John S. Blake’s love letter to the dearly beloved genius Prince.
“What the fuck is he talkin’ about?” Ma just didn’t get it. I was eight and playing my cousin’s record for hours, drowning in something I could only comprehend in a visceral sea where my God bathed. I knew exactly what Prince meant by “I wanna be your mother and your sister too.”
“He wants to love her all the ways he can, Ma.” It was then my mother gawked at me with a fusion of disdain and awe.
“Where the fuck do you get this shit from?” My mother lost her heart the day she put my father out. She tried. She honestly wanted to love me, but the holes punched in her hope were too many and perforated connections of maternal instinct long ago. She’d just give me money to head to the roller rink at McKay Park in Englewood, New Jersey and remind me that she was my mother and Prince was just some freak singing a song.
I was a sixth-grader when the “Little Red Corvette” video hit MTV. I didn’t understand my erection: the two women, uncomfortably close to each other behind a synthesizer, the dude with a surgeon’s uniform (complete with mask) behind another synthesizer, Prince throwing the mic, bringing it back, and dropping in a full split—only to rise in smoke’s fashion. I didn’t know what “the place where your horses run free” was, but I wanted to go there, grow roots, and oak myself wherever that was. I didn’t notice the heels until my mother watched me watching him and she said, “Are those heels? Oh Hell-no, John! Turn this shit off.” It hurt to shut him off. I swear I heard joy choke as my mother jerked a rope and snatched bliss out my chest. My mother eventually surrendered to whatever “freak shit goin’ on” in my mind. This was months after I endured the ass-whuppin’ of a lifetime!
The beating I took over a Prince poster convinced my mother this was more than an afterthought. The vision was displayed in a record store I was never allowed in. There Prince was, a black and white shot of gender fluidity—decked out in thigh-high, black boots and black bikini draws. I knew, the moment I rested my eyes on his rebellious pose, it was a confession of self-love. Prince was a paragon of liberation. I also knew—should my mother ever know about this vision of an unapologetic vita—the beating would be biblical. Since Ma never entered my room while closing the door behind herself, the sagacious idea came to me. I posted all 20” x 18” of Prince on the back of my bedroom door and honestly believed Ma would never see it. Welp, I came home from school to find my mother sitting on the couch—heap of ash in the ashtray and a shaking foot—itching to leap. The poster was splayed out on the couch beside her. I felt the heat rush to my face, and my body tensed. I don’t remember much. Ma punched me with every other syllable from her tongue. When, after the beating, I asked for the poster back, my mother just stared at me for what seemed like an hour. She handed me back the poster and shook her head.
“Get in the car,” she said. I never argued. The next thing I knew, my mother took me (and a couple of friends) to see Purple Rain. I was too excited. I didn’t speak; lest, at any moment, I said something offensive enough to turn us away from the theater only to head back home, movie-less. The screen lit up, a tongue licked its accompanying lips, girls screamed in the theater, and I saw he and I had the same curls—too thick to be white, not enough fro for black. There was an organ. It was church for parishioners in a church of passion. Prince and the Revolution played “Let’s Go Crazy” and, near the song’s end, Prince stings the air with this high pitch from the guitar and closes his eyes. His countenance is a display for every note. I intuitively realized he wasn’t sharing a gift with the world. When it was over, we all were Apollonia. The sand-toned man was the world giving individuals permission to be a people, goose-bumping in unison. My hero had a black father and white mother. Someone drank, the other yelled and cheated. Prince cried. He wrote poems. He embraced beauty to stay alive. I learned to make magic to distract pain. All I heard beneath my skull, whispering out to one ear was, “Yes. God, yes!” Looking like a lightning-struck orchid, I stared at him and thought, Wait, guys can wear purple? I love purple! Prince dip-stepped like he never had a fuck to give. He gave me permission to love my biracial body, my mother who reeked of Bacardi, and my father who I listened for in the wind. When the movie ended, I was a fourteen-year-old star who would die for his loved ones, hoping I would someday meet my own Darling Nikki. I started writing “2” instead of “to” and “4” in place of “for” in all of my poems. To this day, when I think of love, I think, Just take me with you.
“Dearly beloved …” was all I had to hear to forget we were poor—my mother, sticking a comb into the engine of our rusted Buick Regal to get on the road—and I was minutes from getting to the bathroom in Lodi High School to share eyeliner with others. Whenever a radio station cut the guitar solo to “Let’s Go Crazy,” it was a nick from a societal scalpel, a slice of death delivered by the rules, jammed into my adolescent fanaticism. It frightened my mother; how much grief I expressed, hearing that high-pitched twang of the first note fade into the reality that my mother was dropping me off at school, and this was another day, “To get through this thing called, Life.”
I was dying a social and spiritual death after Ma was arrested. I felt alone. There were only two ways I felt alive; shooting heroin or listening to Prince. When Around the World in a Day came out, I slowed down my destruction, but only to stare at what I’d done to myself in every reflection. “The Ladder” saved my sanity. I had no one to talk about this searching my heart did. “The Ladder” sounded like the sequel to the song “Purple Rain” as if it carried on healing where the string symphony of grief left off. I rocked continuously while Ma was in jail, singing, “The steps you take are no easy road, but the reward is great for those who want to go.” I remember thinking, I just want to live. I remember my wet cheeks and listening to “Condition of the Heart,” feeling the whole world’s pain. One night, my brother, Benny, handed me a bag, a vial, and a glass pipe. Something changed.
After Ma was sentenced and went to prison—after heroin took her place, singing me to sleep while confessing her love—I believed the only entity in this universe that spoke my vernacular was the song “Sign o’ the Times” at three a.m. Benny realized AIDS was stroking his face dead, so he took his life. Dad, who made sparse cameos in my adolescence, was HIV-positive and in hiding for good. Meanwhile, the needles kissed me like nail guns. But when Prince said, “Some say a man ain’t happy unless a man truly dies” and I’d sob, rock, and sob some more. I’d sob until I was dope-sick and dawn was putting a fist through the dark. When the sickness came, I’d load another nail. I nodded off to the echoing word, “Time … time.” At a time when our President couldn’t utter the word “AIDS,” Prince wrote two songs about it. We were talking, with or without our national “leader.”
I was eventually clean and quivering the gambit of emotions. I remember feeling a reprieve when I heard, “All 7 and we’ll watch them fall!” I couldn’t tell you what there was in the world to fear. Prince was singing. What else mattered? Somehow, “Sometimes It Snows in April” came out long ago, but I never heard it. Maybe I did, but honed my talent for ignoring my pain. A couple of years ago, in my forties, I heard the song as if for the first time. It even sounds how snow falls. It’s still as white-trimmed limbs and glistening ground. I remembered everything. I remembered how cold it was the night Benny left footprints in snow from the front door to the fading night. Ever since then, I swear I can hear piano keys as the tiny white pillows of frost collide with earth. I cry as soon as the song begins. I see my brother’s face, and I thank the universe for Prince. He keeps my feeling. These days, feeling seems like the only human quality many of us have left.
On April 21st, 2016, I was sitting in my African American Literature class, reading Jean Toomer and Claude McKay, Grimke and Hurston, when I received an announcement from a news app that “Prince, 57, Dies.” I groaned loudly. My eyes welled up. My professor snapped in my direction, “What!” “Prince died,” and I sobbed hard. The entire class was in disbelief. All around the room, sniffles fluttered. I was eight years old again. I was in the car with my mom. I was chasing my brother’s footprints. I was nodding. I was brave. I was a star. I am grieving.
In these days of cut music programs and beat production from a computer chip, of pop stars through a rotating Hollywood door, of grown folk like myself waiting impatiently for somebody to out-write a song like “Adore,” I feel gutted. I can see my teen years fading. I suddenly realized how gray my beard is and how much it stings to rise from bed in the morning. It suddenly came to me, that day when Rich Villar and I were exchanging words on social media about Prince’s Super Bowl performance, when it rained through the purple lighting while Prince sang “Purple Rain.” Rich said, “This is proof that even God is a Prince fan!” And all I could think was, God better be.
Let us all be sexy motherfuckers today. Let us remember we don’t have to be rich or cool. Can we please remind each other we are lovers, mothers, and sisters too? This thing, called “Life”—these tears and this growing mound of sand on the bottom—can be best lived in Paisley Park. Admission is free.