I was dreaming when I wrote this, so forgive me if it goes astray. But when I woke up this morning I was…shocked.
My tongue is tied because I hear lies that Prince Rogers Nelson has died. All my life I have identified with his work, his thinking, his lyrical power. His work insisted I defend my right to be. It instructed me to be vigilant about keeping the creative part of my brain alive.
Prince came into my life in 1981 when a friend brought me “Controversy,” the fourth album. His parents forbade him from keeping it in their house. He had to give it away because it was a hot property that only select grown folks could have, and only out of view of kids.
Which, of course, meant that I needed to have it.
Like other parents, my dad told me to get rid of it. Instead, I hid the album cover in the back of my closet and I put the vinyl in one of my Redd Foxx album liners. Yes, at 13 years old Foxx and Richard Pryor albums full of hookers, drugs, and sex were OK, but Prince’s gender-defying attack on bourgeois sheep was not.
I played the grooves out of that record. It was more than music, it was something of a new thought system, a mashup of fluid sexuality, tortured religion, and counter-cultural politics that preached an ethic of self-sovereignty.
“Am I black or white, am I straight or gay,” inquisitors asked him in the opening song “Controversy.”
His response came in next track, “Sexuality,” where he curtly demanded we let our freak flags fly on high mast.
“Reproduction of a new breed, leaders, stand up, organize!” he said.
I took that as a command to be everything I dreamed of in my interior, in the places where I hide secrets fearing the world would beat me back into stereotypical form.
I was all in.
The dates are fuzzy, but this probably was eighth grade for me. If you know anything about boys, especially black boys blooming in racist soul-killing cities, that age can be a rebellious time full of angst, alienation, and internal struggles. I was challenging everything then. Prince’s every word came to me as a giant F-you against a hypocritical world, a trump card against the prison of conventional thinking.
That was just the introduction.
The day “1999” came out I stole $25 in quarters from my Dad’s change drawer (sorry Pops), cut school, took a bus to the Plaza shopping center in New Orleans’ East, and bought the album. It was a revolution in my ears and a revelation in my mind. I cut school for a week straight to decode it’s many messages and found gold in the cathartic release from Reagan induced nuclear fears in the single “1999,” the candid male vulnerability of “Something In The Water They Drink,” and the admission of female domination in “Little Red Corvette.”
When I turned sixteen I transitioned my big virgin Afro into a sweet ass Jheri curl. It dangled past my shoulders and it was spectacular, the best in my high school. Each morning I meticulously parted the bangs so they hung over my left eye. I also started with the eye liner then. Males, with the exception of a few, hated me. Their sisters and girlfriends did not, which, for the boys, was an angering form of social insurance that shielded me against violence (most of the time).
Girls became the sounding board for my poems, songs, and creative ideas, especially the girls willing to cut class. That came to a halt when my tattered report card arrived at home. That resulted in a few memorable ass kickings during which I defiantly transcended my body by staring at the Prince poster on my wall.
Then came the ultimate punishment – my stepdad shaved my curl and mocked me relentlessly. Purple Rain was the point at which I decided ass kickings were over. Though I was singing “When Doves Cry,” I considered the possibility that a step-dad might die.
I ran away shortly after and never looked back.
It was at 19 when life took a few bad turns. I had no money, no home, and no opportunities. A friend’s mom had a stern talk with me that ended with her offering $300 and a bus ticket to anywhere. There was one catch: I had to go somewhere far away for a fresh start where I could better myself.
I quickly chose Minneapolis, because, of course, Prince.
I hit the road with my white guitar and a pocket full of songs written with the structure and math learned from hours of carefully studying Prince albums.
When I got off the Greyhound in Minneapolis I walked a block eastward and stood before First Avenue, the famed nightclub I had seen in Purple Rain. I eventually got hired there – three times – and there was never a shift I worked where it didn’t occur to me that I was standing in a place of exquisite significance.
Life changed once again when I became a dad at 22. Couch surfing and living in cars was no longer an option, so I gave up the long held belief that music fame was inevitable. I joined the practical world of low-wages and stupid hours in retail, service, hospitality, and temporary assignments.
Through it all Prince’s music remained the long thread, sending me messages about the other possible world. The better world where you can always see the sun, day or night.
More than anything I learned from him what it looks like to be fiercely independent and flagrantly self-defining. There must be intense contrarians who dangerously confront the rules made by fallible men. We need anarchists who call out all this world’s bullshit and remind us it is all meant to turn us into conforming obedient dullards.
Prince did that while also offering an alternative post-modern world where liberated people are free to dance, love, and live without the straightjacket of race, class, sexuality, and religion.
He communicated through his artistry the emancipating redefinition of what it means to be black, male, intelligent, and human. Whatever battles we are fighting that prevent us from showing up as our true selves, Prince won those wars long before we knew his name.
Even in sadness I’m filled by knowing it will soon be revealed how much of his life was devoted to using his position to improve the lives of others. His friend and philanthropic accomplice Van Jones is telling that story. He says “there are people in Oakland who have solar panels on their house because of Prince.” There are urban kids learning through #YesWeCode the skills to enter the technology sector. There are families eating today who do not know their food was bought by a rockstar.
And, even closer to my heart, Prince was an early investor in Harvest Prep Academy, a network of Afrocentric charter schools in Minneapolis that have consistently outperformed the traditional school district.
Like his music, these are living legacies that outlive his body.
I’m stunned and sore, but I won’t mourn the passing of a famous man who dazzled the world with dance and glitter. He would hate any form of idolization at this point. I’m just pierced by the Earthly end of a creative worker who was a reliable wellspring of liberating insights into the human journey, mine in particular.
The best I can do is be true to the color purple as he saw it.