Yesterday we were all alerted to the horrific news that Prince Rogers Nelson died at age 57. Most of us knew him only by his singular name—Prince! Like Cher, or Aretha, or Beyoncé he did not need a last name for the entire world to recognize this towering talent. Prince became the soundtrack of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. But this blog is less about his talent than about him as a person who brought us all to a new level of awareness about what it means to be fully human.
By all accounts we should have never heard of Prince, let alone have made him a mega-star. He was diminutive standing only 5’2” tall. Despite his size he was an accomplished basketball player. He was painfully shy, giving few interviews. He was a Jehovah Witness, practicing a faith outside the mainstream of US religions. He was not constrained to traditional gender representations. He wore heels, make up, and complex hairstyles. To be sure Prince was not the first artist to do the things he did. Little Richard was every bit as “flamboyant” in his stage persona as Prince. But Little Richard’s appeal was more limited to African American audiences. Prince was a worldwide phenomenon. Michael Jackson exhibited some of the same qualities as Prince but as fans we grew up with Michael—from a cute little brown boy to a man who was almost unrecognizable to us. Prince burst on the world scene already having embraced a hybrid, androgynous identity. Little Jimmy Scott was a vocalist in the 1950s and 60s who suffered from Kallman’s Syndrome that resulted in stunted growth and a voice that sounded like a women. His audiences were in small jazz clubs and to this day few people have ever heard of him.
Prince grew up being picked on in school. At 5’2” he was a regular victim of school bullies. Also, the fact that he was “pretty” had to exacerbate the taunts and victimization he experienced. However, as a master musician and shrewd businessman he broke all the rules. He was more than rhythm and blues, more than rock and roll. He was an accomplished singer and instrumentalist. He played the piano and the guitar. He appealed to women and men, LGBTQ and straight, Black, White, Latino, Asian, US., and international audiences. He defied categorization and that was his allure.
In his ability to defy conventions and entertain in ways we have not experienced in a generation Prince became the embodiment of the term unique. He reminded us a bit of Little Richard and James Brown. He seemed to grab a bit from Mick Jagger and David Bowie. His hairstyles alone were an adventure. Sometimes he work a curly mullet, next he wore a short, processed look, then he wore long shoulder length tresses that he shook with abandon. In his latter days he donned an Angela Davis-like Afro and continued to write amazing music and entertain at an incredible clip.
Prince also had a social conscious. In the days following the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray and insurrection in the streets, Prince performed a free concert for the community. He loved the people and he loved the music. He resisted our desire to put him in a box. He was a real prince of a person and now he has transitioned from this world to the next. All I can say is “Goodnight, Sweet Prince!”
Stay Black & Smart!