By contributing writer David Tigabu
Like many, I was devastated upon hearing the news of Prince’s passing. In fact, it took hours to process the mere idea that the Purple One had transitioned. “Nope,” I thought, “not believing this…not today.” Once I had moved past denial, I scanned through social media in a last ditch effort to find some kind of retraction. But there was no retraction.
Prince’s music had an incredible impact on my life. I’m 28, so I wasn’t around for Purple Rain, 1999, Dirty Mind, Parade, or Sign o’ The Times, the pinnacle of Prince’s work. And like many people, the first pop icon I was exposed to was Michael Jackson. I was 7 years old the first time I had seen Prince on television, and I was instantly mesmerized. “Who was this purple-adorned tiny man in heels with so much personality and charm,” I thought. Michael Jackson might have been a smooth criminal, but Prince was really, really fascinating.
By the time I was 15, I was familiar with much of Prince’s recognizable work. But then February 21st, 2004 happened. You see, earlier that week, Chappelle Show had put out an iconic episode featuring the now infamous Prince sketch. You know the one. The series put out new episodes on Wednesday but I didn’t have cable at the time, so i did not watch the show on the air date. I would go to a friend’s house on the weekend and catch up on the weekly series.
That episode did a couple of things, particularly for younger people. It took a pop icon that many my age hadn’t seriously engaged with, and forged a narrative about the Artist that has been implacable over the last 12 years. In the wake of Prince’s death, seemingly every other discussion with someone under 30 contains some reference to the sketch. “Why don’t you purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka,” a friend called me to ask, alluding to a famous quote in the aforementioned episode. The sketch was idiosyncratic, hilarious, and mesmerizing—giving a sense to the viewer that this was really who Prince was.
The second thing that it did, especially for me, was it simply reestablished Prince into the public consciousness. While I would’ve considered myself a fan at that point, I hadn’t taken a serious dive into much of the Prince canon. That would change. Very soon. This was the age of Limewire and music sharing, and downloads were everything. I grabbed everything I could find—Dirty Mind, Around the World in a Day, Controversy, the criminally underrated 1989 Batman Soundtrack, his later work with New Power Generation. And man, I couldn’t believe it….I was sleeping on Prince!
One of the first things that stuck out to me was the passion, the sheer yearning that came through his voice. “I may not know where I’m going (babe) I said I may not know what I need. One thing, one thing’s for certain baby I know what I want, yeah,” he sings on the track Beautiful Ones. It’s one of the most passionate pleas ever put to music. It’s the sound of a man with absolutely nothing left—no future, no sense of purpose, just raw emotion. And its so moving.
And what could be said about his versatility? To my mind, there’s never been a more genre-bending artist in the history of music. Was he Funk? Pop? Soul? R&B? Rock? The answer to all of those questions is, well yes. It’s what prompted the great Miles Davis to characterize Prince as James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Marvin Gaye, and Charlie Chaplin, all rolled into one. Prince was able to take James Brown’s funk, combine it with Hendrix-like musicianship, sprinkle some of the passionate soul of Marvin Gaye, while giving you the persona of Charlie Chaplin.
Maybe most important of all, the music was fascinating, odd, and really fun. It was all these things because Prince had the courage to allow us to see him for what he was, contradictions and all. Prince could delve into the realm of sex, and then take a step into the spiritual world. Unlike any artist in modern music, Prince was able to illustrate that underlying tension that exists between the flesh and the spirit.
That courage to be himself found expression in a freedom that most people, including me, will likely never experience. Prince could wear heels, pose in speedos, embrace his androgyny and reject conventional norms of masculinity because he didn’t care how uncomfortable you were. It was Prince’s world, and we were all lucky to be living in it.
So here’s to you Prince. I technically knew this day was supposed to come, and yet I had sorta, kinda thought you would live forever. Thank you for your music, your creative talent, and teaching everyone that it’s ok to be different, in your own Prince-like way.
David Tigabu is a writer and former producer for The Global African