My world shifted a bit today. I say this not because Prince was my entire world, but because of the impact he has had on me personally. Those who know me well know that I am a life long Prince “friend” (I say ‘friend’ because that is how Prince refers to his fans). I bought his first album, “For You,” with my babysitting money. I walked up to Record Theatre not intending to buy his album, but once I saw it, I was blown away. It was a frequent ritual for my girlfriends and I to go to this music store, pick up a “funky forty” sheet, and browse the merchandise in the R & B section. On this occasion, I was by myself and I remember seeing his poster hanging up on the wall and that was all it took: my tween self was captivated by the way his appearance was obscured on that album cover; all you could see for certain was his afro and just a hint of his eyes. I plunked my money down and that was that.
When I got home, my mother insisted on screening the album because she was very interested (read: particular) in the music my brother and I listened to. She understood the impact of music on impressionable minds. My mother was impressed with Prince; particularly with the fact that he produced, arranged, composed and performed all of the music himself. She put Prince in the “okay for me to listen to” column and I proceeded to wear that album out. One of my favorite Prince stories, and there are many, is the day my parents saw Prince for the first time. It’s hard to believe now that Prince came out before MTV decided to play Black artists. The first time I saw Prince on television was on American Bandstand. I told my mother and could not wait for him to come on. Dick Clark announced him, and I called the whole family to come into the living room to see him because this would be my first time actually seeing him perform. Gone was the afro from the “For You” album cover; his hair was pressed down to his shoulders, he had on a trench coat, leg warmers, high-heeled boots and black bikini briefs. I do not have a great enough grasp on available adjectives to describe the look my mother gave me: “this is the guy you’ve been going on and on about?” My father asked me if I was certain Prince was a guy. Needless to say, Prince’s sexually charged performance gave my mother pause. We had many conversations about it. She asked me if I was thinking about sex, and of course I barely liked boys at the time so eventually she relented and left me to my Prince devices. Of course, my momma didn’t raise no fool: I kept that “Dirty Mind” album hidden. Deep in the back of my closet. I never played that one for her. Because. I. knew.
It is no secret that the “Dirty Mind” album is one of Prince’s most overtly sexual. I learned about things on that album that I had no idea existed. And although many young people have a certain level of sexual curiosity, the thing that intrigued me most about Prince, both the person and his music, was the fine line he walked between spirituality and sexuality. His music is filled with longing: the longing to be loved, the longing to reach divinity, the longing to have his God questions answered. For many people, Prince’s overt and androgynous sexuality blinded them from the ability to recognize or even acknowledge his deep spirituality. However, the very first song on his very first album, “For You,” sounds like church music. It sounded like a hymn I would hear during worship!
Prince’s lyrics could certainly be raunchy. But they were honest. And like many of us who call ourselves Christian, Prince struggled with lust, desire, the fear of death, the question of eternity, hope, and perhaps most importantly, his need for a God-filled vacuum in his soul. His lyrics about God could be subtle, using metaphors like “the dawn” and “the elevator” to speak about heaven and hell as he does in “Let’s Go Crazy” (released 1984).
One of his most heart-breaking songs is “Another Lonely Christmas,” (released 1984) where Prince attempts to make sense of the death of someone close to him, and of course, there is the explicitly divine yet not exactly gospel song, “God” (released 1985).
As a young girl who went to parochial school from kindergarten through the eighth grade and had religion as a class in every grade, I had my own long list of God questions. Prince’s music gave me permission to explore them. Prince let me know that it was not mandatory to be perfectly behaved as a prerequisite to seeking God’s face. Prince interrogated what we think we know about black masculinity, the fluidity of sexuality and gender, and who gets to ask the God questions. My mother and I had many conversations about sex, God and love that we might not have discussed had Prince not recorded things like “Annie Christian” (from the “Controversy” album, released 1981).
Prince remains a huge part of my formation. There is an authenticity to Prince that I have never felt from another artist. He was truly an artist in every sense of the word. I’ve watched him perform live in concert nearly a dozen times over the years, and one of his many gifts was the way he channeled intimacy: Prince could make you feel as though it were just you and him there, despite thousands of screaming fans from every demographic, nationality, race, creed and color. He just made you feel comfortable in your own skin. Here is another one of my favorite Prince stories: I went to see him while I was in graduate school alone. I had never been to a concert by myself before, and I was a little anxious about it…but hey, it was Prince! So I got to my seat and my section just happened to be filled with Prince fans who, like me, were fans since that first album dropped. We engaged in conversation about our favorite songs, favorite concerts, and then the lights dropped. Smoke wafted through the air. And the organ screeched those familiar chords, and we heard Prince say the opening line from “Let’s Go Crazy” and let me tell you, mature men and women, myself included, morphed into twelve-year-olds; screeching, jumping, hollering, and hugging each other. That moment was transcendent. That was Prince’s gift to the world. And today, as I remember him, memories like that will continue to bless my soul.