When I heard the news that Prince had died, I had just finished teaching my last class of the day. Like many people, I needed proof–I scoured the web for confirmation, praying it was a hoax. Once I saw three reputable sources report the same, I sat quietly as my eyes welled up with tears.
Musically, Prince was a genius, something that no one will contest and just one of the many reasons he will be sorely missed. For me though, the death of Prince is about the end of his prowess as a brand savant and cultural architect. When you look at the trajectory of his life, his rise to fame should come as no surprise. It is clear he was destined for great things and that he was going to have things his way. Even when he was locked in a bitter battle with Warner Bros., he maintained in a 1996 Rolling Stone interview, “People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face, but if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I?”
My exposure to Prince began when I first saw the video for “When Doves Cry”. I was confused and titillated at the same time. Who was this svelte man, with the coiffed hair, sitting in a claw foot tub? Why was I leaning in when he reached out his arms to me? It was hypnotic. Even though I had no idea what the song was about, I knew all the words and I knew I liked him. It was like nothing I had seen before, particularly from a Black man in the public sphere. Prince was an amalgamation of rock star sexy and Black consciousness with a heaping helping of ‘I don’t give a darn’ (remember his swear jar)! He gave you ‘King’ every time he showed up and as faithful subjects, we were required to follow protocol and adore him. Entering into Prince’s space meant coming to an understanding. You had to leave behind what you knew, because it didn’t matter what your daddy said about masculinity, or what the pastor said about prophets. To love Prince meant committing to his way of seeing the world
Prince built a world where everyone was welcomed as long as you followed the rules; a world where being known as a symbol was an act of righteousness, where you could write a song about the Lord and it be a club banger; a world where you could make a movie in black and white have it be a total flop, but still be applauded for your efforts; a world where the internet didn’t mean anything, the live show was everything and you better not snap photos or record without his permission. He made a place for himself and his art.
To dominate the ever changing landscape of mainstream culture requires a certain amount of stamina, a great deal of faith in something larger than yourself, and awareness that your gifts are to be used for the greater good. The day Prince died, I cried because he was the unexpected, the one that never went out of style, the one that I never fully understood, and the one that was always there. Even now, as I continue to learn more about him, I find myself in awe of his depth and capacity to create and build community.
There will never be another one like him, which is how it should be. By owning his talents and finding value in who he was meant to be, Prince left an indelible mark on the world in a short period of time. His absence hurts and stuns, so we will continue to honor his memory by playing his music and reliving his performance. This is how it should be when such a star ascends, but I think we can do him one better. Let us forge our own paths just as faithfully, earnestly and unapologetically. Let us honor our gifts and use them for the betterment of the community and once in awhile, go crazy. In that way, like the great Prince Rogers Nelson, we will have made the dash count.