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MusicSummer of Blacker Love

what we mean when we say, “prince was a revolutionary”

June 7, 2019
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Has there ever been a moment when Prince Rogers Nelson was not our lodestar, our greatest, the only one we come for? I am of a generation for whom his stature in our collective imagination has always been true and absolute.

This was the case early on in his career, when Prince was more of a myth to us East Coast youngins, a beautiful young genius in Minneapolis writing, producing and playing everything on his albums. It was so in the mid-1980s, when he turned the pop charts into a global arena for a contest between him and another supremely talented Black musician named Michael, all the while creating a spectrum of transgressive sounds which (for a while, at least) challenged the notion that the future of Black American music belonged to hip-hop. It remained a fact in the 1990s, when he morphed to an unpronounceable symbol and refused to put out his newest and best songs, because a corporation owned his very name and the fruit of his creative labor, while the mainstream press pilloried him; but we continued to wait and yearn for his spectacular performances. It was still true for the last decade of his life when his acceptance of living legend status and elder statesman-hood made him the only thing worth watching at jingoistic monstrosities and media balls like the Super Bowl or major awards shows.

Prince could change the damn game each and every time he walked into the room. Growing up and growing old knowing this, was as good a reason to keep on living as this world has at times been able to provide.      

The formation of truly revolutionary musicians does not end in the studio or on a stage. And the comprehension of what makes them extra-special must reach beyond the ears — or, for the fortunately empathetic, the hearts. A real-deal mark of a musical revolutionary is the ability to transform minds and habits and culture, en masse. Even for those who did not mature alongside “Controversy” and Purple Rain, or who could maybe not recognize “Housequake” and Spooky Electric, Prince’s impact was monumental. He did not just leave fingerprints on obvious creative categories like sound and style, but on work-habits and quality control, on private community requirements and public engagement with arts capitalism. Hell, he was even redefining a way to grow old while staying relevant as an artist. I still dream about what he would have been like in Vegas, the Black man immaculately dressed in purple and peach, once and for all taking the crown, the Prince becoming King. (While inevitable covering classic Elvis tunes just to make the point clear for…some.)   

Even from beyond the grave, during this radicalized time, Prince is capable of acting the part of a social thought leader. How else to explain what many of us regarded as among the best aspects of Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman, the closing montage of American racism in action that descended into the closing credits, which were suddenly accompanied by a fragile (then-previously unheard) piano-voice version of “Mary Don’t You Weep” that also incorporated the lyrics to “Strange Relationship.” A song tilled from the bedrock of gospel music was being integrated with a song ostensibly about kink. And yet, here, following those visuals, the “Strange Relationship” that the song was describing ceased to be about two people, and turned into a discourse on two peoples. This was not happenstance. It was revolutionary genius — words I do not use lightly.    

Were he still with us today — and I f*cking kid you not that I cry as I type these words (as I have been crying and in disbelief for three years since his passing) — Prince Rogers Nelson would have turned 61 years old. And we would still be expecting something special from him. Yes, that wonder would less likely take the form of one of those hair-raising, mid-song, high-heel splits, from which he would ascend, lick his finger and check off a list in the air, a well-learned bravado of improvisational choreography. More likely, it would be a new song like “Baltimore” or a story about a life well-lived, such as the ones we were expecting from the autobiography he was writing at the time of his death. He would not have opened his sacred vault. But, yeah, thanks to whatever craziness is going with his estate, there’s still years of music to come from him — and as someone who has been collecting bootlegs from that vault for 30+ years, I can safely say that some of it is also his greatest music. Prince Rogers Nelson’s body is gone, but his spirit and legacy are still out here doing the work, planting the seed for the next uprising — whichever form it will take.