Andre Cymone Talks About '1969,' Growing Up Black in Minneapolis and the One Thing I Wanted to Know about Prince (Part 1)

Andre Cymone Talks About '1969,' Growing Up Black in Minneapolis and the One Thing I Wanted to Know about Prince (Part 1)
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Image courtesy of Katherine Copeland-Anderson

Since his passing in 2016, people have been trying to make sense of the phenomenon that was Prince. Some have been trying to make sense of that degree of talent emerging from one person, others have been trying to understand the man. I am of the firm belief that he is best understood when you know the people he surrounded himself with, especially in the early years because those formative interactions shaped his music and work ethic most. There are so many untold stories, so fascinating, that for me the real interest has not been learning more about Prince, but seeing his collaborators as people and artists in their own right, especially those who have sought to carve out an identity and legacy that is uniquely their own.

If you know anything about Prince’s early years, you know how central Andre Anderson, who took the stage name Andre Cymone in the 1970s, and the entire Anderson family was to his development. Prince lived with Andre’s family. They grew up together and played in a band together, as did their fathers. Apart from Prince, Andre has had his own music career writing and performing his own music and producing for other artists like Jody Watley, whose first solo album he co-produced, yielded a win at the 1988 Grammys for Watley in the Best New Artist category. He’s also written songs for Pebbles, Adam Ant and a host of other artists whose sounds were as varied and eclectic as his own.

Andre Cymone’s latest album, 1969, has been described as “unflinching realism... insightfully addressing issues of racial and economic inequality.” Rolling Stone said, “1969 chugs with the crunch of Lenny Kravitz and the revolution-rock of Sly Stone.” Pop Matters compared 1969 to the work of soul legends, saying, “Like [Curtis] Mayfield, [James] Brown, [Chuck] Berry, he’s proven himself a man and an artist with convictions that step out of the speakers and into our lives.”

I spoke with Andre Cymone a few days ago in his last interview of 2017 about 1969, growing up Black in Minneapolis, social activism and, of course, music. While Prince did come up, the friendship wasn’t the focus of this interview for two reasons: 1) Andre is a talent and legend in the creation of the Minneapolis Sound, himself; 2) When you hear and understand the values Andre was raised with and the community that he grew up in, you understand the same about Prince, Morris Day, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as they all grew up in what was a very small community of Black people at the same time that ultimately became part of American music history. Even more important, is their contribution to a part of Black history that is relatively unknown. In fact, I really only asked one pointed Prince question and that was near the end of our talk because if you were born in the mid to late 1970s when they were coming of age, once you know more about their background and why Andre was inspired to do an album like 1969, it really is the only thing left to ask about Prince and it explains a whole lot!

Because Andre Cymone and I had such an intricate discussion that covered so many really deep issues and lasted nearly two hours, I have divided it into two parts. Here’s the first:

Image courtesy of Andre Cymone

Aisha: Hi, Andre

Andre: Hi!

Aisha: Can I call you Dre?

Andre: You can definitely call me Dre, ‘cause that’s what everybody else calls me.

Aisha: Good. I’ve been doing my research. I actually listened to 1969 and I have a ton of questions. My main focus really isn’t going to be Prince. I'm going to ask you questions at the end, I think that it’s only one or two, but that's because I think in order to understand him and who he was as a person, particularly his early life, you gotta understand the environment he grew up in and that was your environment, too.

Dre: Oh yeah! Definitely.

Aisha: I also don’t think you get enough credit for your own work, people don’t realize that he produced that Jody Watley album that I loved so much in ‘87.

Dre: [laughs] Yeah, people don’t— people have— I don’t know what people have in their heads. But you know, I don’t know if I’m doing it enough or not, the self-promotion. I'm not a big self promotion kind of person, I have done a lot and I realize a lot of people don't know about the TV stuff or the movie stuff. But I don’t go out saying, ‘I’ve had this hit and I’ve had that hit.’ I just don’t do that.

Aisha: Right. So the first thing I want to ask you about is about your growing up, because it came to me when I was writing a piece on Michael Dean’’s Prince Podcast and I listened to his first podcast with you and then the podcast about being Black in Minneapolis. Just a little background, I do still live here, but I grew up in Connecticut. So, growing up Black in Connecticut is like saying you’re a Black person growing up in Minnesota.

Dre: Right.

Aisha: The population is very small when it comes to radio. We didn't have an R&B full-time FM station when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, we had a part-time one owned by Yale and my dad was a DJ there at one point, but we listened to other stations that didn’t cater to us. So, I totally get it and that’s why my musical tastes are very eclectic. But what I did find very impressive was reading about your mother, Bernadette Anderson, not just her political activism but the fact that she moved six kids out of the projects, was going to school college, working full-time, took in a seventh kid. What kind of values did she instill in you that obviously would have affected Prince, but filtered into the music that you made because it had to have an impact on the reason why you made this album 1969?

Dre: There's several things, and that's a really good question because my mother played such a huge part in [inspiring] all of us. For one, the school ethic and it was really more so for Prince than for me, at the time, because part of the deal with him even staying there was he had to get good grades, you know. So he was really focused because it was mandatory for him to bring good grades or he would probably get sent back to his mom's house and that's what he didn't want. I mean there's a lot of stuff that people have no idea; just the reality of what it was like back then for him. I've realized that now that he's gone, it’s just open season on that reality because he's not going to say anything. But I just think how the reality affected the music.

Another thing was having all those siblings with all the different kind of— each and every one of them had a completely different musical collection. Obviously being the youngest, and by the time it really trickled down they had all gone in different directions, one went to the army, one went to jail and my sister went overseas to study art and fashion, but they left behind the music collections. Then, of course, I had my mother and father. So, I just had a lot to choose from that obviously when Prince and other band members came around, there was just this plethora of music to get into, to choose from, to listen to and when you're really into music like that, you just absorb it all. When you have a band and you’re looking for stuff to play, it's like how about this, let’s play this and because I had a very familiar knowledge of the abstract stuff out there, I was like let's do something like this and we would learn it, or jam on it, or whatever. And you’re so right, also, that the small Black population existing in Minneapolis, and Connecticut, the same thing I’m sure, we had the same thing. We had one little old radio station, KUXL, first, and then it was KMOJ. You know that was a big deal for us back then, a very, very big deal. It played a very large part, I think, in our development as a band and as a culture at the time.

Aisha: I don't think people really understand this and get this [part of the history]: your mother had this name around Minneapolis, “Queen Bernie,” she really was like a mother to the neighborhood and the kids in that area. I understand what that’s like my mother, she just retired but she was a teacher for 45 years so all her kids, all her students, we’re coming in and out of the house and you know she really mentored to people and that's something that I've heard and I’ve read a lot of people have said about your mom, that she really was a community mother. The community mother is very important in the Black community.

Dre: Oh, yes.

Aisha: What was that like having all these different people you know coming around and how did it influence your musical tastes?

Image courtesy of The Current

Dre: Well, you know when you think about the saying, ‘it takes a village,’ and you can relate to that— your mom was 45 years in school you know the figure, you know it's so true especially the Black community— it does take a village and my mother, she was a strong, Black woman, she didn't take no stuff from nobody. She was raising all these hard-headed behind kids, you know, and she had to keep them all alive which she did the best she could do. She was mentoring and she had a teen pregnancy program, she did everything. I think how it affected me as as a musician and my music, firsthand, the personal [impact of] all the effects of what was going on in politics and how it trickled down to the Black community or that this country has really, really tried to keep black people down. I mean that in every sense.

When they finally had to integrate, begrudgingly, because obviously we fought it everyday, people died for us to be able to integrate. People think that was the end of racism, but, no, that was the beginning. What was racism before that? It was just out there, then it had to go underground, which made it even worse. What they did then was, they took away all the programs to the communities that people like myself, Prince, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, that we all benefited from because we were in them. This was how we started our band— in a music program, but they systematically took that away. They took arts away and then they were like, ‘Okay, well, we're taking them all away and we're putting all that money and all that funding into the suburbs’ schools; they just gutted our schools, our programs and what they left us with was fighting and anger.

I saw my mom fighting the systematic degradation of the Black family. They stopped giving jobs to men [in our community]. You had that whole breakdown because Black men couldn't get jobs and were completely being systematically broke down on all sorts of other levels which in Minneapolis, where it was supposed to be protect and serve, it then became control and contain. You got a degradation from all sides. And I'm feeling it because in my household, I had a brother that came home from the army, was trying to get a job and he couldn't. So he wound up hustling and I'm younger, watching my brother hustling. Then my other brother went to prison, on an issue related to the police system, so he couldn’t get a job and then he's got to hustle. I'm here watching both my brothers hustling and my mom is trying to keep me from going there because I'm starting to get into stuff and doing things that I shouldn't be doing and she sees that. She's trying to keep me focused, and all of that comes through in my music and even more so now than before because I see that there's no real change. Were fighting the same things.

In fact, it’s become exacerbated, maybe worse than it was then because you see such apathy in the Black community. In a lot of ways they [Black youth] haven't realized what this battle was fought and won for. They just think that it was a fight— we fought it, and we won, now we get to just forget about the system— no, no, no, we can’t do that. We fought and won this position to be able to use the system to our best advantage and that's one of the many things that I try to speak about.

Aisha: You mentioned integration and I grew up with a dad spent a lot of time with the Black Panthers when he was younger, we were raised Muslim until I was 12. When you talk about integration, many older generation Black folks feel integration was actually one of the worst things to happen to Black people because when we didn’t have access to those things, we had to create our own. So you're talking about them saying, ‘Well kids can go to school together, they have to by law,’ but that didn't necessarily change attitudes or how teachers treated our children; just because they had to do it didn't mean they had to like it, right?

Dre: And they didn't and it was obvious.

Aisha: So what was that like for you? Because we're basically a generation or so apart.

Dre: Okay.

Aisha: What was that like for you?

Dre: You know for the most part, it was pretty seamless and at least it seemed that way from a kid's perspective. My parents, I think they did everything they could— my father was very, very old fashioned. He was born and raised in a very rural area, basically a farm, in northern Minnesota. He brought that mentality with him and I was raised with that mentality. I played hockey, did ice skating. My dad didn't want me to fall into all the typical sort of black cultural things that were of the moment, he really kind of tried to steer me in another direction and I didn't even realize it; I just knew that he didn't want me talking any street vernacular at all and if I did, I’d get my ass whooped, period! He didn't want me playing basketball. He didn't think basketball was really something that was moving the Black culture in a positive direction which, obviously, I disagree. But at the time, I didn't even know all the things that he was doing and so he really wanted me to be the first Black pro-hockey player because I was really good at ice skating and hockey. He was just pushing me toward all that kind of stuff. From that standpoint, it was a very, very one dimensional kind of approach that he seemed to be taking.

Aisha: I mentioned that just a few minutes ago that we're a generation apart, so my growing up, I grew up during the golden era of hip hop. So all of that going down, gang violence and people would never think it, but during the 90s in New Haven, right where Yale is, it was, I think, number three of the most deadly mid-sized cities in U.S. when it came to gun violence, it still is. I remember what it was like going to school every day and not knowing if boys that I saw the day before would be at school the next. Sometimes they weren’t and you read about their fates in the paper you got in homeroom that morning. That definitely had an impact on my creativity as a writer. Take me back to the 1970s. What was going on then? What was going on the 1970s that had an impact on your creativity and what from that do we see on 1969?

Dre: Well, this is how I look at it and how I write about it because I'm always writing, little makeshift memoirs and all that other kind of stories and stuff, but after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, after the civil rights movement and getting the right to vote and all the different things that we fought and died for, Malcolm X— all those people and the different things happening in the 70s, there was like a rebirth in the Black community and of the Black identity. That's what was going on when I was a kid. And the music reflected it. The music that was going on absolutely reflected that rebirth. I mean we went from Black people being called and calling themselves Negroes to saying ‘Oh hell no, you don't call me no Negro, I’m a Black man.’ You had a complete transformation.

That's when freedom and identity was at the forefront for everybody. It was just a complete turnaround of a culture. Now, there was always gang violence, everywhere you went. From our lives in the projects, obviously, to when I moved into sort of what they considered the upper middle class Black neighborhood. There were other groups there that were more underground. Organizations that were sort of offshoots of the Black Panthers that were teaching young Black kids in the neighborhood how to survive. The gang culture was still there in the background. I mean, I've been shot at. I've seen people shot literally right next to me. From that standpoint, then it was really kind of like the world was bursting at the seams, especially when it came to Black culture.

At the time, the beauty in all of that— there was a lot of tragedy but there was a lot of beauty— because music had power back then. People like Stevie Wonder were singing songs that just were— that was my religion. I lived through the lyrics to a lot of his music and a lot of Marvin Gaye's music and a lot of Curtis Mayfield’s music. That was church for me, you know. So when you walked the streets [back then] that was the soundtrack and obviously it was a lot of the music that I listened to and that we played as a band. It was just such an amazing time. Then you add a of sprinkle Bob Marley and some of the artists that were from different parts of the world, you had Osibisa, which was different and you had African groups that were just starting to really create an ambiance, there was a whole thing that was reaching out beyond just America, from my little community. I was asked— I had done an interview a few weeks back— and the guy was kind of minimizing the Black community in Minnesota, so you can probably identify because he was saying, ‘well it can't be that bad, there was only a few black people there.’ What people who say stuff like that don't realize is yeah okay, in comparison to the larger population, but when you live in the Black community it's 100 percent Black.

Aisha: Yes, exactly!

Dre: That’s what our community was because they corral you by any means necessary, they corralled all the Blacks to live in one community. If it’s in Minneapolis, there’s a Black community in Minneapolis and it's pretty much 90 percent plus Black, and then if it’s in St. Paul it’s the same thing, over in the south, it’s the same thing and those are the communities that you drift in and out of. Like I said earlier, ‘where it was protect and serve it became control and contain,’ so if you drifted out of those Black communities, you got followed. If you did any little thing, you got pulled over and then you got hassled. It's no different now than it was then, except now, I think that it’s even worse.

Image courtesy of Okay Player

Aisha: When I was doing preliminary research I knew you and I were going to talk about some of these things. I learned that the population of Black people in Minnesota is larger than the population of Black people in Connecticut. We have our largest [populations] basically in three cities, one of them happens be New Haven, where Yale is. Back in the day, on three sides, it was surrounded by housing projects, they called it ‘urban renewal,’ yet people don't know that.

Dre: Wow!

Aisha: Yeah! So I want to ask you this. I think I get the significance of it, I'm going to tell you what my interpretation is, but then I’m gonna ask you whythe album is called 1969: I thought of it as being pretty much the end of a decade of massive change but also a new beginning. In 1968, you had the deaththe murder of Martin Luther King, Vietnam was what it was, then you had people talking about things like poverty and justice, but you also had music, particularly Black music, that had this sense of hope, but really focused on the issues. You also had, what most people don't recognize is really the birth of Hip-Hop, with the Last Poets record coming out in the end of 1968.

Dre: You are spot on with that! Go on...

Aisha: So that’s what I took it to mean because 1969 was the difference between that end of an era of the 60s and the start of the 70s is this massive change. Like a lot of people that worked with Marvin Gaye, the women who did the background vocals, the Andantes, and people who played on that album say he could not have done that album [What’s Going On] in 1968. He could not have done that in ‘69 because people weren't ready for it.

Dre: Right.

Aisha: So why did you name the album 1969? Is it because it's not the start of a new decade like 1970, but it's kind of on that precipice of recognizing the significance of old, but looking to the hope and promise of the new in this year of transition?

You can read the answer to this question and the rest of my interview with Andre Cymone in Part 2 which will post on Saturday, December 30th.

You can listen to 1969 and purchase the entire album here.

Listen to Black Man from 1969 by Andre Cymone below:

Credit: Transcription courtesy of Jourdan Brown

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