I didn't get him ... until I did.
By Melissa Harris-Perry
Apr 22, 2016
Prince did not speak to me when I first heard his music, barely muffled by the perpetually closed door of my teen sister. I am not an artist. She is. My elder by more than six years, Beth is the girl who refused to buy a dress for high school homecoming, instead designing and sewing maroon satin knickers that scandalized the pitifully conventional boy who took her to the dance. Beth despised the restraints of small town life and eventually ran off to Washington, D.C. to finish high school at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. But in the dark days before her soul found refuge in that unparalleled community of dancers, actors, painters, vocalists, and musicians, she turned repeatedly to The Artist himself, playing hour after hour of Prince alone in her bedroom.
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I'd hear her rage drain as she belted out "Let's Go Crazy" and her self-confidence soar as she assured herself "Baby I'm as Star." She'd rewind the 9-minute version of "Purple Rain" for what seemed like an eternity.
I didn't get it.
Conformity felt easier for me. She is the dancer; I am the cheerleader. She needs a canvas; I need a spreadsheet. An impatient literalist by nature, I thought Prince was going on about an actual small, red, Chevy. I was not moved.
Then I fell in love with a tall, broad boy whose sickle cell disease kept him off the football field where every other tall, broad boy in our town inevitably spent most of their adolescent hours. Unable to play ball, he played bass. He was utterly incapable of moderation and adored or ignored me with brutal and unpredictable equality. I wanted only to be allowed to be his singular audience, invited to listen, first to him then to track after track of his favorite artist, Prince.
I started to get it.
I never fully knew his lovely inner self, but I watched the space Prince made for his difference, for his brooding, for a manhood defined against the narrowness of our childhood. Sports defined our working-class community. We all went to the football games on Friday nights in the fall, basketball occupied us all winter, and we filled the baseball stands in summer. Those wrongly shaped blood cells clogging his veins with debilitating pain kept my tall, broad love off the field and off the court, making it hard for the town or his dad to imagine him as fully a man. But Prince expanded that manhood, let him find it in his ability to make something beautiful, to elicit something pleasurable. And by his touch, I was offered new interpretations of those lyrics I had once taken literally. Oh my. I was moved. Now I understood why "I Would Die 4 U" and why Nikki was Darling.
I wanted to be able to exist in the tension of undefined spaces, where identity and experience and possibility are visible but not reductive. I wanted to be uncompromising and fabulous. I finally got it.
Then I found Prince for myself. It took years to recognize that although Beth is uniquely talented, she is not my mother's only creative child. Years to acknowledge the reasons I fell for the ones who woke me at 2 a.m. claiming I'd inspired a new composition only to leave me by the dinner hour. I began to notice that I was composing ideas, choreographing community, painting possibilities. As a teacher and activist, and eventually as a public voice, I was working in a different medium, but I was, nonetheless creating. That means I was risking being different and risking rejection as a result of that difference. I knew the fragile creative soul needed companionship and I knew where to find it. I turned to Prince.
I finally got it—the bravado, the freedom, the woundedness, the eroticism, the dualities, the unmatched genius.
I finally got it—the bravado, the freedom, the woundedness, the eroticism, the dualities, the unmatched genius. I started to hear everything I missed when I listened with my most uncompromisingly categorical mind. I heard how the music was neither funk, nor soul, nor jazz, nor rock, but all of them. That is exactly the kind of public voice I wanted to have. I wanted to bring social science, and literature, and humor, and ordinary wisdom, and black girl vernacular together in one unexpected creative fusion that felt good if you could let go and be inside it. I wanted to be able to exist in the tension of undefined spaces, where identity and experience and possibility are visible but not reductive. I wanted to be uncompromising and fabulous. I finally got it.
I long have been embarrassed by having come so late, if so fully, to Prince. This shame kept me from fully participating in the public grief so many expressed when he passed away unexpectedly on Thursday. I felt somehow implicated in his untimely demise, as though by my childhood failure to grasp his genius, I had not clapped for Tinkerbell to prove my belief in fairies as an antidote to Hook's poison.
Today I could not hold back. Deserving or not, the grief took. It seemed like Prince was all energy and artistry and spirit and ideas. But in the end, he too was body—limited and vulnerable and now gone. The entry was halting and delayed, but I did eventually throw open the gates of my soul to The Artist. And even in this little, incomplete, and wholly inadequate way I needed to remember how he helped me to find the artist in myself.