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)