the end of the night and go back to being white.

          If they revere Prince so much, they would respect his blackness – and realize that as white people, that would include never not ever performing in blackface.

          • Erik Petersen

            This band and its singer are not trying to experience blackness, and they are not obligated to in that moment. They are trying to do a persuasive, homage worthy imitation of Prince.

            Everyone should be quite comfortable in the assumption they do revere Prince. I don’t buy that that’s obvious or set in stone at all the they have to stay in certain lanes as they revere and pay homage to Prince.

        • Jerry

          In black face

          • Erik Petersen

            That’s another thing….

            That ain’t ‘blackface’. Its a little make-up. ‘Blackface’ is a racially charged notion by definition, I would grant. And this ain’t that.

            People who like to make a certain kind of virtue signal are deliberately distorting this so that they can have a cow.

          • Jerry

            You don’t get to tell other people what they can find offensive.

          • Guest

            You just get to set back and watch how many agree / disagree with your view.

          • crystals

            How do you define blackface, Erik?

          • Erik Petersen

            I’ll stand on a notion that its a tarry dark type make-up used to do an implicitly insulting or explicitly insulting caricature of a black person

          • crystals

            That’s a super convenient definition for white people.

          • Erik Petersen

            Where am I off, go ahead and provide another

          • crystals

            Well, if you google “definition of blackface” the google dictionary result is literally – word for word – “the makeup used by a nonblack performer playing a black role.”

            If you don’t like that one, here’s Merriam Webster’s entry: “makeup applied to a performer playing a black person especially in a minstrel show.”

            And no, the word “especially” does not negate all the words that come before it. Note that neither of these definitions talks about the darkness of the makeup (I mean, that’s a whole other conversation about how you’re categorizing shades of blackness) or whether the intent is to insult a black person.

          • Erik Petersen

            Yes, and ‘minstrel show’ speaks to a certain kind of somewhat antebellum racist artifact caricature performance, of the exact type I was speaking when when I said implicitly or explicitly insulting.

            You asked for a a definition, I gave you a perfectly good definition. And Hairball inst’t doing racist blackface.

          • crystals

            You gave a perfectly good definition for you, who doesn’t believe that this is blackface. The two definitions I just gave you, upon your request, were not written by me and do not include the specificity in your definition that you are repeating yet again to justify your belief.

            Have a nice day!

          • Guest

            Most DO include “intent to insult” as a large part of why it is wrong. It is still offensive regardless of intent, sure, but less outrage.

            I am sure many natives of England are offended when non-English (think American) actors put on an “English” accent to portray a butler.

            Some feel a white girl with an Indian Princess Halloween costume is offensive, their call……for them.

            I have no call to say your offense is incorrect.

    • Rob

      You want granular? Refer to Jerry’s post above.

    • X.A. Smith

      It’s just that you can get a copy Madcat for $149, while a cloud guitar is gonna run you at least $1000.

      • Erik Petersen

        If the picture is any indication, he’s not gigging with one of the $150 Madcat Chinese copies (which are probably not gig worthy). He’s gigging with say a blonde G&L tele with a tortoise shell pickguard, this superficially resembling a Madcat. He’s probably got $1k into that, maybe something less.

        • Guest

          I can have an opinion about blackface = insult. However, I sure do defer to those who know guitars way more than myself.

        • X.A. Smith

          Now that I’ve looked closely at the photo, it’s a Mexican made Fender Tele, so about $500, plus the custom pickups.

  • Jerry

    It’s the year 2018 right? Not 1918? I would think this would be settled by now.

    If it so important for Prince to be dark skinned in the show, maybe consider hiring a black person to perform his role.

    • Guest

      Can a gay pay a rock tribute to a straight and vice-versa, is it only skin-color that demands hiring an “authentic” member of the honored group?

      • Jerry

        “A gay”?

        Only if being that color is a requirement, as apparently it is to the members of this band. Otherwise they wouldn’t be in black face. I am not saying you have to be black perform Princes songs, you just shouldn’t be in black face.

        • Guest

          Valid point, I was thinking of the whole portrayal of “different”. See John Wayne as a Mongol in movies.

          • Jerry

            Yeah John Wayne. That’s the actor that comes to mind when I think of a chameleon-like ability to assume roles. John Wayne was really good at playing “John Wayne”.

          • Guest

            So not a Johnny Depp 🙂

      • RationalThought

        No…the only way it would be comparable would be if “a gay” (by the way, what?!) had sex with someone of the opposite sex on stage just because the person they are “honoring” was straight… point is, some things are not necessary in order to honor someone. If you honor their music, play their music. Don’t use blackface.

        • Guest

          good points, thank you

          • RationalThought

            🙂

  • Erik Petersen

    Besides the outrage mob virtue signaling, I cant help but observe there’s some undo snobbery here on this thread about the kind of act this is. Even though its an act of quite elaborate performance craftsmanship that provides an adult living for the musicians and their support staff. But never mind that, its ‘too white and too hick’ say, must be racist b/c these hicks are obviously racist. Very circular.

    And the the singer can do say Dee Snider in his act, and do him with a wig and makeup and an outfit. But doing Prince in a wig and makeup and an outfit is off limits, because the makeup is ‘blackface’. But the wig is alright, draws no complaints, even though its also an impersonation of a certain African American style (… the curls).

    This is a contrivance, and these guys are not obligated to be shamed by this stupidity.

    • Jerry

      Now there is some fake outrage.

      Nobody has said anything about class. Nobody has said they shouldn’t be able to perform. Just don’t use blackface. It’s really very simple.

      • Erik Petersen

        It isnt blackface. Its really simple

        • RationalThought

          Keep your head in the sand, that’s fine

          • Erik Petersen

            It isn’t. I’m super woke, you’d be shocked, I suppose. But I don’t care about things not worth caring about and think its good advice to everyone.

          • RationalThought

            Sorry, but anyone who says “I’m super woke” isn’t. Kind of like if you said “I am super cool” …I, and many others, will think you are the opposite as well. Perpetuating blackface, which it is by definition as someone pointed out to you elsewhere in this section but you choose to disregard, is something people should care about.

          • Rob

            I have no doubt that you are, like, a very stable and super woke genius.

          • Erik Petersen

            Ha! Well see, I’m not a Trump voter.

        • Jerry

          You keep saying that. It’s someone not black putting on make up to appear black. That’s blackface. Al Jolson probably thought he was doing a repectful depiction of a jazz singer. Still blackface.

        • Rob

          3,000 people did not die from Hurricane Maria. It’s really simple.

    • crystals

      No one on here has said “too white and too hick,” so far as I can tell, so please don’t try to imply otherwise.

      That you are unable to see the difference between a white person putting on black makeup and a white person putting on a curly white wig, all the while continuing to challenge the dictionary’s definition of blackface because it doesn’t meet your own, is an entirely separate issue.

      • Even if you intend nothing but respect, you gotta be pretty clueless as a white person to put blackface on to imitate a black musician and not have an alarm bell going off somewhere in your head that says, “yeah, maybe this isn’t a good idea.”

        That an alarm bell DOESN’T go off pretty much signals a problem of the capacity to understand certain things that non-white people understand.

        As for white people purporting to somehow be the ones to give permission for people of color to be offended, well, that’s pretty much the problem.

        • Erik Petersen

          Again Bob, I think “blackface” is a stretch, and these guys are not obligated to be shamed in their efforts to do a pro homage show in the manner they do it, because they aren’t engaging in malevolence. Go ahead, be offended, but they aren’t trying to insult anyone and they aren’t obligated to be shamed.

          Its also to say, the working world isn’t obligated to walk around and keep track of the culture war, and aren’t obligated to be shamed over one of the culture war’s new, small pieties should they cross it.

          I’ll further say, I was around in 84, a teenager, when Prince became a superstar. Having a Prince cassette tape handy was like having audio underwear remover for whatever girl you would have liked to try and feel up such that you got into a consensual position to do that. And what they all swooned over was his look, the entire holistic of it, which included him being black. Such that you have a bunch of 50 year old women going to this Hairball 80’s tribute show now, its really sensible that all they are trying to do is artfully represent that look that made them all swoon.

          • As I said, you have to be clueless to put black goop on your face to impersonate an African American in 2018 and not see the possibility of trouble. I’m sorry, you just DO.

          • Erik Petersen

            Most people are not walking around in life having incorporated an additional step of anticipating how an MPR listening social justice warrior would be offended by whatever they are doing.

            At one point, they decided to do Prince in their act, and constructed a Prince costume to do it. They obviously felt some powdered makeup sells it a bit. Not ‘goop’, which is a gross mischaracterization on your part.

          • /// Most people are not walking around in life having incorporated an additional step of anticipating how an MPR listening social justice warrior would be offended.

            That’s just a pathetic cheap shot intended to distract from an indefensible position. If you don’t understand what the problem is, there’s a pretty fair chance you don’t understand what most decent people think.

          • Erik Petersen

            Its not a cheap shot. If I haven’t said it this succinctly, I argue that to feel offended, your positioning on this has to be very academic and esoteric, and not reflective of the broader practical world.

            I like MPR a lot Bob, but its a bit of an enclave.

          • The mistake you’re making is the assumption that people who see the inherent problem of white artists painting their faces black to evoke a black singer are the ones in the enclave. It’s that arrogance that is the nuclear fuel rods of white privilege.

            No one is saying you have to agree that it is problematic — and it obviously wouldn’t matter if they did — but the failure of a white person in 2018 to see why it might be problematic to people of color — or even to concede that there might be a legitimate perspective other than the dominant white perspective — is horrifyingly myopic and insular.

          • Anyway, this is pretty much what this conversation sounds like

            https://twitter.com/lachlan/status/1040022715808264193

          • Rob

            Where to begin? Sounds like you’re saying that if you were on the dating scene today, you’d put on a Prince tune and dress like hiim, including blackface, in hopes of getting lucky with your lady friend.

          • Erik Petersen

            not what I said at all, and that cant be properly inferred from what I said

    • Rob

      An autographed Twisted Sister poster has pride of place on my living room wall, so don’t hector me about classism.

      • X.A. Smith

        We’re not gonna take it anymore!

  • Kellpa07

    What about the wigs that recreate African American hair? Are artists allowed that?