Deconstruction: Work and Racial Capitalism in The Rainbow Children (And Yes, We'll Be Talking About "Avalanche")

“Capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.” —Ruth Wilson Gilmore

What is “the work”? From the beginning of his career, Prince advocated for the liberation of the oppressed, including the Black American working class that raised him. Work as a motif in Prince’s songs was sometimes limited to the doldrums of a part-time job at a five-and-dime, but more often, especially as a trait of performance and ethos, it was positive, progressive, and constructive. However, as I argued at last year’s symposium, in the early 1990s Prince began to more fully understand himself as a historical subject—that is, subject to and subjugated by the predations of systemic White supremacy and capitalism’s exploitation of Black labor. The consequences of this understanding were never just about his own situation with Warner Bros., and after he emancipated himself from the label, his critique of what Cedric Robinson termed “racial capitalism” continued to evolve.

And so: The Rainbow Children…and “Avalanche.” In the first years of the new millennium, deeply inspired by a spiritual rebirth, and reinvigorated by jazz, Prince questioned history to envision a better future. Compellingly, The Rainbow Children‘s narrative situates “the work” as a necessary deconstruction. Oppressed people are born into structures of racial capitalism and mediated history—the “Digital Garden”—built through the exploitation of their ancestors. For the sake of the pluralistic, free, and equitable future he’d always imagined, Prince dramatizes here that labor must be redirected toward the dismantling of these structures and the so-called knowledge that enshrines them. Responding with Black liberation theology, Prince examines contemporary media in “The Work Pt. 1” and slavery’s legacy in “Family Name.” But perhaps his most pointed deconstruction occurs on “Avalanche,” a ballad recorded for One Nite Alone while The Rainbow Children was being mastered and usually performed every night before “Family Name” on the 2002 ONA Tour. Fusing history, politics, and the music business, Prince again shows that the mythically natural disaster of racial capitalism is, in fact, socially constructed. Who, he asks, will take the responsibility for it? Who will be willing to do the work?

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 essay “How the Exodus Began: Prince and the Black Working Class Imagination” appeared in a recent special Prince issue of Black Magnolias Literary Journal. He has presented at numerous academic conferences, including last year’s Prince #DM40GB30 Virtual Symposium. A member of the band Blind Engineer, he lives in Columbus, Ohio. He’s hard at work researching and writing a book about Prince.
Nothing Has Been Done Before