Local Current Blog

Andre Cymone reflects on growing up in the ’60s, premieres new song ‘Black Lives Matter’

Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR

Fresh off performing with the Revolution at their three sold-out First Avenue reunion shows and stopping by to record a session for the Local Show at the Minnesota State Fair, André Cymone will release a new four-song EP titled Black Man in America this Friday, September 30. Careful listeners of the Local Show may already be familiar with two of the album’s songs, the rousing title track and fiery “Hot Night in the NeighBrohood.”

Cymone lives in L.A. these days, but much of the content on Black Man in America was inspired by events in the Twin Cities, where he came of age on the North Side of Minneapolis in the 1970s and where he formed his first band with Prince, Grand Central.

Reflecting on the title track of the EP, Cymone says it was “inspired by a close friend from my hometown of Minneapolis who, while waiting for a city bus, was assaulted by the police, handcuffed, tasered and beaten. I was moved to write ‘Black Lives Matter’ by seeing all races and cultures coming together to stand up for each other; and particularly in this case, seeing whites and Asians stepping up and taking it to the streets with signs reading ‘Black Lives Matter.’”

Stream “Black Lives Matter” for the first time here, and read more of André’s thoughts below. While chatting with him at the Minnesota State Fair, we talked about how he met Prince, forming their first band, and how the political climate of the late 1960s and 1970s continues to influence his work today.

Andrea Swensson: You’ve told me this story before, but I love it so much. Can you tell me about the first time you met Prince?

André Cymone: It’s one of those kind of things that I really can’t forget. Our family moved from one part of town to another part of town, so I had to start a whole new junior high school. And I didn’t know anybody there.The way they do it, you’re in the gymnasium, and they give you your classes, where you gotta go, where you gotta be, your homeroom, all that kind of stuff, and after he says that he says, “Ok, go stand against the wall, Anderson.” So I’m like, “Ok.” So I look and there’s a wall of guys, and I didn’t know anybody. They’re all strangers.

I just looked around this whole lineup of people, and I looked, and I looked, and I tried to see if there was a friendly face. And I finally saw this one guy standing there, he kind of reminded me a little bit of myself. And I thought, well, maybe I’ll go stand next to that guy. So I go stand next to him and I go, “Hey, how you doing, I’m André.” And he said, “I’m Prince.” I said, “Oh, Prince, ok. What do you do?” He said, “I play music.” I said, “Oh! So do I! Wow. Are you any good?” And he said, “Yeah, I think so.” And I said, “Yeah, well so am I.” And he said, “Well, let’s see. Let’s go jam.” So we went and jammed. He played the piano, it was at his dad’s house. He played “Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and he had a little four-string acoustic guitar, so I played bass, and we just started jamming. And we said, “Let’s start a band.” So we started a band, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What did Grand Central sound like?

The interesting thing is, I still have a lot of our demo tapes. I still have a lot of our performance tapes, from when we played at little gigs like — I mean, we played at the Fair, we played everywhere. My mom would have us playing anywhere. We’d play in the backyard. She’d have a bunch of friends over for card parties, we’d play anywhere. So if you can imagine — because, you know, Prince became a very big superstar — but my mom would just say, “I don’t care what you guys are doing, you guys are going to have to come down to the Elks and we need a band, so you guys are going to play.”

But what we sounded like? I guess we sounded like a lot of the bands of the time, like Earth, Wind & Fire. We did a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, like Grand Funk Railroad. And Chicago. We did a lot of funk, Ohio Players, we did some Jimi Hendrix. And I think that had a lot to do with our music, and what they call the Minneapolis Sound. Growing up in Minneapolis, the radio is amazing, because at the time they just played really good rock. They didn’t play very much R&B at all, you know, KMOJ, you could hardly get that. But they played really amazing rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, at the time, we were broke, so it wasn’t like you could run out and get records at will, so when you heard it, you’d literally record it off the radio. Different reality.

Wait a minute, did you say you played the Minnesota State Fair?

Yeah, yeah.

Prince played the Minnesota State Fair?

Yeah! If there was a place to play — I mean, my mom was really sweet, she was our first biggest fan. She would get us to play anywhere. She was like, “You guys gotta get up there, you guys gotta go play.” She wasn’t like a manager, but she was like our biggest supporter. It was beautiful.

You are working on a lot of new music right now, and I’m picking up on a lot of influences from the 1960s rock scene and the political climate of that time, which is when you were coming up in North Minneapolis. Can you talk about that has shaped you, and influenced you as an artist?

The ’60s in Minnesota, it was beautiful in a billion different ways. My father, he was from Fergus Falls, so you don’t really get much more Minnesota than Fergus Falls. I’m talking fishing, hunting, you know, we are born and raised, we are from this earth, this Minnesota space and time, and that’s just the reality. But the ’60s was an interesting time for America, period. We all know it. America was going through a transformation. You had Civil Rights, and you had Martin Luther King, and you had John F. Kennedy, and you had just a lot of stuff, and a lot of people trying to get their head around where we were going as a country.

I was a sponge. Even when I couldn’t play music, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do at the time, so I was soaking it all in. I saw every speech; I was a big John F. Kennedy fanatic, but I was also a big MacArthur fanatic, I was obviously a Martin Luther King fanatic. My dad made sure that all of us were very, very plugged in, as did my mother, to the political climate and the reality. And then there was the music. The music of the ’60s and the ’70s was off the chain. And the interesting thing is, it wasn’t just black artists that were making statements at the time, about what was going on. You had white artists like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, not to mention James Brown and Bob Marley, you just had everybody realizing, you know what? This world — this country, this world, this planet, we’re here. We’ve got to figure something out. So artists really influenced me; I was listening.

I think I listened to an interview when I was a little kid that I think was with John Lennon, I was too young at the time to really decipher who was who, he said, “God doesn’t discriminate against who’s going to drink the water, or who’s going to breathe the air,” and I thought, “Wow. That’s a deep perspective.” We’re all on this same planet, so we kind of have to have each other’s back. Because this is a beautiful planet. Look at this: this is beautiful. And you get to be a part of it, whatever you want to do. Write, do music, but you’ve gotta contribute. You’ve gotta step up. Everybody’s gotta step up. Because this is our little moment right here, and history will look back and say, “What did you do? Did you step up, or did you sort of sit this one out, and hope that somebody else was going to do the heavy lifting?” I can’t do that. I mean, God obviously gave me a gift to do music and to write songs, and so that’s what I’ve dedicated my life.