By Thabiti Lewis
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” 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!
ONE FUNKY BROTHER
Tony Bolden, professor of African American Studies at Kansas
University and guest editor of The Funk Issue in American Studies Journal
(2013) sheds light the meaning of funk and Prince. “Funky” says Dr. Bolden, ³is honesty. The genre Funk is hybrid forms. Funk is about honesty. And Prince is the
exemplification of that. He rejected categories, opting for Funk¹s embrace of multiplicity of forms. Prince exhibited carefree blackness,² which Dr. Bolden says, ³is funk. In many ways [Prince] reflected the meaning of the word and the genre.²
NOT A SLAVE
As an adult I witnessed Prince¹s funk live at his 2004
Musicology Concert in Portland, OR, 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 ³Emancipation².
Always looking forward, he also was one of the first artists
to utilize the Internet¹s potential. He released his double album “Crystal Ball” for $50, selling close to 500,000 copies. He famously told Larry King to, “do the math”
when explaining the profit that he made from this unconventional approach. While the money mattered making the music his way was always deemed a success. He understood that the business men of music were in the business to make money off music and he was in the business of making his music the way he wanted to and owning his music.
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 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 men¹s 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.
Prince¹s 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.