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Struggle to overcome barriers detailed in music scene book

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Swensson, Andrea. Credit Leslie Plesser
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When Andrea Swensson finally got to meet Prince, she found out he was, well, a prince.

"The biggest thing I learned was how normal Prince was," she said. "I had heard all the stories about how bizarre he was. But I was struck by how down-to-earth and funny and kind he was."

Swensson, a music journalist and host of "The Local Show" on MPR's The Current , details her meeting with Prince at his Paisley Park home in the final pages of her new book, "Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound." The book traces the seed work done by so many lesser-known, largely African-American musicians that ultimately led to the international breakthrough by Prince.

But before sending a local talent's music around the world, these pioneers had to break down walls and overcome obstacles — such as newly constructed freeways that tore through tightly knit neighborhoods — just to get their own modest careers launched.

It was all a revelation to Swensson, who thought she was relatively familiar with Minnesota's music scene.

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"There were things I had heard mention of," she said in an interview. "I knew the barriers, but not the depth of what had happened. It was really jarring how serious it had been, how many barriers were set in front of the community, not just the musicians."

As a result, her book, which is primarily about Minnesota's recent music history, turns out to include quite a bit of urban history as well. Swensson details the segregation, physical and otherwise, that kept the black communities in Minneapolis and St. Paul restricted to certain neighborhoods. A native of Moose Lake, Minn., who spent her middle school and high school years in the Twin Cities suburbs, Swensson had a lot to catch up on.

"I kind of fell down the rabbit hole" researching that history, Swensson said.

She found that while the African-American population was in many ways isolated from the rest of the metro area, that in turn offered some advantages when it came to the development of a music scene.

"In Prince's generation, all of them grew up within blocks of each other," she said. "For people living there and creating, that made it easy to find like-minded people to form bands."

For years there was an unofficial ban on booking black artists in downtown clubs, Swensson said. After all, black artists would attract black audiences.

That tradition broke apart somewhat when Prince finally made it to First Avenue (then known as Sam's) in 1981. "He definitely made the biggest stride," Swensson said.

Unfortunately, the barriers eventually sprung back up. "That tension persists today," Swensson said. "People have irrational fears. You hear that conversation all the time: 'Clean up downtown.' It's coded language."

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"Got to Be Something Here" is published by the University of Minnesota Press , and is available at bookstores throughout the state, as well as through online retailers.

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More books

Other notable Minnesota-related books published this fall:

— "Jul: Swedish American Holiday Traditions," by Patrice M. Johnson (Minnesota Historical Society Press). Recipes for everything from Swedish meatballs and fruit soup to krumkake and aquavit (recipe from Marilyn Jensen Calkins, of Rochester).

— "Miles Lord: The Maverick Judge Who Brought Corporate America to Justice," by Roberta Walburn, University of Minnesota Press. The long and storied career of Lord, written by one of his former law clerks.

— "Flying Funny: My Life Without a Net," by Dudley Riggs, University of Minnesota Press. The state's comic laureate tells of his life from the circus to his Brave New Workshop.

— "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley, University of Minnesota Press. Recipes for the ultimate in locally sourced foods and flavorings, presented in elegant style.

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— "Border Country: The Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene," University of Minnesota Press. A 1906 canoe trip through the north woods of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, as recorded in hand-made journals and illustrated with original photographs.

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Got to be Something Here: The Ride of Minneapolis Sound by Andrea Swensson.

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