The Day I Learned that Prince Was Human
With so much palatable Black pain and suffering, I thought, on the anniversary of his passing, that I’d share some musings on someone who provided me with so much Black joy. I wrote this the day Prince died.
While some Black families consider themselves Jackson homes or Marvin Gaye residences, mine was unequivocally a Prince household. In my house, we talked about Prince as if he were classic mythology.
“Did you know he was an amazing basketball star?”
“You know it took him a while to form a band who could play his music as good as he could. We waited years for him to tour.”
“I once heard a dove cry and it sounded just how Prince described it — swear.”
Growing up, I saw Prince as a legend, the David in a music industry full of Goliaths. Immortal amongst a world destined to one day crumble to dust.
The son of two performers, Minneapolis born and raised Prince was destined for musical greatness. Not only was he blessed with singing and songwriting abilities, Prince was also an unbelievable multi-instrumentalist. Legend states that at just 19 years old, Prince played every one of the 27 instruments on his debut album. His range of artistic talents easily set him apart from his counterparts and allowed him to create and sustain an inimitable career fusing rock & roll, R&B, funk, and pop into his sound all while acknowledging the many Black artists that paved the way for his own notoriety and talents.
Though Prince was becoming more and more well known by the beginning of the 1980s, the release of the 1984 movie and album Purple Rain catapulted him into icon status. Prince went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score and was the first singer to have a #1 single, album, and movie at the same time.
While popular, Prince was no stranger to controversy (literally the title of his fourth album) and earned a reputation as a “diva” (even today people use his image as perfect reaction gifs). Prince took no issue with calling other recognizable artists out for their lack of depth and creativity and refused to maintain appearances. He spent most of his career reminding the music industry that they did not and would never own him or his music. In 1995, he even started writing “slave” on his face as a protest to Warner Bros. for his lack of artistic freedom.
When Prince failed to show for Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones’ studio recording of “We Are the World” along with other prominent musicians after the 1985 Grammys, critics called him cocky and predicted the demise of his musical reign. Still, he never cowered, minced words, or explained himself. His career spanned an additional three decades and spawned the careers of other acclaimed artists. His mentorship gave us Sheila E., one of the best female percussionists of all time, and The Time (for anyone under 25 years of age, think “Uptown Funk” x100). His songwriting gave other artist hits such as Cydni Lauper’s mellow re-envisioning of “When You Were Mine”, Sinead O’Connor’s dramatic cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U”, and Chaka Khan’s powerful “I Feel For You”. And his stage influence is obvious when considering current artists such as Janelle Monae and Beyoncé.
Prince had a certain magic about him — a natural confidence that many try to emulate and often fail to exude. Early in his career, he navigated being unapologetically Black before that phrase was monetized, and defied gendered racial stereotypes while rocking a perm and wearing amazing assortments of blouses. He was the original carefree Black kid who understood both the complexities of his identities and craft. Prince set forth to reach accomplishments no one had ever witnessed or thought humanly possible in the world of entertainment. Anyone who ever saw him live can attest to that. Anyone who ever saw Purple Rain can attest to that. Anyone who ever saw his Super Bowl performance can attest to that. And I imagine anyone who ever had the privilege to know Prince or work closely with him knows it deep within their bones.
I never had the opportunity to meet Prince Rogers Nelson. I have no idea how Prince conducted himself personally. I don’t know if he was the type of man to open doors for others or if he sent friends and family get well cards. I’m unsure if he was the type of person to sleep with his socks on or if he preferred coffee to tea. But none of that really matters now. As fans we trick ourselves into thinking that knowledge of these tidbits gives us insight into a person’s character or access into their private lives — that it somehow legitimizes our level of fandom. And while personal details and potential quirks are intriguing, I never once felt entitled to them. I enjoyed the mystery. I found it worthy of an artist who gave so much of himself on stage and in his music. The best artists give their audiences a piece of themselves knowing that they can never get it back. They work tirelessly to translate emotions into experiences.
I know my life is much more robust from the emotional experiences Prince bestowed me.
He was undeniably himself, and his confidence and ability to bask in his own greatness gave me permission to do the same. As a young teenager learning about Prince’s legacy and listening to his music, I saw my eyes and world open up. Suddenly, I didn’t feel the need to master just one trade. Prince taught me that I could master several and make it look effortlessly cool. I grew comfortable with my own intricacies and gradually learned how to wear the multiple hats I had been blessed with at any given moment. Prince taught me the value in authenticity even when it makes others uncomfortable and, for that, I am forever grateful.
So much of myself, my family history, and my own legacy has been impacted by Prince and his music. Now, all we have left are memories. In a way, I’m disappointed that my hero was revealed to be nothing more than human, just like the rest of us. But my dad once told me that “music has a way of marking your life. It tells your history. It’s not the melody as much as it’s the memory.” No wonder I grew up in a Prince house.
Prince, the human, is no longer here. But the people who grew up listening to his music will carry Prince, the legend, with us always. Though his death hurts (and I mean, it hurts), we can commemorate all Prince has done for us, our families, and for all of the other Prince households mourning the day the music died for them.