I was only two months old when Prince reached the commercial peak of his career with Purple Rain. So, my earliest memories of the iconic musician may make those fortunate enough to experience him sooner wince. This would include watching Jack Nicholson dance to “Partyman” in the movie Batman, and a few years later, seeing Prince expose his bare butt at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards.
I found the former fun, and the latter, strangely alluring. Nevertheless in either instance, I didn’t really understand what was before me. I knew Prince was someone to revere because I saw vinyls of albums like Purple Rain, Sign O’ The Times, and Parade spread across various parts of my home. Prince was something special, but I was too young to see why. He was not the kind of act a young child necessarily gets.
Michael Jackson was easier to digest for a child, especially one named after him. Michael Jackson was incredibly kid-friendly. He made things like Moonwalker and Captain EO. Prince, on the other hand, was anything but PG. Prince required a certain maturation — one that compelled you to know what norms he was challenging, what buttons he was pushing, and what experiences he sang about that are only accessible with age and with living.
Prince sang about sex fluidly. It was love and sex, it was spirituality in unison with sex versus in conflict. It was also sex in its absolute rawest form. Sex was cool. Sex was fun. Sex was a connection. Sex was whatever you wanted to be at the time. I had to reach the point in my life where I could understand that. Once I did, like so many others before me, I fell in love with his art.
As a gay black man, I appreciate that Prince did not cower under the rigidness of the hypermasculinity all too often thrust upon us. He confidently wore a G-string on an album cover, exposed his butt on national television, wore heels, and embraced androgyny. Prince was not a person who fixated on appearing “hard” or “tough”; he opted instead to show the greatest strength that is being comfortable in your own skin.
Many have long joked that Prince was as pretty, if not prettier, than the beautiful women he dated. That was often the case, but behind any chuckles about that lies the fact that the artist never bowed to anyone else’s idea of how his manhood should be presented. He was not making overt political statements with gender-bending aesthetic. Prince was just being.
That can often be a revolutionary act on its own, but this is especially true for Prince, a black man. For anyone who argues that this is standard fare today, I invite you to pull out a magnifying glass and give our culture a closer look. There aren’t many modern-day black male entertainers like Prince. They may sound like him because his works are highly influential and innovative, but name a heterosexual entertainer walking around in high heels, eyeliner, and pants that could easily be rocked by your sister or auntie. At least, there isn’t one that enjoys the kind of stature and commercial success that Prince enjoyed at his peak.
Now, name a gay black guy doing that.
I hear your silence. The sad reality is most black male entertainers can’t even get away with wearing one of Luther Vandross’s old glittery jackets without having their sexuality questioned. Odell Beckham Jr. — a professional football player — can’t dance in peace without his manhood and sexuality being called into question.
But this is what separates Prince from everyone else: he didn’t give a damn. His sexuality was not defined by the gender norms of others. He was an individual in every sense of the word. Prince lived by his own standard.
Read the rest at Teen Vogue.