The Artist Known as Prince gave us countless gifts in his lifetime, many of which we’re just beginning to really see and appreciate since he left the earthly plane.
First and foremost, he selflessly gave his incomparable music and musicianship, his unparalleled showmanship, his unforgettable presence, his sharp wit, sly humor, spiritual bent, and knack for making gender-bending flamboyance highly desirable and the essence of Black Cool.
His generous support of other artists was well-known—writing and producing numerous hits, including an impressively diverse roster of talent onstage in his live performances—and featuring women musicians before it was trendy.
We enjoyed all of that and more during his brief lifetime. Since his passing on April 21, 2016, we are gradually learning the depth and breadth of his philanthropy, and how much he truly lived and worked for us, the people, both in and out of the recording studio, on and offstage.
And he gave those gifts—freely and with deep purple love—to everyone on the planet who chose to partake. He also had special gifts for any and everyone who was considered weird, unconventional, sexually and/or racially androgynous. He continually demonstrated to us that it was okay to be ourselves, even if others didn’t understand or accept us. Even if we weren’t fully certain how to understand or accept ourselves.
In that, I believe he bequeathed those special gifts to those of us who are Multiracial—culturally, racially and ethnically plural. While the world was demanding that we contort ourselves to conform to their notions of “either/or,” Prince signaled that it was perfectly fine for us to be “and”—according to our own definition.
“Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people.” – Prince Rogers Nelson
Let me get personal for a minute. My (Black) father and (Jewish) mother grew up in North Minneapolis, Prince’s home turf. My father was a jazz musician. He was physically abusive to his last (and longest-running) wife, but thankfully not to my mother. Before 1984, I liked Prince’s pre-1984 hits, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Little Red Corvette,” and I found his cute androgyny mildly interesting, but I was in no way a hard-core fan.
Then I saw “Purple Rain.” I had no idea what to expect. But that movie and the music spoke to me in a way that nothing ever had in my 29 years of life. I saw a representation of my own family onscreen, complete with “inside” local references (that was clearly NOT Lake Minnetonka, LOL) and an energy that had not been portrayed anywhere in all of USA art, culture or history. Ever.
“Purple Rain” zapped me to my core and lodged itself inside of my consciousness in ways I hadn’t expected. There was much noise at the time about whether Prince was Biracial. I never felt that he was—he just didn’t exude Mixed energy—and I understood the movie to be a scripted drama from someone who was clearly familiar with the abundance of Black male/White female couples in Minneapolis. (I also had the advantage of having family who grew up with his mother and cousins, and they laughingly assured me that he was in no way Biracial.)
Even though I didn’t read him as technically Biracial, I identified with the way that he—and his character, The Kid—played with and straddled categories of all kinds. He toyed with ambiguity and androgyny to provide an example of someone determined to be in charge of his own search for truth and meaning. His presentation of proud, unambiguous Blackness also resonated with me—because he presented it as welcoming, inclusive, so confident that it could not be threatened by the presence of those who were not.
He was the first person I’d seen who was so fearless and fierce in claiming such a gleefully nonconformist brand of truth. That was what I related to. He wasn’t confused, he wasn’t sad, he wasn’t tragic. He wasn’t letting anyone else define him and he damn sure wasn’t going to conform to anyone’s expectations of who he was—musically or otherwise. By defying categories without defending or explaining, he broke new ground for those of us who were born into and live in that space.
I have come to view Prince as having the energy of Ellegba, the trickster spirit in the Yoruba Ifa tradition. Ellegba lives at the crossroads, and incorporates a lot of duality in his appearance, so that he might appear one way to one person and another way to someone else. Or show two different sides to one person in two different moments. Prince controlled his voice, his vision, his brand, his image and his work in the way that I believe Mixed-race people can control our identities. He personified duality on several levels at one time, and yet there was never any question that he was a proud Black man. He stood in and wrote/played/sang his truth—turning the trope of Black/White into Purple and inviting everyone to partake.
Like Multiracial people, purple is a blend…joining red and blue to create synthesis. Like us, purple is deep and powerful and spiritual and regal and gorgeous. It comes in countless shades and variations and yet it always remains true to itself. And Prince’s gender blending was so genius because purple also reps yin-yang: red being the hot, proactive male energy and blue being the cool, responsive and receptive female. #Balance
That skinny, sexy mofo was a special gift to Multiracial folks because he embodied what the world views as contradictions and turned them into synthesis, then spun them into irresistible jams that made the whole world party. We can look to Prince as the patron saint of Those Who Don’t Fit Into Boxes, and heed his message that the quest for authenticity and truth is worth meeting all the challenges, embracing all the madness of racism in its many guises, and spinning something magical that shows the world our true colors—whatever they might be, however we define them and choose to identify ourselves.
He encouraged us to find our unique music—and play it our way. To carve out our own space, our own meaning, without compromising or contorting ourselves to squeeze into anyone else’s categories. He showed us how to ignore the confines of “genre” and lift our own voices to the heavens, knowing that the world will either embrace us on OUR terms, or miss out on the fun.
Even in the depths of my still-fresh grief (I was blessed to have seen one of his final performances in Atlanta), I choose to focus on my gratitude for his many gifts—especially that one. He gave us something to make our journey a bit smoother and funkier in all the best ways. And he did it with that exaggerated side-eye, iconic shade, kiss-my-butt pimp strut-glide, and the hottest lyrics, dance moves and guitar licks this side of Heaven.
Prince personified “multi” by his own rules, and inspired us to define and apply it as we choose. He didn’t leave a road map for us to follow—he threw us a handful of celestial glitter with a wink and a chuckle, encouraged us to forge our own pathways, reminding us all the while that we should be cool, the music must be hawt, and the party must be meant to last.
TaRessa Stovall, a native of Seattle, is an author, blogger and marketing genius living in the ATL. Catch her at www.blackandblewish.com and @taressatalks.