Prince, the reigning force of funk, freak, and flamboyance, has died at age 57. No one’s third eye saw it coming, especially given that the day after he was hospitalized for the flu, Prince hosted an all-night dance party at his Paisley Park recording studio in Minnesota. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life after Prince.
What I’m saying is, it should’ve gone: “The only thing certain in life is death, taxes and Prince.” His life in music suggested immortality, something beyond human, this 5-foot 2-inch black man delivered to the world from the wilds of Minnesota to bring dance, music, sex, romance to the mortal masses. With his foppishly sensual style and his sexually deviant songs, Prince celebrated difference. Like the greatest of iconoclasts, listening to him made it not just acceptable, but cool to be an other. Who wouldn’t want to change their name to some funkalogical symbol?
Born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7th, 1958, the man went on to become one of the best-selling artists in history (100 million records and counting) bearing more than more than 40 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, 39 studio albums, and seven Grammy Awards. With his first band The Revolution, he set the template for musical films with 1984’s Purple Rain, which earned him an Academy Award for best original song score, and cemented “1999” as the year zero for partying.
While his music seemed conjured from a past life, Prince was always firmly positioned in the present. Four decades into his career Prince was still finding new ways to move people, and forged immediate music for our tenuous times. “Does anybody hear us pray for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?” he asked on the scintillating, disco-punctuated protest song “Baltimore,” released in 2015. As NPR’s Ann Powers notes, Prince was an impish yet decidedly political artist in songs like “Ronnie Talk to Russia,” in which he urged against the impending doom of nuclear warfare. “Most of all, like his role model George Clinton, he's created a utopian space where partying allows for transcendence that eliminates all -isms and makes us the best people we can be,” she writes.
His music is ubiquitous, so stiched into this life, it’s hard to remember what was the very first song of his I heard. But I distinctly recall hearing “Purple Rain” at a middle school dance – and remember that Prince’s well-timed yelps and guitar made the ordeal of asking tween boys to dance a little less painful.
Listening to Prince made me think, “You know what? I’m going to paint my lips deep purple, carve eyeliner into my eyes, wear a velvet something, go out and feel good about it because normal is boring, and different is beautiful.”
I also remember, once, my co-worker realized we both had the same Purple Rain poster hanging in our living rooms. “If you whisper into one, you can hear it in the other,” he said. Around then I had become inspired to toy more with makeup, following two separate people who told me I reminded them of Apollonia, Prince’s love interest in the film, and Wendy Melvoin, the shaggy-haired guitarist of the Revolution, within the same month. In such an image-conscious culture, we’re often punished for wanting to shake up expectations. But listening to Prince made me think, “You know what? I’m going to paint my lips deep purple, carve eyeliner into my eyes, wear a velvet something, go out and feel good about it because normal is boring, and different is beautiful.”
Last Christmas, my brother Luis was tasked with putting music on the stereo as my family and I ritualistically prepared Christmas Dinner. He chose Purple Rain, and he and I sang along to “I Would Die 4 U” while seasoning chicken with cinnamon and other spices for the Moroccan Bastilla we were helping my mom make. My dad looked up, shocked: “You’re finally listening to our music!” We rolled our eyes, saying: “Come on dad, this is our music too.” I’d never known my parents to be Prince fans until that moment, when the four of us began gushing about our favorite Prince tracks.
His life in music suggested immortality, something beyond human, this 5-foot 2-inch black man delivered to the world from the wilds of Minnesota to bring dance, music, sex, romance to the mortal masses.
And then recently, I had the fortune of interviewing Pam Warren, aka DJ Pam the Funkstress, for a story about women trudging forward against the stigmatizations of DJ culture. The Bay Area-based Warren – a veteran DJ battler who can scratch records with her breasts – had been hand-picked by Prince himself to accompany him on his most recent tour and was spinning funk records following his shows.
“What is he like?” I asked her.
“You don’t get too close to him,” Warren said. “He’s very private. When I met him, he just said ‘hi’ and was soft spoken, you know? But onstage, boy, he is a whole different person.”
“Does he have a specific set list in mind?”
“He totally entrusted me to do my thing,” she said. “Basically it’s ’70s, ’80s and ’90s funk; classic jams [like] Rick James and Cameo. These parties that we’re doing, they’re just people who want to dance.” She paused, adding: “That’s his main thing. He wants people to dance.”