My mother once told me that when John Lennon died, she couldn’t understand why so many people he didn’t know wanted to attended his funeral. Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono famously refused to hold a memorial service for the music icon after his tragic murder in 1980. Despite, or perhaps because of this, there was a widespread clamoring from the public for some type of event they could attend to honor Lennon’s memory, and his music. While aware of his fame and stature in the entertainment industry, my mom was flummoxed as to why so many people would want to go through a sort of public grieving process for a complete stranger. Four years later, Marvin Gaye was gunned down by his father in Los Angeles. My mom’s reaction? “Then, I understood.”
There was no funeral held for Prince after his shocking death on April 21, 2016. He, like Lennon, was cremated with little fanfare from his family. It seems like a robbery of sorts; the most brilliant musician of the 20th century (I’m referring to Prince here, to be clear) and one of the greatest entertainers in history (also Prince) met the end of his life suddenly, and without an official service to commemorate his life and career. There were scores of tributes in cities worldwide—the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, and many other famous structures were decked out in purple to honor Prince’s memory. The Billboard Music Awards in May and the BET Awards in June each had performances dedicated to Prince (the VMAs in August curiously omitted a tribute). A pubic communal catharsis usually accompanies a beloved famous person dying, especially when it happens unexpectedly. Still, even with the purple buildings and the awards show performances and the “RIP” tweets from famous people, I get a hollow feeling when reflecting on the aftermath of Prince’s death. It’s sad enough that he’s gone, but almost as disappointing is the fact that to me, he still hasn’t been properly eulogized. But who would eulogize him, and is it even possible?
A celebrity death has never affected me the way Prince’s did. I was 20 years old when Michael Jackson died, and I remember feeling shock, mostly because it seemed like another unbelievable story in a life of numerous unbelievable stories attached to him. I also found myself mourning a man who it seemed never had a fair shot at any sort of normal life. Michael and Prince were both “weird” in that specific way that all black geniuses are. With Michael, it seemed like weirdness was thrust upon him; a result of being a musical child prodigy raised in a home with an overbearing taskmaster of a father/manager. Prince himself came from a broken childhood home, but his weirdness seemed like a choice, a decision he made before embarking on his career as the only way people could digest his brilliance. Both towered over the music industry at their peaks, but Prince’s death elicited a much more visceral response from me. As someone who has played music since age 7, he was my hero. There isn’t a musician that I admire more. He was renowned for his mastery of different instruments: bass guitar on this song, lead guitar on this song, piano on this song. As a live performer he was unparalleled, a James Brown disciple who could alternate between unbridled sexual funk, Liberace-like flamboyance, epic arena rock on the biggest stage possible, and intimate, emotive acoustic sets with ease. And in case you ever need a reminder that he was one of the greatest guitarists to ever pick up the instrument, this performance remains immortal.
There’s something deeper that devastated me about Prince’s death, something that’s more difficult to articulate. He was from a predominately white state and was able to garner worldwide acclaim for his talent and individuality while still showing love to his hometown. That speaks to me as a black man who grew up in Iowa; someone who loves Des Moines but still feels like somewhat of an outsider in the state I grew up in. He was consistently at the forefront of social issues, from his AIDS commentary on “Sign o’ the Times” to his recording the song “Baltimore” in the midst of the Freddie Gray trial. Through his music, he displayed his years long internal battle with his views on sex, religion, blackness, politics. He wrote “The Cross”, a Christian themed song about how God can fix your problems. He also wrote “Gett Off”, which is about exactly what you think it’s about. “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy” detail the end of the world and life’s problems bringing about insanity, and yet the underlying message in both songs is “So what? Let’s party!” “Kiss” is a confident male telling a woman exactly what he’s looking for if she ever hopes to be with him. On “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, Prince imagines himself as a female friend of the woman he’s sleeping with. All of these ideas and identities are at war with each other, fighting for supremacy within the same person. But does one really have to “win” out over the others? Can a person be both overtly spiritual and overtly sexual? Can a man sing from the perspective of both a man and a woman? Can confidence and insecurity reside in the same individual? Of course these things are possible. Prince took the dichotomies that exist within every person and put them on display for a 30+ year career, with no apologies. It’s just who he was. I think that’s what hit me so hard when he died. On the surface, Prince and I didn’t have a lot in common. I’ll never be a fraction of the musician he was. I’ll never have the reverence he garnered from not only the public but other entertainers. But I understood his need to display the different aspects of his personality through his music. We spend so much of our lives trying to understand or explain our identities—to other people and to ourselves. Then, once we reach our conclusions on who or what we really are, much of our time is spent hiding it. With Prince, everything was a reveal. A life and career spent manifesting to the world who he was and what he believed in. We’ll likely never see another talent like Prince combined with someone so completely unafraid to be themselves. I’ll miss Prince, even though I never met him. Because to me, he represented the fact that it’s ok be in a state of constant discovery and development of your identity. And, man, could he play that guitar.