I have always been a huge fan. Who wasn’t? I remember that Friday evening dance party at the Greenlight bookstore in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighbourhood, in March 2013. My friend Touré was hosting an unusual book signing, in honour of his new book I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon.
Touré, an accomplished journalist and author I have known for two decades, explained that Prince had become an icon in the music world, but underneath the superstar who transcended pop, soul, rock and, of course, funk, sat another, more mysterious artist who needed to be revisited. That artist wrote lyrics and produced melodies that were driven by his faith, by the pull of religion. I was very happy with my autographed copy of the book.
Of course, when my teenage friends and I were dancing to Prince in 1980s Paris, we weren’t thinking of prayer. Songs like Darling Nikki, with its references to masturbation and sex fiends would keep a 17 year old going, but it was only later that I discovered that, towards the end of that song, the vocals underneath the sound of rain are actually Prince singing (in reverse) the lyrics ‘Hello, how are you? Fine fine, ’cause I know the Lord is coming soon, coming coming soon.’
Whether he was singing about race, gender, sexuality, society, or religion, he always seemed to include everyone in the conversation.
Obviously, for a Catholic school boy like me, a boy who was equally at ease in church and in the Paris dance clubs, Prince was a hero. What I loved most, what many people loved most about him was the way he broke down all kinds of barriers. Whether he was singing about race, gender, sexuality, society, or religion, he always seemed to include everyone in the conversation.
The first Prince album I discovered was Dirty Mind, the 1980 record that set the record straight. Our prodigy, sporting that scarf and flashy jacket in the black-and-white photo on the cover, was half naked and about to break into pop stardom. He did it by incorporating some rock shit, as well as some new wave sounds, but he just wasn’t willing to sacrifice his roots in soul and funk. I was a child growing up in Washington DC when that record came out, and I remember overhearing the adults saying they’d never heard anything like it.
By the time Purple Rain came out as a soundtrack to the eponymous film, I was that black Paris kid who knew everything about Lake Minnetonka, the meaning of purple as a colour, and the girl groups Apollonia 6 and Vanity 6. The year was 1984, and after I learned the lyrics to the songs I started researching the effects of electronic synthesizers and drum machines on pop instrumentation. That’s how much my friends and I were drawn to Prince’s world.
Before it became a worldwide anthem, we grooved to lead single When Doves Cry, because it was both happy and sad. Because the lyrics were both simple and complex. It was psychedelic, and it was naughty, and it was spiritual, but the song ended with a twisted classical tune, as if redemption and elevation were just around the corner.
His sudden death, at 57, reminds us that we expect our icons to live forever.
By then, I had heard every song Prince released, but 1987 was the year that changed it all for me. When Sign o’ the Times came out, I immediately felt as if he’d released his masterpiece, in the form of a double album. Again, he pushed the boundaries of romance and eroticism, with songs like If I Was Your Girlfriend. He was unashamed of asceticism and overt devotion, with The Cross, but this time the message was different. Prince chose to deal with some of the most pressing social issues of our time.
That album reminded me of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, but Prince seemed to be mapping out a blueprint for tackling some of the inequalities that were holding America (and the world) back. Everyone is writing about Prince (and his long career) today, because his sudden death, at 57, reminds us that we expect our icons to live forever.
Most of us Prince fans are feeling very sad today, but we are grateful to him for fighting for so many types of freedoms. Prince fought for the freedom of artists, but ultimately Prince was about civil liberties. I, personally, also want to thank him for introducing me to the music of Joni Mitchell, and to the poetry of Dorothy Parker.