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On Prince and Identity

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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I cannot recall the minutiae of the day that we met because it doesn't matter. I know that I was in my auntie's living room, the one with the good furniture and new couches, carpet the color and texture of sand underneath us. I cannot be sure of my age, but I know that I was not yet seven, because on the day that I did turn seven, I floated along elated, buoyant with the knowledge that I had lived the same number of years as the title of my favorite song. I have no memory of the weather, just the even, controlled temperature of the apartment and the long sliver of sunlight filtering through the blinds and stretching a rectangle across the floor, a spotlight.

My auntie unwraps a package delivered via USPS, slicing through cardboard and paper until her hands produce her prize: a pair of VHS tapes. He gleams at me, gorgeous and lambent under the thin film of plastic. I run my hands over his shiny prettiness.

"What is it?" I ask. "Prince." She replies. She rips away the protective covering and pops the tape into the VCR. Prince and his guitar stretch the bounds of the TV's volume, the carpet serving as my transmitter, each fiber soaking up the electronic funk, the melancholy, the black jubilance of Purple Rain, the artist’s semiautobiographical film, delivering it to my cells and self via my soles. By the time we make it to the first cassette of The Hits Vol. 1, the floor is aflame, my body and being along with it.

When Prince came to me that day, his voice fluctuating from coquettish falsetto to sorrowful bass and every variance in between, all my concepts of black maleness and masculinity imploded. I did not need him to be male or female because it was inconsequential; his gender was the same as God's. But I knew that he was black immediately. Who but a black genius could flip his hair, shoulder length and straightened, with eyes glimmering and wide, resplendent with the knowledge of his own audacity?

As a Chicagoan, my first concepts of Midwestern identity were based on what we are not: we are neither the East Coast, nor the West. We are amorphous, undefined in a great many ways. I had always understood that the weirdos, the artists and fairies and savants, were products of America's cool coasts; perhaps proximity to sea water is required to fertilize genius. And then there was Prince, a black femme from nowhere adorning his body in purple, deigning himself royalty and not even entertaining contemplations of the contrary. The nerve of him, my god; to be black and boy and born in the Midwest, sprouted from America's heartland, and be a freak. To hold onto his softness, his femaleness, in a world that would have it stamped out. This is not a world that is kind to us, women and womanly folks.

As a ‘90s baby, pop culture was fed to me along with milk and cereal, meaning that I have always been enveloped in misogyny, both implicit and overt, that left me raw and reeling as a girl. I grew resentful of my black girl-ness, my femininity. I quickly came to understand that femininity and feminine people are only valued as things to be consumed, for use and sale.

My favorite rap songs were the raunchiest, nastiest ones. Songs I was forced to sneak into my grandmother's house, possessing the astuteness to print their lyrics off of my school computer but not the guile to avoid internalizing their fumes, to avoid them seeping into my girl bones and rotting me from the inside out. We lived in the projects, an environment of forced intimacy and communal culture, and songs that I did not discover on my own still reached me via the open windows and doors of my neighbors. Just like the music, ugliness and chaos always found me, like secondhand smoke, via my neighbors and comrades. Boys from my building would gather in the court ways for dogfights that I could never force myself to watch. But I would walk to school in the morning and pass the walkways purpled with blood, with clumps of fur and cartilage spotting the landscape.

It was not until I came to know Prince that I was able to divorce these sounds and images of violence and carnage from my presumed ideas of masculinity. He was my introduction to nontoxic masculinity. He was a male form, but he was not destructive. He was sexual, but he was not predatory. Holy, but not chaste. He did want to do filthy things with you, but he wanted to love you as well, and of course you would love him in return. Of course. Prince was the inauguration of this idea for me, black boys as tenderthings, things I could touch and maybe love without piercing the skin of my hand.

I have no idea how I would have come to reconcile my own queerness if Prince had not done it first. I wanted to be both the man and the lover he crooned for. I wanted to possess the hair atop his glorious head and to run my fingers through it as well. I saw that image of Wendy and Lisa, their hands intertwined along the black and white of a keyboard telling us of their dreams, and wanted to add my own, a third set of digits atop theirs.

I didn't feel the need to fully work out whether he was a girl or a boy, because when those first holy notes of "I Would Die 4 U" blasted through my aunt's speakers, he assured me that he was neither, but as mighty as both. The pitch of that tambourine, the cadence of his voice, cool, level, and our champion, black and bathed in purple light and lace. What was he if not a black femme in church, delivering the sermon and receiving it as well, his body writhing and contorting as he was filled with a holy spirit which very well may have been his own?

I watched him, felt him, heard him, drank him in and knew that this celestial being, a supernova housed in a black boy vessel, had no use for mortal constraints as silly and diminutive as "female" or "male." Why would Prince, our messiah, our purple nebula, our transcendent femme king, adhere to such trivial, colonialist tripe as the gender binary or stereotypical masculinity when he was not even a child of this galaxy?

The boxes that we are ascribed, as black folks, queer folks, femmes, and artists require that we lop off parts of ourselves to fit into them; there is no room for our brilliance, for our full, ridiculous selves. Prince would perform no such surgery. He was our science non-fiction, magic realism come alive and rattling my auntie's walls in Washington Park, permitting me to be the same.

Words belong to the definers, not the defined. And here he was, refusing any putative definition of man or woman at all, and eventually, saying he would own the fruits grown from his black voice and body and hands. He had always dwelled beyond the spectrum of gender, but then he remade himself, shed a layer or four, wicked the dew from his gorgeous wings and decided that there were no words worthy of him; we could have him only as a symbol which exists beyond what our mortal, lazy tongues could shape. He wasn’t even human; his voice slithered from his throat in computerized lulls on "Computer Blue," moments after Wendy and Lisa had an exchange I was too young to understand, but I knew that when Lisa asked, "Shall we begin?" a million nerve endings, from my eyes to my ankles, screamed "yes."

I have always hated sports. Not only because I find them dull, but because the tensions and anxieties of sports fandom make me nauseous, force my stomach to lilt and shift as wildly as prince on the floor during "Darling Nikki." As a girl, everyone around me loved Michael Jordan, the black boy who could fly, but I knew his secret. Michael was just a man, made of water and salt and bone like the rest of us. One wrong twist of his ankle on his way back to earth, a fall or push from his measly components could be enough to smash his knees to dust and render him flightless, earth stranded. Prince was a magic I could believe in. He was omniscient, conceptual, in the way that queerness always has been, he existed beyond the realm of human, corporal frailties. He wasn’t a man, he was an assemblage of purple energy bound within a lovely frame, that which could never be lost or destroyed. But even the sun will eventually burn out, leave us alone to the cold dark. I am stumbling around in the dark now, searching for trails of soft purple beams of light to guide me.