The Minnesota-based arena rock tribute band Hairball prides itself on near-identical portrayals of icons like Alice Cooper. So when a white vocalist appeared wearing dark makeup to play Prince's "Purple Rain" to a crowd of 7,500 at the Minnesota State Fair recently, it was business as usual, said their manager Mike Findling.
"They wear makeup on KISS. They wear makeup on Alice Cooper. They wear makeup on Prince," Findling said, adding that he didn't consider the powder vocalist Kris Vox wore to look black to be blackface. "How would we do it in any other way?"
At the Sept. 1 concert at the Minnesota State Fair's largest venue, most of the predominantly white crowd sang along to the '80s hit known for catapulting Minneapolis native Prince to national stardom. As a purple glow lit the grandstand, middle-aged couples slow danced and millennials linked together as they swayed back and forth.
"Our fan base loves it, that's the only reason it's really in the show," said band member Bobby Jensen. "If someone has a problem with it, don't come to the show. That's all you gotta do."
Jensen and his five bandmates, who met playing shows as teenagers in the Twin Cities suburbs, have built a career bringing on-point impersonations to crowds of thousands. They've performed across the country, but their strongest markets are in the Upper Midwest, with near-annual shows in cities like Fargo and Duluth.
At their Grandstand debut, longtime fans donning Hairball tees who said they've been to more than 10 shows. Their fanbase extends to some of the stars they impersonate, like Alice Cooper and Judas Priest's Rob Halford, who last week commended the group's theatrics.
While Hairball and some of the band's fans defend the Prince set as an accurate portrayal, others say the growing Midwestern institution's use of blackface points toward the historical exclusion of people of color from arena rock, rather than a tribute.
"When you're portraying a brother, a minority, like Prince, it's a different story," said Pepé Willie, who served as one of Prince's earliest mentors and who is black. "You have to think before you do something like that. Because people will get offended."
Willie added that wearing the iconic "Purple Rain" jacket and ruffled blouse would suffice in getting across Vox is playing Prince - a suggestion Jensen and his manager insist wouldn't work.
"We took the concept of wanting to be a replica of many concerts so that people are drawn into the world of rock 'n' roll," Jensen said in a recent interview. "We want to make you believe it was really Alice Cooper ... or whoever we're impersonating at the time."
In a phone interview after the show, Jensen elaborated on this "world of rock 'n' roll":
"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," he 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.
Still, arena rock is anything but exempt from race and politics, says University of Minnesota American studies professor Elliott Powell. His courses focus on the intersection of politics and pop culture, including one with Prince as one of its main focuses.
"It's odd in the sense that you don't need to do blackface in order to do Prince. But also not odd, because arena rock seems to be a kind of safe space around white male masculinity," Powell said. "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."
So in 2018, when a white band like Hairball pays tribute to a black artist like Prince wearing blackface, it becomes an "interesting move," Powell said.
"The use of blackface points to exclusion of people like Prince from arena rock," Powell said. "It becomes a problem about how you address things like blackness, things like women, things like Prince, within this larger kind of genre around arena rock."