I remember it clear as day.
It was the morning of April 21st and I just received a text message from a friend that included my wife informing us that Prince was announced dead by TMZ after being found unresponsive at his home at Paisley Park.
Devasted by this message, my worst fears were confirmed when media outlets, including CNN, began to report the same news that had been communicated by my friend earlier. Alone in my office, I summoned the strength to carry out the day’s tasks which included a calendar full of student appointments who were inquiring about their classes for next semester, and also various staff meetings scheduled throughout the afternoon.
News of Prince’s sudden passing drove my cell phone into overdrive with countless texts from friends and family inquiring about his death but also my own wellbeing.
To say that I was an admirer of Prince’s work would be an understatement.
A fan since my early 20s, I was first introduced to Prince through my older cousin who was quick to remind me of his genius during our shifts together at his record store in the early 2000s. At the time I was 16 and as a self-identified hip-hop head (Redman, Eminem, and AZ were among my favorites back then), the idea of a scantly-dressed, falsetto-singing male was not my idea of music.
While I always enjoyed the groove of Erotic City and was aware of his most commercial output, Purple Rain, accepting Prince for who he was or who the media made him out to be (I learned years later how he carefully crafted his image throughout his illustrious career) was very challenging for a teenager who was more in tune with latest Nas release than the existing legacy of the Minneapolis native.
This would change in 2004 when I met my then girlfriend and now wife whom I learned was a Prince fan which instantly reminded me of my cousin and the many records he played.
Coincidentally, 2004 also marked the year of Prince’s Musicology tour and album, his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ( if you haven’t done so, do yourself a favor and check out his cover of the Beatles classic While My Guitar Gently Weeps, you’ll thank me later) and most of all the 20th anniversary of Purple Rain.
Experiencing the latter of the three took me into a world I never knew existed, and soon I embarked on a journey that would introduce me to different genres of music beyond the hip hop sound I’d become accustomed to.
Much like my relationship, discovering the different elements of Prince’s music provided me with a greater perspective of life that is hard to convey in words.
As a young man attempting to navigate life in my early 20s, Prince’s music served as a soundtrack to many memories (good and bad) and a future that was full of promise, hope, and optimism.
Hopeful for the day I would experience his genius live and in person, both my wife and I shelled hundreds of dollars to attend the 20th anniversary of the Essence Festival where Prince was among the many headliners for the July 4th weekend.
Much like my initial discovery of his music a decade earlier, putting my experience into words is simply hard to convey. Serenaded by classic cuts such as “Controversy” and “Raspberry Beret”, I, much like the rest of the crowd was captivated his presence, energy and above all else his expansive catalog of music.
Recognizing that one time could never satisfy our purple thirst, my wife and I set out to attend as many Prince shows as we could as we realized our experience in New Orleans was only a sample of the best that was yet to come.
Our opportunity came some two years later at Paisley Park of all places, where we were attending a show headlined by Morris Day and The Time, one of Prince’s most successful side projects.
Prince, who’d performed a week earlier at this acclaimed Piano and a Microphone show was not scheduled to appear but as I turned around to scan the crowd standing no less than 20 feet behind me was the man himself admiring one of his greatest creations.
Frozen, I slowly tapped my wife on her shoulder and informed her that Prince was standing directly behind us on an elevated platform enjoying the sounds of “Jungle Love” just like the rest of the crowd.
The only way I describe seeing Prince in person is that same way Charlie Murphy (rest peacefully, king) described his first encounter with Rick James on the famous Chappelle Show skit as there was an aura about him that is simply hard to explain. In fact, I’d liken it to a child seeing or meeting their favorite superhero in person for the first time and being in awe of their presence.
At the suggestion of my wife, we culminated our trip to Paisley Park with a guided tour of Prince’s studios and common living spaces. This entire experience took place in January 2016, four months before his passing.
One can only imagine the devastation I felt reading my friend’s text message and seeing the many news reports that came on that fateful April day.
While the cause of his passing was in the very back of my mind, I found solace in the memories that were created through Prince’s music including my trip to New Orleans to see him perform and the moments spent on Twitter awaiting him to announce a last minute concert or party.
Being in Minnesota for the better part of four years has also given a greater perspective on Prince as a person as I have had many interactions with people who knew him on a personal level (full disclosure I secretly moved to and accepted a job in Minnesota partially because of my Prince fandom, sue me).
Yet as I reflect back to many years spent listening, admiring, and appreciating Prince’s work, one word comes to mind, and that is authenticity. It’s no that secret that Prince defied social and gender norms throughout the better part of his career with an androgynous style and flair that challenged masculinity at its very core.
Musically, Prince never felt compelled to label his sound and instead did his best to bridge genres that challenged listeners (new and old) to embrace an open mind and take a leap beyond their comfort zone.
Now at 33 and 13 years into my Prince fandom, I recognize the importance of authenticity and how others may not always understand your journey.
I think about the fearlessness (and faith) it took for me to accept an opportunity in a state I’d never visited nearly four years ago when others wanted me to stick with what I knew.
I also think about the many times I’ve stepped out on faith by taking on chances without knowing the outcome.
I suppose is that what Prince felt like during the release of Around the World in a Day, a stark contrast and follow-up to the largely successful Purple Rain or when he changed his name to unpronounceable symbol citing dissatisfaction with the music industry.
My point is here is that despite the reservation others had in his vision, Prince was an artist that remained true to himself even if it came at the risk of alienating his most devoted supporters.
Of course, true authenticity can often time come at a price especially when one is firm in their beliefs and willing to execute their vision.
Authenticity is one of the many things I learned in my years learned listening to and observing Prince, and on the one-year anniversary of his passing, I hope to honor his memory in the best I know how which is to simply be me.
Until then, I will continue immersing myself in his grand catalog and reflecting on a legacy that will stand the test of time.