Prince is dead. Found in his home in Minnesota, unresponsive, earlier today. But how can that be? Didn’t this small-statured, eye-liner and leather boot wearing musical genius convince us all that he was, if not God, definitely short-listed for the afterparty of the immortals? And so he is.
From his movies – didn’t the world just celebrate Wrecka Stew Day this week? – to his endless march of hit songs to his unforgettable performances and controversial costumes. From his clothing to his lyrics, Prince showed us one way to openly celebrate the sacredness of God and the pleasures of the body with equal enthusiasm, without becoming hypocrites.
Born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7, 1958, he had music in his blood – both of his parents were musicians. His name comes from his father’s on-stage moniker, Prince Rogers. In Googling for bio information, I was surprised to learn that both of his parents “were from African American families in the U.S. South” – Louisiana, to be specific. Like many of you, somewhere along the line I had been convinced that one of his parents was Italian, or half-Italian.
Prince grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was just seven years old when he wrote his first song. At 20, he released his first album, For You, and went on to record nearly 50 studio albums, soundtracks and live albums. A prolific songwriter and incredibly talented musician, on one album he is reported to have played 27 instruments!
Prince was a master of transformation who went through many different looks and musical moods – from the Revolution to a Nu Power Generation – over his 38 year-long career. He is probably best known and identified with the Purple Rain years – the classic film and soundtrack that gave us hits like When Doves Cry and put him on everybody’s minds.
But he put a lot of people on our minds, too. Without Prince, many of us would have never experienced the talents of master percussionist Sheila E., Vanity, or that tiny powerhouse Rosie Gaines. We may have never heard about Morris Day and the Time and all the dances that band taught us.
Never afraid to be controversial, Prince has painted “slave” on his face during a dispute with his record label, posed nude on one of his album covers and even changed name to a symbol, while requesting to be called “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” He fought for his own rights as an artist, refusing to be controlled by Warner Brothers – hence the face paint. At the same time, he was equally aggressive with internet bootleggers, sending cease-and-desist letters to ordinary citizens for posting his songs and videos.
His social commentary was as thought-provoking as his naughtier and spiritual sides, from a fatalistic acceptance of nuclear war in “1999” to serious concern for drug addiction and other social ills in “Sign o’ the Times.”
Last year, Prince wrote a song called “Baltimore” and played a concert in the city of the same name; a portion of the ticket sales went to support youth programming after an uprising broke out in response to the death of a local man named Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police officers.
Not far from that town, I watched a Ghanaian-American singer Yahzarah St. James bring a small blues club to its knees earlier this year with “Purple Reign,” her annually anticipated Prince revue.
As an international artist, I am sure Prince’s music has been heard in Africa, but I wonder how his gender-bending clothing, sexual ambiguity and suggestive songs were received by my peers in Johannesburg, Dar es Salaam, Lagos, Accra? I need not go that far to find restrictions, however; my own mother forbade me to listen to his music as a child – watching Purple Rain was out of the question. I guess she had heard about the waters of Lake Minnetonka.
Social media wobbled hard over the weekend when it was reported that Prince’s plane had been forced to land so he could get treated for a vaguely-described ailment. And now here we are.
But are we gonna let the elevator take us down?