"A strong spirit transcends rules."
Prince (1958 - 2016), music icon and global superstar
What do you give a music icon who seemed to have it all?
This week, Prince fans gave him eloquent tributes, spontaneously-painted pictures and electrifying dance parties in the streets and in music venues he loved. His dearest friends have given us a glimpse into what a special human being he was, far beyond the musical corner that so many of us paint him into.
I've ached to give him something too. Until this week though, I couldn't claim to be a royal fan. (To my mind, a few half-forgotten lines of Raspberry Beret, Kiss and When Doves Cry don't qualify.) As a child of the 80s, I was more enthralled by mainstream Michael Jackson, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper than by edgy Prince. My life had little angst, so Prince's dark and dangerous persona held little appeal.
But with each noteworthy homage, music video marathon, purple-lit monument and personal story about Prince that filled our screens, I began to feel the magnetic pull Prince fans must know all too well - a pull to explore his complicated, paradoxical, worldly and transcendent genius.
Prince's funky house of worship
Most discussions about Prince's musical contributions soon turn to his ability to navigate both the profane and profound.
In a CNN interview, Prince's former stylist Michaela Angela Davis said, "The most prolific thing to me about Prince was not only was he the most vibrant example of black genius that I have ever seen, but he was able to negotiate God and sex in his subject matter in a way that we had never seen before."
When a redemptive song The Holy River shows up right before a slinky number like Let's Have a Baby on Prince's Emancipation album, or when both the sexual and the sacred feature within a song like Adore or The Greatest Romance Ever Sold, you know you're witnessing a holistic soul at work. To Prince, music is fluid and organic, as changeable as our moods and as flamboyant as our wildest fantasies. A transcendent thought can naturally be followed by a carnal one. More fundamentally, ancient cultures understood sex to be sacred and not a sin, and sexuality was seen as a positive expression of the life force. In this light, Prince's songs and albums are simply a reflection of our deep human truth.
In a 1996 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Prince summed up this God + sex philosophy best when describing his affection for then-new wife Mayte Garcia.
OPRAH: And what does she do for you that you didn't -- that you didn't have alone?
PRINCE : She makes it easier to talk to God.
A man of deep and abiding faith, Prince often preached his gospel where we might least notice it: mentioning the afterworld in his opening bars to Let's Go Crazy, infusing the utopia of Beatles-esque Paisley Park with smiling people who "speak(s) of profound inner peace", and recently closing out one of his Piano and a Microphone concerts with the final sing-along refrain from Anna Stesia: "Love is God, God is love/Girls and boys, love God above."
Prince may have used the erotic vocabulary of funk, R&B and rock & roll, but his omnipresent goal was to spread a message of deliverance.
Prolific beyond belief
Prince's creative output makes the rest of us seem, as he puts it in Raspberry Beret, "a bit too leisurely". He may have lived a mere 57 years, but in that time he amassed 40 albums, wrote more than 1000 songs, worked on 4 films, started at least 3 bands and mentored dozens if not hundreds of aspiring musicians. There's even a vault of unreleased recordings that will likely be dripped out to fans for decades. His mastery of dozens of instruments made him a formidable one-man dynamo and a venerated steal-the-show performer on award shows, tribute performances, music festivals and after parties alike.
Above all, Prince loved to be in flow with his music. Whether working tirelessly in his recording studio or playing countless impromptu gigs for fans and friends, it was clear that Prince was and is music. He elevated "doing what you love" into an otherworldly pursuit, a constant dance with his generous Muse.
An industry's conscience
In an age of covers and single releases, Prince reminded us that albums still matter at the 2015 Grammy Awards. Now that I've spent some time inhabiting his musical world, the narrative thread that runs through his albums is every bit as precious as the individual tracks. Each compilation is a distinctive chapter in his musical evolution, and a time capsule of our collective consciousness. From his rebellious days fronting Prince and the Revolution, through his self-revelatory New Power Generation phase, to his recent elder mentor status with 3RDEYEGIRL, Prince challenged conventions of how bands ought to look or sound. The one quality he seemed to look for in his bandmates was spontaneity, an ability to improvise and respond to the moment. This demanded a level of musicianship that his most ardent collaborators were happy, even honored, to work toward. His mastery inspired other musicians to embrace theirs.
On hindsight, I now see all the ways he cherished and championed women in the music industry. There were, of course, his love interests. But there were also dozens of proteges and tons of collaborations, including even the ballet world and specific projects with celebrated American ballerina Misty Copeland.
When the song Cream sent the world into a titillating tailspin, I was subconsciously empowered by its women-can-do-anything subtext:
U're so good
Baby there ain't nobody better
So u should
Never, ever go by the letter
U're so cool
Everything u do is success
Make the rules
Then break them all cuz u are the best
- "Cream" by Prince (1991)
And after revisiting The Most Beautiful Girl in the World's music video, I was delightfully stunned to see images of an Asian American girl, a plus-sized woman, a black athlete, a lesbian couple (if I'm not mistaken) and a black female 43rd President of the United States. This expansive and inclusive view was created in 1995, 14 years before President Obama took office and 22 years before we might see our first female President. Now that's a trailblazing vision.
Taking on the titans...and winning
Prince's most celebrated triumph was when he began to wrest creative ownership rights from Warner Brothers in the early 1990s. The music label wanted to slow his album releases to a more manageable crawl for their marketing machine, but Prince was a prolific puma who resented that artificial constraint. He wanted to drop his music wherever and whenever he saw fit. First by changing his name from Prince to an unpronounceable symbol (later copyrighted as Love Symbol #2), then by scrawling the word "slave" on his right cheek in protest, Prince triumphantly gained ownership of his original master recordings in 2014.
This David vs. Goliath attempt was such an audacious thing for Prince to do that it ranked 4th on Rolling Stone magazine's 25 boldest career moves in rock history.
His groundbreaking stand paved the way for Jay Z, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Adele and many other performing artists to stand up against unfavorable payout deals.
It isn't always easy to take on "the big boys". And businesses do have overheads and need to stay profitable to stay open. But Prince reminded us that the scales of economic justice aren't always balanced, and there comes a time and a place to speak up.
Categories stifle genius
In a 1999 interview with Larry King:
KING: How would you describe your music? What idiom would you put it in?
PRINCE: The only thing I could think of...because I really don't like categories...but the only thing I could think of is inspirational. and I think music that is from the heart falls into that category. People who really feel what it is that they're doing. and uh...ultimately all music is or can be inspirational. And that's why it's so important to let your gift be guided by something more clear."
Breaking the mold or living in a world with no categories is easier for some. Most of us might feel more comfortable crawling back into bed than dealing with a day of shifting sands, moving goalposts or throwing a bunch of things on the wall to see what sticks.
Prince showed us it was possible to live a life that eschews boundaries, expectations or norms of any kind. Not only did he blend the sexual and the sacred, he constantly flirted with duality in other ways. True to his star sign Gemini, he was at once tender and fierce, masculine guitar chords and feminine falsetto coos, cosmic and earthly, sinewy and frilly, political and poetic, mustached and high-heeled, explosive and coy, professionally expressive and personally private.
There's a special sense of freedom about living this way. It takes some work to get to this level of inner peace and self-assuredness, but our personal version of it is well within reach. And as any creative professional or entrepreneur will tell you, being open to a boundaryless life begins to unleash your inner genius, the genius that a potentially-forgotten part of you feels compelled to express. It frees you to innovate, to begin to take risks in service of that genius, because you aren't shackled by the status quo and because you can now see "what if" possibilities where there were once only obstacles.
Doves were more than a symbol
And so we come to what I believe is the core of Prince's legacy. More than just a prop in his song When Doves Cry, or cherished pets at his Paisley Park estate, I see doves-inspired peacefulness surface time and again in his body of work.
His close friend Van Jones was visibly distraught on the day Prince died, but Van felt duty bound to stay on the air and talk about how all-encompassing Prince's genius was. They co-founded 'Yes We Code', an ambitious tech program to give kids from low-opportunity backgrounds a chance to shine. It came on the back of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Instead of fighting fire with fire, Prince saw the bigger picture and envisioned a more peaceful, empowering and sustainable way forward. He said, "Maybe it could...be that we're not turning out enough black Mark Zuckerbergs."
His philanthropic work did not end there, and there's something beautiful about learning that Prince had been a silent angel all these years, doing his part to make the world a little kinder and more peaceful.
Even the quick and quiet way that he chose to leave us carried a tinge of that peace. Before we knew it, his publicist told us he'd been cremated and that close friends and family had attended a private memorial service 2 days after his passing. No drama, no public conflict between family members, no histrionics from grieving fans. Just an elegant and tearful farewell to a freedom-championing and peace-loving soul.
Let his good deeds ripple out
I was dreamin' when I wrote this
So sue me if I go 2 fast
But life is just a party, and parties weren't meant 2 last
War is all around us, my mind says prepare 2 fight
So if I gotta die I'm gonna listen 2 my body tonight
- "1999" by Prince (1982)
Why did Prince's passing hit us so hard?
In the "Dateline NBC" special titled "Prince: Life & Death of an Icon", former Editorial Director of Billboard magazine Bill Werde suggests we're weeping for the shared sense of loss with our friends, for the loss of more music that we expected from Prince, and for the loss of our own childhood.
I would add there's a part of us that believes our compass for cool and wild abandon is lost forever.
And I would say...this is far from the reality of what is.
Now that the sorrow is beginning to fade for all but Prince's nearest and dearest, I put it to you that Prince lives on in us.
- He's given us so many tools, to fill us up and carry us forward.
- His erotic lyrics will remind us how sensuality opens the portal to physical ecstasy but also, if we uncover it, a blissful meeting of minds and a transcendent union of souls.
- His mystical poetry is one play button away, and his spiritual messages stand ready to lift you up into a greater possibility and reality.
All 7 and we'll watch them fall
They stand in the way of love
And we will smoke them all
With an intellect and a savoir-faire
No one in the whole universe
Will ever compare
I am yours now and u are mine
And together we'll love through
All space and time, so don't cry
One day all 7 will die
- "7" by Prince (1992)
- His fashion challenges us to contemplate what it means to dress like a woman or a man. It will forever champion the blurring of those gender and sartorial boundaries, reminding us that when the curtain falls at the end of life, clothes (even his flamboyant ones) and external appearances do not maketh the man. Kind and loving deeds do.
- His quiet philanthropy can be our guiding blueprint where, without fanfare, we can choose to fashion the world into one filled with a loving peace.
- His righteous indignation at how the music industry enslaves its artists teaches us to value the work we do in any walk of life, to stand up for what we create and seek to be masters of our destiny.
And his enduring love for an electric life is the spark we can use to ignite our own purple motorcycle engines, on a bold path to liberate our collective souls.
So, what DO you give a music icon who seemed to have it all?
You give him your love, your attention and your commitment to continue his good deeds.
And if de-elevator tries 2 bring u down
Go crazy - punch a higher floor
- "Let's Go Crazy" by Prince (1984)
Who knew those iconic lines would prophesy his dying moments? Prince was found unresponsive and pronounced dead in his Paisley Park elevator on April 21st 2016, but take comfort in knowing that he's punched a higher floor to the celestial realms. Let's hail his earthly genius, and wish him eternal peace in his Purple Penthouse in the sky.
As for me, I'm gonna buy me a raspberry beret. Let me know if you find one in a second hand store.