CultureHealthMusicOpen Letter

i would love 4 u: grief, sacrifice and prince

January 3, 2019
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Many cliches are cliches because they are accessible. They feel good and they work — but once an idea is tired, it feels like empty platitude. Some cliches, however, are cliche because of how useful they are. We call on such ideas often because life makes them necessary. These are proverbs we probably uttered because, for some reason, they complete the emotions that we feel but find hard to articulate.

Once, when I visited a friend who was laid-up in a hospital bed, we shared a knowing silence, while the mundane talk between nurses about office gossip interrupted our clinical quiet on the other side of the door. It was hardly 24 hours after his attempted suicide, and one comforting thing about such an event is that, it is so horrendous, nobody feels pressured to fill the air with aimless chatter. I’d just ask, “How are you? Do you need anything?” He’d respond, “I am fine and no.” He told me lies that I knew weren’t true, which I appreciated, if only for the effort; and I thought truths and cliches in my mind that I would never let roll off of my tongue. Including: I would die 4 u.

It feels thin — intellectually undeveloped — to compare a pop song to trauma, but when Black and finding escape in music, it’s simply a reversal of how we create the joyful noise. Most Black music is created out of deep trauma and that divine need to express oneself, which all artists possess. Just as it’s easy to connect negro spirituals to chattel slavery, it’s quite simple to see trauma and connect it to a song, because this has been our transaction: to be harmed and then to create. It’s logical to feel deep pain and recall music that might help you feel less alone during the experience. Melancholy is soundtracked, and we reach for the familiar during tragedy — and, often, the cliche.

Prince’s jovial, crucifical dance track “I Would Die 4 U” once consumed my imagination. The mantra he repeated: “I would die 4 u, I would die 4 u, I would die 4 u.” Lyrically he compares himself to a Christ-like character, singing lyrics like, “I’m not your lover. I’m not your friend. I am something that you’ll never comprehend. No need to worry. No need to cry. I’m your messiah and you’re the reason why.”

The love that Prince is referring to must be compared to spiritual and religious ideology because as he sings in his lyrics, it’s not romantic, not familiar or platonic, but rather divine. It’s such a quick articulation of the sacrificial, transcendent energy that encompasses me when I love another Black person for no other reason, but because, in my life, I’ve decided to take interests in love. No other conditions.

It is a sacrificial instinct that I’ve only located with Black people. It is not so much a bravery around death, but a deep empathy of knowing what it takes to be a queer, Black, creative thing in domination, and me wishing I could store that kind of pain and trauma like my body stores pain and memory in my bad knee (the one I inherited from my mama’s side). When thinking about it, it’s not so much that I desire to complete my life but to grow it so big that I can fit the demons and haunts of everyone I’ve ever been interested in practicing love with.
Six days after my friend’s attempted suicide, I lost a family member to a drug overdose. My grandmother’s memory began to deteriorate from dementia and her behavior was becoming more volatile and unpredictable. Just as quickly and randomly as I thread these sentences together, is how quickly and randomly these events took place. And only Prince’s music, namely “I Would Die 4 U,” relieved me from the cold emotional overwhelm that the tragedies had brought. As I felt my body and spirit pulled into a nihilism and depression I’d never known, professional help and Prince were essential to sustaining my will to live and to love, and to making room for the biggest, most complicated situation a human faces: acceptance of death.

The other day, I saw a woman lying down on her hospital bed; she looked damp. I could not tell why and I pressed play on the video. I had no idea what happened. The dampness turned out to be a combination of tears and sweat: the woman’s name was LaPorsha Washington and she had lost her 7 year-old daughter to a white terrorist, all because she took her kids when she went to get a cup of coffee the day before New Year’s Eve. Though she shielded her oldest daughter with her body, tragically her youngest daughter remained too vulnerable to the hatred and violence, and lost her life. And now Washington was in the hospital bed insisting — almost pleading — to be believed, because she had tried to understand what she might’ve done wrong. Washington, like most mothers, replayed the moment in her mind repeatedly. Thinking about what could have been done differently or if something else had happened; yet nothing happened, but the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy finding opportunity in a beautiful Black family on a coffee run to express its sickness, its perversion, and its evil. In the face of this, Washington turned her body into a armor of love even if it meant her own death, trying to protect the Black children that she undoubtedly created out of the same grace and love that spawned the action.

Prior to LaPorsha Washington’s tragedy hitting the news cycle on New Years Eve, a friend of mine from my hometown of Atlanta committed suicide. Six days before, a former musical mentor of mine died from overdosing, her body found wrapped in material that I can’t remember because my crying became audible when hearing about it. I’ve yet to be brave enough to want to know any more details to ask. I have been in New York City for the past two years and it has been devastating to imagine that the theme park I once loved and called home, might feel like a graveyard upon my return. This thought is both selfish and relentless. This is the fascinating thing about being human in grief, that unadulterated selfishness and empathetic mourning can exist in the same body and mind, creating a civil war right underneath your own chest. This is mostly how my interior intellectual and emotional life have looked during this string of tragedies.

Yet LaPorsha Washington’s tragedy is earth-shattering, hard to hear as just another Black person who has loved and lost because domination is committed to creating an oven that politicians turn the heat up on, one that has intensified the violence we face rhetorically and physically. I would never truly dare compare anything to Washington’s act, but that instinct to cover and protect what you love even when you know you don’t have any control was too familiar and moving to not articulate.