Why Prince’s death feels so much like a personal tragedy
Thursday, the world lost an incredible artist. When I first heard the news of Prince Rogers Nelson’s passing, I was in utter disbelief (I still am). It wasn’t possible that “His Purple Highness” would no longer walk the earth and grace us with his beautiful music. He was only 57 years old.
Once his death had been confirmed, I felt paralyzed, lifeless. I knew how much Prince meant to me. I’ve known for years. I have memories of dancing to “Little Red Corvette” in a family friend’s basement. I fondly recall clumsily imitating my mother’s steps and hand gestures to “I Would Die 4 U” in the living room of our first house in East Oakland. Prince’s music spanned over 40 years, and with each changing decade, he offered a new life and sound to the world.
With the relentless social and political upheavals taking place all over the globe in the 1980s and 1990s (Reaganomics, the crack epidemic, natural disasters, apartheid’s slow death, HIV/AIDS, etc.), no other artist captured the sound and fury, the quotidian and surreal, the tranquility and the commotion of our lives; especially in that era. I could go on and on about the multiple personas Prince inhabited over the years and how his style and performance adapted to every moment, but his transition is especially personal to me.
When I was younger, I spent so much energy trying to create distance between myself and the outside world. I am an only child, and as a kid and young adult, I was shy, introverted, and awkward. In the many moments when I felt like I couldn’t connect to or communicate with others, I relied on Prince to carry me through each day. When I listened to Prince, I felt like I was doing something exciting, illicit, grown up. He was mesmerizing. He was so versatile. His music catered to and reflected my every mood. Happy (“D.M.S.R.”), sad (“Purple Rain”), naughty (“Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “Soft and Wet”), energetic (“Let’s Go Crazy”), reflective (“She’s Always in My Hair”), cheeky (“Ballad of Dorothy Parker”), jealous (“Darlin’ Nikki”), sexy (“Irresistible Bitch”), loved (“Most Beautiful Girl in the World”), bitter (“I Hate U”), passionate (“Insatiable”) and grateful (“Adore”).
Not only am I mourning his death but I am also mourning the passing of an integral part of my own life. He taught me about sex, love, passion, forgiveness, seduction, lust, denial, pain, and most importantly, loss. His music forced me to confront myself, expose and accept my many dimensions. Through his music, I learned to carefully craft myself into a sensate being. He taught me how to be me.
In the mid- and late-1980s, while my peers and friends gushed over the smooth gesticulations of Michael Jackson, I daydreamed about running over the fanciful, animated rolling hills featured in the “Raspberry Beret” video. While they carefully rehearsed the frenetic choreography of the “Thriller” video, I quietly memorized the lyrics to “When Doves Cry.” As they bumped mid-90s gangsta rap on their boomboxes, I whispered along to the lyrics of “I Can’t Make U Love Me” softly playing in my Sony Walkman earphones.
Prince has always been my intellectual, spiritual, sonic, musical home.
His soul-stirring music made me laugh, cry, sing, scream, dance, fight, and write about art, culture, politics and blackness.
In a lot of ways, it is really too soon for me to fully process this tragedy. I need time to start the healing process. I imagine this is how it felt when Coltrane, Miles, and Nina left. Profound sonic and cultural shifts.
It is difficult to remain careful, studious, precise, clean, when writing about something so personal, heart-wrenching and bare. To think of his death and his music is a challenging and painful task. It is an endless and turbulent rollercoaster that toggles between agony, ecstasy, and piercing anguish. As Daphne Brooks once said of Jeff Buckley with such honesty and beauty, “writing about him was an has always been a matter of life and death, and a struggle to honor a passionate soul whose wretchedly untimely passing somehow irrevocably altered my life.” Prince electrified my soul in immeasurable and unforgettable ways.
Brandi Thompson Summers, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research interests include race, aesthetics, and visual culture with an emphasis on the contemporary racialization of bodies and urban spaces. You can reach her on Twitter at @sleepyscricket