I’ve been trying to process why Prince’s death feels so much worse to me than Michael Jackson’s or even Whitney Houston’s did. When I think about the timing of their adulthood careers and my age, I feel like the deaths of the latter two should have hit me harder because I was able to understand so much more of their lyrics and apply them to m life so much earlier than I was able to comprehend what Prince was singing/saying/ministering. “How Will I Know?” was one of my crush songs as soon as I was old enough to have crushes. I was aware of the Gulf War, talked about it in my fifth-grade class. “Heal the World” was released shortly after it ended.
When Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston died, I was shocked. And sad. I stared at my phone where I received notices via text message and Twitter, then at the television, not really believing what I was seeing. Then I wanted music, to hear their voices emanating from every playing device I own.
But I don’t remember crying. Even during their crazy-long, live-broadcast funerals. (I laughed a lot about how confused white people were by the term “homegoing service” when Whitney Houston died.)
This time, as soon as I could make out clearly what the DJ on the radio station playing in the gym was saying—“..we have confirmed, Prince Nelson Rogers is dead…”—I left without finishing my workout so I wouldn’t have to wash sweat salt and tear salt from the weight machines.
I cried when I called my mom. I cried walking home. I leaned against a wall in my apartment and sobbed. Then I put my gym shoes back on, grabbed my headphones, and listened to his voice as I ran until something else hurt.
And despite how much so many people around the world are grieving, I don’t quite understand my emotions this time. My blackness has been questioned as much as Prince’s was before he released then pulled The Black Album, but growing up, I didn’t process how he was challenging narrow definitions of blackness. I’m quite happily feminine, always have been, so I never cared about how his 5’2” frame towered over masculinity in ruffles, lace, and high heels. I have no nostalgia about defying my parents by listening to his music. He wasn’t the rebel my parents were afraid of; he tied my family together, multiple generations dancing to vinyl with his name and mascara eyes on it.
So I’ve decided I feel the void Prince’s death has left in my life because of all that I internalized about Prince and his music without knowing it, without processing it. And they’re all things I want to know and process and love, about myself. I’m marveling now at how secure Prince was with himself, how clearly he loved his blackness, his “weirdness,” his sexuality, his God, his genius, and all of humanity—all at the same time. He was whole, and he was content with his wholeness.
I’m not there yet. I think I’m kinda brilliant, but I’m still afraid no one else will see it. I’m not as pretty as Prince is—was—and over the past few months, I’ve felt the dissatisfaction. I love my blackness, but my social awkwardness concerns me. And man, I want to get to the point where I could perform something like “Darling Nikki” and say in an interview, “I pray every night. I don’t ask for much. I just say, ‘Thank you.’”
I told a friend about the popular tweet:
Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.
— Juliette (@ElusiveJ) January 11, 2016
And then I told him Prince taught me that I love music, that love to dance. “And eventually, he helped me learn that I like sex.” I didn’t know the last lesson when I was dancing to his music at the age of two or wanting to go to his concerts at four. And when I think about how otherwise southern black Christian most of my upbringing was, I realize Prince’s presence in the house was supposed to help me learn to be a whole person.
I don’t know if I can fault anyone for my not picking up the lessons, but I’m getting it now, and getting there. Finally.