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Filling the Space

I wasn’t planning on posting anything today; my next “proper” post, on “I Would Die 4 U,” won’t be finished until next week, and I usually save my year-in-review posts for the actual anniversary of the blog in June. But it suddenly hit me that the five-year anniversary of Prince’s passing on April 21, 2016, demands more than just business as usual; and so here are what I fully intend to be my brief (yeah, right) thoughts on the subject.

Prince and I were on a break at the beginning of 2016. To be honest, we were usually on a break. I took what I would call an orthodox critical perspective on Prince, or what hardcore fans might recognize as the Questlove school of thought: I considered his “peak” era (roughly 198088) to be among the most incredible, groundbreaking music ever recorded, while his later work alternately underwhelmed, baffled, and only occasionally moved me. My first deep dive into his catalogue, during college, happened to coincide with 2004’s Musicology album and tour; so I followed him in real time for a few years, but fell off by the end of the decade. Years later, 2014’s ART OFFICIAL AGE pulled me back in–only for 2015’s HITnRUN Phase One, and a wasted free trial for TIDAL, to push me back out with a quickness. I distinctly remember driving to my job at IKEA (!) in Northern Virginia when the announcement of the Baltimore “Rally 4 Peace” came on the radio, and I was struck with the sudden urge to pull over and try to get tickets; but I was broke (IKEA, remember), and anyway Prince toured every couple of years. I’d catch him next time.

That’s the thing about Prince: There was always a next time–until, of course, there wasn’t. His passing, a little less than a year after I skipped the Baltimore show, threw into sharp relief just how much I’d taken him for granted. And I think that’s why I felt his absence so acutely: more than any other public figure–even David Bowie, whose own death just three months earlier felt in retrospect like a dress rehearsal for the main event; more even, I should probably be ashamed to say, than many of my own family members. Within hours of hearing the terrible news on April 21, I was making my way through his albums from beginning to end–catching up on everything I’d missed, or simply glossed over, when he was still here and his music felt like an infinitely renewable resource. Within days, I had started to write this very blog.

I’ve shared before that Dance / Music / Sex / Romance began as part sustained writing project, part act of public mourning. Five years later, though, I no longer think “mourning” is the right word. Prince’s death was a shock and a tragedy, no doubt; but his life was almost impossibly rich, lived to the fullest extent and only ever on his own terms. I understand and respect that for many fans, April 21 will always be an occasion for grief; but for me–someone who never knew Prince and, frankly, didn’t appreciate him enough while he was with us–I feel that the best thing I can do is to celebrate his work, to keep it alive in whatever small way I can.

In the past five years, I’ve also found myself focusing less on what we lost on April 21, 2016, and more on what we gained. This project–but really, Prince–has introduced me to dozens of people from around the world. Some I now consider friends; some are people whose work I’ve admired and who are now, unexpectedly, in my orbit; some are people whose work I didn’t know before, but now value greatly. The sad truth is that I probably wouldn’t have met any of them if Prince were still here. And while I obviously would have preferred for us to meet under different circumstances, I’d be hard-pressed to trade their presence in my life for anything.

When Prince died five years ago today, he left a space for the rest of us to fill. D / M / S / R remains my way of filling that space. It is, in the grand scheme of things, an insignificant one: The real measure of Prince’s legacy is in something like his funding of Black Lives Matter, the movement which effectively made possible yesterday’s historic guilty verdict for the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. But there’s also something to be said for giving his music the sustained, exhaustive critical examination it deserves; and, while I’m far from the only person doing this, I’m proud to be among their number. Five years ago, I stopped taking Prince for granted; now, I’m spending as many years as it takes encouraging others to do the same.

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Loving Prince Means Believing Black Lives Matter

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about the uprisings against police brutality currently going on in the United States and elsewhere; to be honest, it feels a little self-aggrandizing to insert myself into the conversation. But for better or worse, dance / music / sex / romance is the biggest platform I have, and I would be remiss if I didn’t use it to add my voice to those calling for justice and long-overdue, radical change.

Believing that Black lives matter is the only reasonable or appropriate position for a blog about Prince to take. Prince was a Black man who centered his Blackness in every aspect of his life and work. He was famously a major financial contributor to the Black Lives Matter organization before his death in 2016; he used his platform as a presenter at the 2015 Grammy Awards to shout out the movement; and after the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police officers that same year, he wrote the song “Baltimore” and organized a benefit concert to help heal the city after days of unrest. According to co-writer Dan Piepenbring, he wanted his unfinished memoir to “solve racism.”

All of this indicates a shift, late in his life, to overt political activism; but even at the height of his crossover success, he was already trying to imagine a better world for Black people. “Uptown” is a vision of racial unity, set in a city whose history often does not live up to its inclusive reputation. “America” is a Hendrix-esque reappropriation of “America the Beautiful” with sardonic new lyrics about inner-city desperation. Even “The Cross” draws from the long African American spiritual tradition of using scripture to advocate for liberation. And this isn’t even to mention the litany of songs released later in his career that are even more forthright in addressing racism: from “The Sacrifice of Victor” to “We March,” from “Dreamer” to “Black Muse.”

As a rule, I try to avoid speculating on what Prince would have thought or done had his time on Earth not come to an end four years ago. But I am confident that, had he lived to witness the police killings of Philando Castile in July 2016 and George Floyd last month–not to mention the countless other acts of police brutality, fatal or otherwise, against Black people in the Twin Cities and elsewhere–he would have been fully in support of these protests. And, while I am also usually not one to say that we should do or believe everything that Prince did, in this instance, I can’t think of a more productive way to honor his memory.

But enough from me. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some critical perspectives on Prince from Black writers and podcasters. Please feel free to share more in the comments:

Also, please consider donating to these or other resources supporting the struggle for Black lives in Minneapolis. If nothing else, this is something we know that Prince would have done:

In lieu of suspending Patreon payments this month, I will be donating all patron fees to the above organizations. Thanks for reading, take care of yourselves, and I’ll be back at a time when it feels appropriate.

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Podcast

Podcast: I am Something That You’ll Never Understand – Chris Aguilar-Garcia and Natalie Clifford on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

After much delay, here is my conversation with Chris Aguilar-Garcia and Natalie Clifford, two presenters from this May’s interdisciplinary Prince conference at the University of Salford. Both Chris and Nat identify as queer, and both have interesting things to say about Prince’s legacy of “revolutionary queerness” and the space he created for less conventional expressions of gender and sexuality in the mainstream. If you liked the last episode with Snax, chances are you’ll like this one.

This is the part where I would normally say we’re switching gears and moving away from the Salford conference, but as it happens, we already have another interview with a presenter in store. So basically, I’ll keep doing these as long as people want to talk to me. If you still want to listen to me–and, more importantly, my eloquent guests–feel free to subscribe on your podcast service of choice. And if you really like us, take that aforementioned podcast app and shoot us a rating or review; it will make us more “discoverable” and broaden the listening base. In the meantime, thanks as always for listening!