I liked Prince as a teen but I grew to really appreciate him even more for his music, fashion, business sense, and artistic creativity, as I became an adult. He is without a doubt a heroic role model of our era. He never stopped trying new things and challenging “tradition”. Undaunted by norms, he was willing to be a daring, inventive, radical, free, and unreconstructed human being.
The year is 1984 and the album “Purple Rain” has dropped along with the movie of the same name. I saw it twice within 24 hours! First I saw it with my boy Stephen and again the next day with my girlfriend. Prince suffered the misfortune of releasing the most dynamic album and film at the same time that Michael Jackson took the music world by storm. In the face of stiff competition from the King of Pop, Prince developed an incredible following.
When Prince came to St. Louis to perform in 1984, my cousin, who had followed him for at least three years prior to Purple Rain, went crazy. She and my older sister and their friends packed into her car and spent the night following leads to “Prince sightings” in downtown St. Louis after attending the concert. They got in trouble for staying out too late, but did not care because they wanted a chance to glimpse or meet Prince. They loved him for being sassy, sexy, and cool and wanted to be with this diminutive fellow--enraging and baffling me because two of their girlfriends who gushed over Prince told me I was too short even though I stood four inches taller than Prince!
Tony Bolden, professor of African American Studies at Kansas University and guest editor of The Funk Issue in American Studies Journal (2013) sheds light on the meaning of funk and Prince. “Funky” says Dr. Bolden, “is honesty of expression at our deepest emotions. The genre Funk is hybrid forms. And Prince is the exemplification of that. He rejected categories, opting for Funk’s embrace of multiplicity of forms. Prince exhibited carefree blackness,” which Dr. Bolden says, “is funk. In many ways [Prince] reflected the meaning of the word and the genre.”
As an adult I witnessed Prince’s funk live at his 2004 Musicology Concert in Portland with my wife and three other couples. We loved Prince as teens and as young adults and his latest album reflected the dynamic funky sound that drew us all to him in our youth. As we entered it shocked me that we each received a copy of the album that we already had purchased! I smiled and exclaimed, “Genius! This brother just flipped the script again on the suits.” By including the album into the price of a ticket, he jumped to the top of the billboard chart during his concert tour. It was a funky move.
Throughout his career Prince waged battle against the record executives who controlled artists economically and creatively. Prince famously wrote the word “Slave” on his cheek during his battle in the 1990s with Warner Brothers over how often he could release his music and who owned it. Tied to a contract that required him to release a fixed number of albums, Prince produced them feverishly to speed up the execution of the contract. After leaving Warner Brothers, he formed his own music company, NPG Records and released a triple album in 1996-- not coincidentally titled “Emancipation”.
Always looking forward, he also was one of the first artists to utilize the Internet’s potential. He released his double album “Crystal Ball” for $50, selling 500,000+ copies. He famously told Larry King to, “do the math” when explaining the profit that he made from this unconventional approach.
Who can forget how he changed his name to a love symbol--a combination of the symbol for male and female—during his epic battle with Warner Brothers as a statement against corporate greed and in support of artistic bodies. This move left Warner with no “Prince” to sell, by abandoning that name and wresting control of his body and art. More than a symbolic gesture, he redefined himself without words. To put an exclamation point on his effort to release himself from slavery, he later reacquired the rights to his music.
As one reflects on Prince’s career it is not difficult to see him as the epitome of what an artist can become because he challenged notions of race, gender, and sexuality. His masculinity was secure; he loved the ladies and they loved him, not withstanding his small stature.
Prince always wore crazy cool fashion, which I respected even when it went too far for my taste. Whether wearing bikini underpants and a trench coat, a pantsuit, lace, long coat and ruffled shirt, skin-tight leather pants, or traditional suit, he oozed confidence, style, and funk to the stone cold bone.
During a trip to the South of France my wife and I drifted into a men’s shop that sold the most beautiful clothing: jackets, shirts, and suits constructed from amazing fabrics. The owner told me that one of her famous customers—Prince-- was about my build and that she kept things in his size in stock. My wife decided to purchase me a spectacular shirt and jacket that cost more than any suit that I ever owned. The cut, the fabric, and the fit were perfect. If this shop was good enough for Prince, I figured it was good enough for me. Eerily, I wore that blazer on the morning when he died.
Prince’s ethos and his aura, embody black American vernacular and culture to the point where he defined himself by an unspeakable symbol. He is a child of the Civil Rights Movement (also known as The Second Reconstruction). Emancipated and determined to be free, he avoided gimmickry-- after his first few albums—and his impetus was usually about expanding the known, stretching the unknown, refusing to be defined, limited, or owned. A close look at Prince’s life and career is an education for artists, for all of us, in the possibilities of self-definition, artistic control, and forward thinking.
Thabiti Lewis is Associate Professor of English at Washington State University Vancouver. He is the author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (Third World Press) and editor of the forthcoming book Chicago and the Black Arts Movement (Northwestern University Press).