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Prince Pushed the Envelope and Delivered

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Like millions of people all over the world, I was stunned to hear about the death of Prince last week. My initial reaction was similar to my response to the deaths of legends Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, David Bowie, Maurice White, Natalie Cole, Gil Scott-Heron and Glenn Frey. Another larger-than-life figure taken away from us far too soon!

To paraphrase a line from one of Prince’s more popular songs ­— the doves were indeed crying.

Prince was an artist who personified the word genius. In fact, in a Rolling Stone interview in 1993, that is the term that guitar legend and songwriter Eric Clapton ascribed to Prince, who was admired by many people from varied walks of life.

Prince, at one point The Artist formerly known as Prince before reclaiming his name in 1998, was a complex human being on many levels. Like his fellow baby boomer superstar counterpart Michael Jackson (I will admit that I was more of a Michael Jackson fan yet really enjoyed Prince), Prince was an enigma of sorts. Both men were demonstrably talented human beings who at times seemed to be very lonely, socially awkward and somewhat insecure about the world around them.

Prince was just one of a number of performers both male and female of his era who, like Boy George of Culture Club, Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, Grace Jones, etc., had no apprehension in championing intersectionality. For Prince and a number of his contemporaries, androgyny was something to embrace, not shun. Prince’s altruistic attitude was evident in the compassion and generosity he demonstrated toward fellow artists. Indeed, last week, more than a few journalists, artists, record executives and others mentioned the fact that Prince embodied a Santa Claus persona of sorts, in that he bestowed acts of kindness on many people beyond fellow musicians, including strangers, while preferring to remain under the cloak of anonymity.

Today, a growing number of men, especially millennials, have no trouble embracing gender-bending behavior. Young men such as Jaden Smith, son of actor Will Smith, Odell Beckham, Cam Newton, Russell Westbrook and others have no problem in defying or, in some cases, outright dismissing what has largely been considered “appropriate” male behavior and social norms or sentiments that were often seen as retrograde.

The fact is that long before it was hip to do so, Prince daringly and unapologetically pushed the boundaries of sexual fluidity. He wore garish clothes and explicit attire — scarfs, wigs, high heels, eyeliner, mascara, tight pants — as he brazenly twisted, snapped and turned in front of the camera for all to see. His language, appearance and disposition all defied standards and norms and had many people wondering and, in fact, intensely debating his racial origin, sexuality, religious beliefs and other facets of his being. He did not fall into the good guy, bad guy, straight, gay, atheist, religious mold. He could not be safely defined and neatly tucked into any one category.

In his early career, he made moves and engaged in antics that many artists of his era (especially Black male artists) would not have dared to do. By doing so, he forced his listeners to decide whether talent superseded other more largely arbitrary and subjective qualities. In his later years, after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2011, he appeared to adopt positions toward sexual pluralism that were less tolerant and more conservative.

Truth be told, there have been few artists that have been as bold and experimental and willing to manipulate with music in the manner that Prince did, yet manage to create music that resonated with so many people across the spectrum. Integrating pop, soul, jazz, funk, R&B, and, in some cases, folk music, was like second nature to him. He, along with Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Tina Turner, were among the few Black artists who were given regular rotation on MTV, which at the time was in its infancy.

This “I did it my way” attitude was demonstrated in his business dealings. Prince waged a contentious battle with his record company and managed to emerge as the victor. Many argue that he led the movement for many future artists such as Beyoncé and John Legend to assert more control over their musical careers. It was as if he had an epiphany of sorts as to what the future of the music industry was about to wrought. It was a smart move on his part.

Like many artists, Prince made some missteps. Films Under The Cherry Moon (1986) and Graffiti Bridge (1990) were less-than-fruitful efforts. Nonetheless, Prince was bold, daring, visionary and fearless, in a way that few artists past or present have dared to be. While his influence and presence may be more limited among millennials, for large segments of younger baby boomers and Generation Xers like me, he was one of the most definitive and pioneering voices the world of music has ever produced.

Like many of the greats, he left us far too soon. May he rest in peace.

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