PRINCE: blackness, gender, sex, & freedom
By Venus Selenite
It is an emotionally gripping day when a highly lauded music genius passes away. In this case, the death of Prince has strongly affected the masses. His nearly 40-year career in entertainment is one of the most respected and fawned over. For our thriving generation, we discovered Prince through our parents. Purple Rain was mandatory watching and listening. Attending cookouts and outdoor music events, “Kiss” would loudly reverberate from barbecue smoke and hearty gossip. When Prince comes to mind, it is more than music, performance, and fashion. It’s beyond his mysterious existence, legacy, and the rumored vault of thousands of unreleased songs. Following in the pioneering footsteps of Little Richard, Prince delivered a contribution that fans are forever grateful for.
In 1980, Prince released his third album, Dirty Mind, a long-term success instead of an immediate chart burner. It’s artwork consisted of the artist clad in a jacket, revealing his bare chest, a bandana tied around his neck, and black bikini briefs. Before the record would go on to be listed by Rolling Stone as one of their 500 greatest albums of all time, its images and lyricism unapologetically promoted a man in tune and unashamed of his sexuality and gender presentation. This was the early stage of Prince becoming a controversial staple in American popular culture. Dirty Mind was lead by “Uptown”, a single containing these lyrics: “Now where I come from, we don’t let society tell us how it’s supposed to be, our clothes, our hair, we don’t care. It’s all about being there.” Beginning in the 1980’s, Prince ushered in new and unabashed styles of Blackness, which revolved around the aesthetics of gender nonconformity, sex positivity, and artistic freedom. For it’s time, it was deemed unconventional, but traveling forward a few decades, Prince’s influence can be witnessed in the music makers currently overtaking our music devices and streaming services.
Janelle Monaé, D’Angelo, Alicia Keys, and Miguel. One can detect Prince’s inspiration in each of their sounds. He didn’t restrict himself to narrate realities and fantasies through song, but transformed into multiple characters and personas while remaining genuine to his inner core. Prince practiced this until the final moment of his life, notably at the 2015 Grammy Awards while presenting the award for Album of the Year, arriving on stage with a cane and donning a metallic orange outfit with futuristic glasses. But the Purple One’s greatest accomplishments doesn’t lie in the fact that he has written, composed, and produced timeless music with over thirty instruments. For us Black children who grew up with him, or didn’t catch on until we were teenagers, Prince gave us the ultimate permission to be weird, to embrace our “other” box. Or it was the other way around, finding our nonconformity and rebellion in his art. He created a swimming pool where there weren’t guidelines on being or becoming, a space to dive in and out as we pleased, whether those tools were makeup, falsetto vocals, clothing that matched our inside feelings, or claiming doves as animals we wished we could be.
Our mourning isn’t limited to remembering when we heard our first Prince song or when we had epiphanies of falling in love with him. For some of us, it’s not just about recognizing his role through media in our discovery and play with gender. An outstanding way of celebrating Prince is being ourselves, our best selves, our funky selves, our rock star selves, the selves we’ve always been destined to be because Prince stomped on the binaries and helped give birth to the allowance of carefree Black individuals. He, along with other musical and cultural luminaries, such as the legendary Grace Jones, didn’t project an “alternative Blackness”, but a Blackness that wasn’t receiving accolade nor affirmation. This is why we honor the royalty that is Prince. Like many we adore, the flaws exist, but he never led us to believe he was all-knowing. Behind the paparazzi and glamour was magic and mystery. With the accompaniment of multiple layers of music, he ventured out to disturb the universe, to encourage people to build their greatness. As we remember by pulling out our old Prince vinyls, his mission is complete, but ours continues to follow the interruptions he set forth.
Venus Selenite (she/her) is a writer, performance artist, social critic, and sex educator living in Washington, DC. She is a contributor to The Tempest and is the Trans Voices Columnist at Wear Your Voice Magazine. Venus’s work centers experiences of intersectionality, identity, liberation, joy, and suffering, intending to uplift and control narratives of trans and queer people of color. Her first book of poems, trigger, will be released in late May 2016.