The oral tradition of Black storytelling has always been about sharing in an “oh-you-weren’t-there-let-me-give-you-a-blow-by-blow” in an entertaining way. In that tradition, Prince took us all the way there to worlds we couldn’t imagine, all the while righteously shape-shifting, gender- bending, and cracking jokes.
At 57, he looked 35. He danced in heels - splitting, flipping and tumbling like he was 25.
He would announce surprise concerts with a mischievous wink. Concerts that would last for hours, only to be followed up by after parties in secret intimate locales, with just a few dozen people, that would last until the sun came up.
He changed one-night tours into month-long residencies on a whim. He was the epitome of passion. And he gave us everything.
He was a preternaturally gifted musician that couldn’t read music, but played all 27 instruments on the recording of his first album, For You, at age 17. When producer Chris Moon played Owen Husney Prince’s demo tape, Husney told me that he was like: “Incredible, who’s the group?”
Chris Moon said: “It’s not a group, its one kid, and he’s writing and singing and playing everything!”
Both Prince and his manager would insist on artistic creativity for his debut album. Husney refused offers from A&M and Columbia, opting for Warner Brothers because its executives agreed to give Prince artistic freedom and let him produce.
He carried that insistence on artistic freedom with him for the rest of his life and opened doors for other artists to have the courage to fight for it.
He was a gifted bandleader, virtuoso instrumentalist, producer and songwriter for some of my favorite songs, including Morris Day and the Time's "Gigolo's Get Lonely Too," "Screams of Passion," from The Family, “777-9311” by The Time (which was actually guitarist Dez Dickerson's real phone number that he had to change when the song came out) and Sheila E.'s "The Glamorous Life," among many others.
He didn’t allow the press to make a mockery of him, rarely granting interviews and on the rare occasions when he did, he wouldn’t allow tape recorders or notes to be taken. He preferred it to be a conversation.
He was one of the few public figures that openly fought for black people, particularly in poor communities. He donated to the BLM movement and gave money to Trayvon Martin’s family.
After the uprising in Baltimore, he gave a charity concert and the donations from that concert allowed my then 14-year-old daughter to get her first summer job with a youth activist group. Without the concert, Baltimore’s summer jobs program would have had a shortfall that would have left thousands of teenagers in Baltimore without jobs for the summer.
While politicians were calling young people "thugs" he created the song, "Baltimore," acknowledging the frustration that poured out into the streets: "Does anybody hear us pray, for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray? If there ain't no justice, there ain't no peace."
He hired other gifted instrumentalists and musicians, including women like saxophonist Candy Dulfer, romantic and musical partners Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, bassist Rhonda Smith, singer Rosie Gaines and keyboardist Gayle Chapman, to play in his band.
Sheila E. had already played with Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock and George Duke when he hired her to be a vocalist on “Erotic City.”
He showed us what freedom looked like. For artists. For black people. For women. For both privileged and marginalized communities.
When he found out that Warner Brothers owned the originals of his releases -- his master recordings, he painted the word "slave" on his face and fought and negotiated with the label for years until he just recently gained ownership in 2014.
He felt that all creations should belong to the artist and was critical of a Western society he felt was “based on taking without giving back.”
According to Van Jones, whom Prince helped to reboot his career after Jones left his job at the White House, he performed charitable acts that as a Jehovah's Witnes, he did not reveal: including helping to create Yes We Code, which partners tech companies with kids in the hood so they can get jobs in Silicon Valley. He was inspired to start the company after the death of Trayvon Martin.
“No, listen,” he told Jones. “A black kid wearing a hoodie is a thug. A white kid in a hoodie might be seen as a Silicon Valley genius. Let’s teach the black kids how to be like Mark Zuckerberg.”
Celebrated educator Marva Collins was featured in the video for the “Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” (a song Warner Brothers rejected and former Stax Record label owner Al Bell picked up and marketed). Prince gave her $500,000 towards the school she started for inner-city kids who she felt were falsely labeled as learning disabled.
He and Jones discussed the Pan-African scholar John Henrik Clarke’s books regularly, as Prince was a huge fan of Clarke.
He was a practical joker and found Dave Chapelle’s skit with Charlie Murphy about his basketball skills hilarious. He put the picture of Chapelle dressed as him on the cover of his album, Breakfast Can Wait, and the two built a lasting friendship.
In the competitive artistic-genius-fury to see who would dominate the ‘80s, he refused Michael Jackson’s request to perform a duet on the Bad album (he hilariously told Chris Rock he wasn’t gonna let a man tell him, “your butt is mine” on a record), but invited MJ to play basketball and ping pong in Paisley Park.
He was as close to an African-American unicorn that we are ever going to get.
I have a collage of memories: admiring his Farah Fawcett hairdo and wondering what he looked like naked if he jumped off that Pegasus on the cover of Prince; going to see him and Sheila E. at about 8 years old with my sister and parents and watching the theatrics that included a scene in a bed; witnessing the aural joy of the powerhouse vocals of him and Sharon Jones singing together at Madison Square Garden; and as a teenager listening to "17 Days" and "Erotic City" until the records warped.
He was both a manly man and a womanly man. Women clamored over a man that struck a feminine pose naked, adorned with flowers on the cover of Lovesexy. And men admired a man that at 5’2” in heels, was able to bed the finest women in the history of women.
On the day of his death, my best friend and I, now distanced by adulthood, were watching Purple Rain, a movie that was wonderful in its terribleness. As kids she and I were inseparable by books, music, sports and mischief. We would give adults our money to have them pass for our parents so we could get into R rated movies. We did this 7 times with Purple Rain and memorized every line of the movie.
Without an introduction to what we were doing, our texting the night of his death looked like this:
Me: “I want to see some asses wiggling, I want some perfection!”
Her: (Go get me my change…)
Me: That was fucked up what you did. Morris doesn’t like it and I don’t like it either.”
Her: “I’m not gonna play your stupid music!
Me: “Yeah, yeah, just like your old man. Nobody digs your music, but yourself!
Her: “DON’T I KEEP THE HEAT ON???!!!”
We talk often about growing up in a time period that included both Al Green and Slick Rick. In a period where artists like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Etta James, Luther Vandross, Vanity, Teena Marie, Rick James, Gil Scott-Heron, and Natalie Cole were supposed to live forever.
Prince inspired us with his lyrical prowess. One minute he could talk about the Atlanta child murders, AIDS, and be smitten enough to make you a coat of pink cashmere. Other times he's lamenting the fragility of love or singing about masturbating with a magazine and the pleasures of getting head. Then, he’s sounding beautiful and not making sense looking for purple bananas.
There have been impromptu dance-offs in Brooklyn and Minneapolis and across households around the world since his passing. To him, art was building new foundations and living in the moment.
“I wish life was never ending,” he sang on Sometimes Snows in April but, “all good things never last.”
Maybe not, but the moments always will.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Here are some thoughts and funny stories from the people who knew him well:
Jimmy Jam: We were at Bryant Junior High. I was a year younger than him. We were in a band to back up the choir at school. I was gonna play drums, and I knew Prince played keyboards. He showed up at practice and picks up a guitar and plays, note for note, the intricate solo from Chicago’s “Make Me Smile.” I made the mistake of getting up from the drums, and he sat there and he killed ‘em. He had the biggest Afro in the world—that wasn’t fair either.—The Star Tribune
Prince: I got so many hits, ya’ll can’t handle me. I got more hits than Madonna’s got kids!—said onstage at a concert in London.
Bob Merlis (Warner Bros head of publicity): He did an interview with a woman at Record World. They talked about whatever, then he asked her: “Does your pubic hair go up to your navel? At that moment, we thought maybe we shouldn’t encourage him to do interviews.—The Star Tribune
PRINCE: The reason I don’t use musicians a lot of the time had to do with the hours that I worked. I swear to God it’s not out of boldness when I say this, but there’s not a person around who can stay awake as long as I can. Music is what keeps me awake.—Rolling Stone
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
WENDY MELVOIN: Those warehouses were incredible breeding grounds for creativity. The Time was in one room rehearsing, and we’d be in the other. Prince was in the midst of doing the Family record. He was really driven, and his moods started getting more serious. He didn’t have a lot of time for fun, except he would go outside and play basketball — in the [high] heels, which he’s now paying for, I’m sure. With his heels on, he could run faster than me, and I was wearing tennies.—The Star Tribune
OWEN HUSNEY: Prince and Andre were jamming at a music store in San Francisco, and members of Santana’s band invited them to meet Carlos. We open the door: It’s an all-white house with all-white carpeting. Carlos says, “Come in, please. Please take off your shoes.” I said, “Prince, you gotta remove your boots.” He said, “I don’t remove my boots for anyone.” He walks across the carpeting and I see this trail of mud, and I’m cleaning up the mud while they’re in there talking.—The Star Tribune