There are some moments in our lives that change us forever even if we don’t realize it at the time. It happened to me on a hot evening in the summer of 1984, in Bloomington, Indiana when I saw Purple Rain. It was opening weekend, and I stood with other students, mostly African-American, in a long line that stretched at least a block long. This was unusual, because as minority students at Indiana University, a predominantly white institution, we often found ourselves alone and adrift in a sea of whiteness.
Many of us were first generation college students, and sometimes we felt like guests crashing a party that we had not really been invited to. Some of our parents insisted that black students attending a white institution should be careful not to attract too much attention, but despite the warnings of our parents on that day we stood together for all to see.
Most of us were in our early to mid-twenties, so I don’t think we fully appreciated the fact that it was nothing short of a miracle that we were all standing together in line on that hot day in 1984. Here we were matriculating at a big Midwestern university, when even twenty years earlier we could have been denied admission at many universities because of the color of our skin. Our presence at the University was a testament to the determined warriors who spoke to power and demanded that the descendants of slaves who were brought to America by force be included in the American dream.
Prince was bold and unapologetic about his brilliance. We had never seen that in someone our age who looked like us.
So, we stood there proudly in the sweltering heat waiting to experience something our grandparents could never have dreamed of: a young black man the star of a movie celebrating his musical genius, who wrote, played, and performed the music. Prince was bold and unapologetic about his brilliance. We had never seen that in someone our age who looked like us. Prince knew he was gifted and intuitively realized that to whom much is given much is expected. He was an entertainer who gave more to his fans than we ever expected, and we were not disappointed on that day.
In the quiet darkness of the movie theater Prince introduced us to a story we had never heard before or since. We met the Kid, a young Minneapolis musician, who struggles for the right to express his musical vision in a world where he and his music are misunderstood. On his musical journey the Kid engages in a ferocious battle with dysfunctional family relationships, cunning rivals, his own emotional turmoil, and unrequited love, but in the end the music prevails.
Purple Rain is all about the music, and it is such glorious music. Prince allowed us to peer into his soul, and like most voyeurs we felt a little ashamed and guilty, but we couldn’t look away. Prince took us on an emotional ride, and through his eyes we experienced anger, love, lust, sadness and joy, unspeakable joy.
The song Purple Rain, is full of worship, beauty, longing and angst. Even when the song has ended you still hear the melody and the chorus in your head like sticky cotton candy that melts in your mouth, but leaves a lingering sweetness behind. Purple Rain connects with us emotionally because we all know what it’s like to long passionately and desperately for something or someone that is so close, but still out of reach. Prince showed us a way to give voice to our hidden feelings of unmet desire.
Prince told us it was okay to scream out loud, cry, laugh, be imperfect and unashamed.
For us the fact that Prince felt free to express such unbridled emotion in his music was a revelation. Most of our parents and grandparents were blue collar workers who spent their lives doing back breaking work to provide food, clothing, and shelter for their families. They told us that we were children of the dream, who were privileged to be able to get an education. Our parents expected us to attend school and work hard to demonstrate our worthiness to inherit the legacy bequeathed to us through blood and tears, but we were not encouraged to reveal our emotional selves.
Emotions were those private possessions that you kept tucked away like unwelcome clutter, and only brought out occasionally to show your closest friends. Prince gave our generation permission to publicly experience the full gamut of human emotions. He told us it was okay to scream out loud, cry, laugh, be imperfect, and unashamed.
Prince has been gone for a year, and we don’t know what to do with the huge, empty space his passing left, and we only now realize what he meant to us. Prince was the sound track of our youth: the music we danced, cried, and made love to when we were young, hopeful, and unafraid. We may never truly understand the singer’s private struggles that contributed to his early death of a drug overdose, but as we continue to pay tribute to the life and legacy of Prince we should remember that he did not leave us alone. Prince left his musical gifts with us, and he is still waiting to guide us all to the Purple Rain.