I knew it might happen one day. I wondered what I would do when it did. Would I be among the faithful making the pilgrimage to Minnesota to stand with the grieving? Where would I be when I heard the news? How would I respond? As it turned out, I was in New York City dealing with a personal crisis. I was on the phone with my niece, already upset about a number of challenges going on in my life. A text came through that mentioned news reports of Prince’s possible death.
I quickly checked my Facebook and friends who know I work in the news media were asking for confirmation. And then my phone and texts started blowing up. I was so hurt, I could not even respond to them at first. Friends told me later that I’d mentioned in the days previous that I couldn’t imagine a world without him. But something in my spirit felt uneasy. The reports of his plane diverted due to illness on the way home to Minneapolis just days earlier sounded ominous. Although Prince said he was fine, and showed up at Paisley Park a few days later to host a party and show off a new guitar, that nudge to my spirit lingered.
I can’t imagine what Prince’s friends and family, from his sister Tyka to his friends, the model Damaris Lewis, news anchor Tamron Hall, Larry Graham to Sheila E. and all the others who worked with, played with and loved him. My friends and family blew up my phone because they knew, for me, it was as though someone in my family had died. I didn’t have a personal relationship with him. But truthfully, I did.
I don’t know exactly how it started. I don’t quite know what song or album got me into him. It seemed as though he’d been encoded into my DNA from the first time I’d heard him. His music made me feel as though someone else understood me – a young woman who always felt too tall, too awkward, too nerdy, too cerebral, always too something – that wasn’t quite right. When he boldly asked the question ‘Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me/ Some people want to die so they can be free/Life is just a game/We’re all just the same’ it touched something in my soul and I knew I’d found the person who would record the soundtrack to my life.
And he did – from failed love affairs to celebrations to heartbreak to passion to those restless nights of despair when I wondered if hanging on to life was worth the effort.
People may think that mourning a popular musician is just part of the social media fueled culture of celebrity worship where overheated stans latch onto someone to fill a void in their own lives.
After all, most of the time a fan has never even met the object of their adoration. Fortunately for me, not only did I meet Prince three times, one of those times I was able to sit with him and Larry Graham at Paisley Park and ask him questions. He was a doll-like, beautiful man who was engaging and funny and down to earth in way that I couldn’t imagine beforehand. Even though I was there as a journalist, he was still, in my mind, akin to a deity.
I’ve seen him in concert 12, 13 times. He was my first concert, at Worcester Centrum in Massachusetts. As many times as I’ve seen him, I never saw the same song played the same way, heard the same banter, saw the same choreography. He gave you an original show every single time. No matter how much you spent for the tickets you never felt that you didn’t get a completely original, brand new show and you never felt cheated. When the show seemed to end, you knew to wait because Prince would come back for several encores. If you were lucky and you knew where to find the after show, you’d see him play more music in an intimate venue with superstar guests that changed with each show.
When you see a Black artist, depending on genre for the most part, you see them in front of a Black audience. You see most white artists in front of a predominantly white audience. With Prince, you would not just see every race, creed, background and ethnicity, you would see all age groups. You’d see kids who were turned on to his music by their parents or teens that discovered it on their own. Prince and his music spoke to people across a wide spectrum.
Though he was once the butt of jokes during his ‘Slave” battle to retrieve his master recordings from Warner Bros. Records, he ultimately became a figure so revered, that an awards show appearance would elicit a frenzied response. He never changed. He remained apologetically himself and the world caught up with him.
We weren’t worried about Prince. He was driven by his music and in recent years, his staunch Jehovah Witness faith. He was so clean-cut he kept a curse penalty jar at Paisley Park. He eschewed meat. Although he hosted many a star-studded party at his home in L.A., no reports of drug-addled behavior from him or his guests ever surfaced. At 57, he’d barely aged. A ‘Fro that surfaced over the last few years just seemed more proof of his natural, holistic lifestyle. He even told a writer he was celibate. The excesses and traumas that plagued and ultimately killed other Black icons were far removed from Prince. He seemed immortal, as though he could live on forever.