A moment that I never wanted to face in life happened to me yesterday; I sat down crying to the final note of “Purple Rain” in the wake of the death of the artist formerly known as Prince.
Prince Rogers Nelson was an entertainer as magnetic as he was mesmerizing. Playing a perfected mix of rock, pop and funk, that even reached disco and new wave, the Purple One made influential, popular music for years to come after his breakthrough album, 1999. Every sound, ranging over 27 instruments, and every lyric crafted within each album were meticulously chosen, arranged, produced and composed by the artist himself. As his career progressed, his outfits began to juxtapose androgynous aesthetics with unabashed sexuality and masculinity confusing all those who were drawn to the style of his album covers.
It is no secret that Prince was a musical genius and one of the greatest guitarists of all time. However, the greatest contribution of the purple legacy was in fact how Prince represented the principle of being true to yourself.
Growing up, not fitting in as “one of the boys” always worked against me at school and with my parents. Being more into art than sports, while also coming into my identity questioning expectations of what it was to be a “man,” it was interesting to see how Prince blurred gender in fashion and mannerisms that went unquestioned by those, young and old, who taunted me. His ruffled blouses, heels, and high waisted pants seemed more relatable than presenting as hypermasculine in baggy clothes.
Prince never shied away from how dirty he was willing to get down. Not only was he a Black man that was changing the rules of masculinity, he presented that sex was a part of life and needed no shame. “Darling Nikki” even landed on the “Filthy Fifteen”–songs responsible for the Parental Advisory sticker championed by conservative parents. From the double entendres in “I Wanna Be Your Lover” to lengthy roleplay monologues that would make anyone blush in songs like “Lady Cab Driver” and “Eye Hate U,” the language of foreplay was one that the artist knew well.
Finally in what may be the greatest “fuck you” of the rock era, Prince reminded his record label, and the world, that he was a man and not a product. After fighting legal battles with Warner Brothers, the artist formerly known as Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable “love symbol,” combining the symbols for man and woman, in order to maintain complete creative control of his work. He changed his name back after fulfilling his contract yet it shows that Prince, since day one, has always been true to himself.
Prince could not be owned. He also could not–and did not–play by rules of gender, sexuality, politics and artistic expression which is just as big of a legacy as his musical one. While we have to wait to see what is in the massive vault of shelved material within his home at Paisley Park, Prince left behind all of himself for us to enjoy within his extensive catalog.
If there is anything to be learned from the Purple One, it’s that there is no shame in being yourself and enjoying the human experience because no one can own that for you.