Prince was one of us.
I must’ve been about four or five years old when this happened– trailing in a music store (yeah, remember those? Wow…) waiting for my father to purchase whatever CD he was looking for. I stopped in front of an album cover on which: to my childlike eye, a man? a woman? Lay naked across and atop enlarged flowers, the entire image set against a white backdrop. The face emoted a softness matching the body’s– one leg was outstretched, the other slightly bent to cover whatever resided inside. Left arm propping the body up, the other crossed across the chest in a declaration of what I now choose to see as unapologetic existence.
This cover, as some of you reading may already know, was that of Prince Rogers Nelson’s 1988 album Lovesexy. The album wasn’t his most successful work, but this cover, for me, brought to life what I mean when I say that Prince was one of us.
One of us–freaks, geeks; the deviant, the different, the bodies not meant to love, those not meant to exist. The fucking of masculinity, the bending of gender, the fierce eccentricity of his multifaceted Blackness.
The man was a revolutionary.
I’m not your woman, I’m not your man.
I am something that you’ll never understand…
I’m your conscious.
I am love,
All I really need is to know that–
Yeah, I would die, 4 U.
A black man denouncing stereotypes and actively subverting a culture designed to squash any kind of deviancy from the norm. This tune (I Would Die 4 U) makes me cry, laugh, swell with love, transcend into another dimension where my survival is eclipsed by a prospering in my black queerness. To live without fear; to remind me that in a world where we are bombarded with images of our own and other peoples’ trauma and pain¬–a world where all we ask for are the things that should be ours already– dignity, respect, autonomy–that love is a revolutionary form of resistance. I struggle with this, so often in my everyday–to embrace a politic of love when sometimes all I want to do is turn around, say “fuck you,” throw a punch towards those who refuse to acknowledge us, who refuse to humanize us, to whom we are forced to prove our existence.
And then, a tune comes on. One in which the artist announces his weirdness with sensual authority. Lets you know that, if he can love, so can you. That you shouldn’t stop believing in the power of love as a transformative mechanism for change.
Damn, fam. That’s some powerful shit.
He was queer as hell. Black as hell. Goddess of shade throwing. He embodied a transgressive politic in his work, his lyricism, his artistry, his style, his performance, and his existence. When you hear us saying, today, that it is an end of an era (Michael, Whitney… now Prince– someone for our sake please put Stevie in a bunker), it isn’t because we romanticize artists who have passed… it’s because it is the end of an time in which artists declared themselves in their art, staked their existence through music, through style, through the right to look, to be heard, and to be seen– during a time in which it was unprecedented for black people to be anything other than what was expected of them. He changed the game with his vibrant and radical approach to love, to sex, to relationships, gender, expression… the list goes on.
And let’s not forget– the man was a master of funk. A wildly talented musician who fiddled with a multitude of instruments, provoked sensuality in his primal screams, and touched hearts with his poetry. Actor, producer, director. The list here does not just go on– it flourishes with the unbridled imagination of an individual who refused to allow normative and socially constructed boundaries stop him from reaching, soaring, and achieving. He said it himself once in a 2010 interview with the Daily Mail, “someone said they saw me at my peak, but how do they know what my peak is? I think I’m improving all the time.”
He fucked with gender so much that traditional forms of masculinity felt threatened by this affront, and yet couldn’t help but respect it. Dave Chappelle hosted Charlie Murphy on his show back in the day to talk about a basketball game with “Prince.” Murphy spent half his time ridiculing Prince’s dress, demeanor, and (what I would call) swagger, only to end on a note of grudging admiration for the man’s ability to school him on the court.
But that’s just one example of this phenomenal human’s influence. There are plenty more. My mother voicenoting me his music this morning is a testament to that. My father texting me to tell me he’s crying on the inside, recounting his relationship to this artist, is a testament to that. The flood of grief, awe, and love on my social media newsfeeds is a testament to that.
I was trying to figure out, this morning, why this cut so deep.
Was it because I grew up listening to this person? Danced my way through my childhood home, to him? Spent my teenage years belting out the lyrics to “Cream,” to “Kiss,” to “Baby I’m a Star,” to “If I was Your Girlfriend?”
Was it because the music he made was nothing short of brilliant in its execution?
But now, I realize that it’s more than that.
It is looking at a figure whose prominence is unwieldy, who is beloved by millions, and seeing parts of yourself, your identity, and your existence– namely your otherness– in that person. It is the right to look. The right to be seen in a world that seeks to erase any evidence of your reality, truth, and authentic experience.
This stunning, genderfluid, genderfucking creature who graced us with his talent, walked this earth with a lack of giving fucks that provided a space for those of us on the margins to feel like it is possible to exist– and not just exist, but thrive.
It’s only in recent years that I’ve come into my genderqueer/non-binary trans identity. It’s been a journey, one that has had both internal and external shifts. And that journey continues, today. When I came to terms with my non-cisgendered reality, I thought that I had to embrace some traditional form of masculinity in my behaviors, my approach to the world. What was I but artificially trans if I could not adhere to the masculine as it had been taught to me? I found myself swinging from one end of the gender expectation pendulum to the other, refusing to meet in the middle.
Part of this behavior was merely a symptom of residing within a world that navigates in a binary of genderhood, social norms engrained into a psyche whose queerness was not yet recognizable. Part of it extended out of survival– being forced into roles by lovers and romantic partners because of these norms and not knowing how to resist; fearing violence at the hands of individuals who might see too provocative of a transgression as a threat to their existence; a deep, aching tiredness for having to explain and justify others’ inabilities to locate me as they so wished.
I was afraid.
So now I ask again– why does this man, this artist, this icon’s death cut so deep? Deeper even, than the death of the beloved David Bowie? (May he rest).
The answer is simple. He let us know that you can be black, you can be queer (whether or not he identified as such, his projection embraced it), you can be odd and off and make people uncomfortable– and in all of this, there is the potentiality of you being loved, too. Because if there’s one thing I know for sure, it is that this man was loved, by all kinds of people: queer and not, black and not, cis and not… The irony of such blind love is not lost on those of us who live what Prince embodied in his artistry; the irony of having such love dissipate once the eyes of its beholder settles upon our pathologized and othered bodies.
Yet, I have hope.
A young child of four years old walks into a store with their father and stumbles across an album cover whose controversy upon its release sparked a ban of its sales in certain places. This young child has no understanding of what the word queer means, how gender occupies space and time, how one day this child will come into a black identity that the child hadn’t known was authentically theirs. The child will stare at this image of what must be an angel, until their father comes to take their hand. Make a comment about this angel’s prowess, smile as he recalls his first encounter with Purple Rain. The child will leave the store and forget about this encounter, until one day– one day, the child watches a film. A film in which the main character wears frills and lace and purple velvet. Sports heels and chains and sleekly coiffed curls. A character whose charisma bursts through the television screen and keeps the child enraptured. The child will remember, then, the cover in the store. Make a mental note. Feel a sudden rush of heat within the confines of their chest.
Validation. What a powerful sensation.
Thank you. For doing the work before its value was even conceivable. For the shade, the diva, the side eye. For the funk, the soul, the rock, the shock. The enigma of your existence is not lost on those of us who loved you. And we continue to do so, even in the wake of your death.
As you ascend into the after world– “a world of never-ending happiness,” know that your wink, your smirk, your fearlessness, your goddamn sexiness, will remain immortalized within the realms of this weird fucking planet.
Say hi to Whitney and Michael for us. Angels in the sky. We love you.
May it rain purple. May it rain power.
Photo courtesy of here.