Purple Reign

lowry avenue bridge

The Lowry Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, MN bathed in purple in honor of Prince, April 21, 2016. Photo by Dennis Sanders.

I just can’t believe all the things people say
Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?

-Prince, Controversy

I saw a report on a news site this morning that said there was a medical emergency at Paisley Park in nearby Chanhassen, where Prince lived.  I wondered if the next thing we were going to hear is that Prince was dead.  Like clockwork, that is exactly what happened.

Living in Minneapolis as I do, the city, well, the state of Minnesota is in a special kind of mourning.  Prince was known worldwide and there are events taking place around the nation remembering him, but Minnesota was home and for many he belonged to the Northstar State. Hell, for a shining moment in the 1980s and early 90s he made Minnesota, a state with a tiny African American population, the soul and funk capital of the world.

I’ve been wondering what made Prince special for me.  I wasn’t a diehard fan. I didn’t go to any of the many events that took place at Paisley Park.  I didn’t go to a concert.  But in spite of all that, he did have an effect on me.

I think the reason I liked Prince is because he was a weird black man.  That was important to a weird black kid in Michigan growing up in the 1980s who didn’t always fit in.  Here was this guy that was talking and singing about race and sexuality, and seemed to cross gender boundaries with ease.  David Bowie did that as well, but Prince looked like me and that mattered. He played R&B fused with rock, Jimi Hendrix meeting James Brown.  He was someone that could sing really graphic sexual songs (think, “Erotic City”) one moment, and then sing songs that referenced his faith the next (like “I Would Die 4 U”). He didn’t fit in and that was great.

And I think that was important to me.  I was the black kid that didn’t act like all the other black kids.  I was the one that got teased and called gay or even fag.  I was weird and in my teen years, it seemed that being black and odd weren’t supposed to go along.

I don’t think I knew it back in the 1980s, but his willingness to be black and odd may have helped me as I struggled to understand my own sexual identity and faith.  I don’t want to make the man into some sort of theologian, but he was able to combine sensuality with spirituality, which were incredibly separated for me as a teen. He may have well been a factor in me not losing my faith as I started to come out as gay in the early 90s.

So, I have to say thank you to Prince for allowing me (and countless other African Americans) to be me; a weird black kid from Michigan who grew up to be a weird black man living in his hometown of Minneapolis. He will be missed, but never forgotten.



Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Minneapolis, MN.  You can follow Dennis through his blogs, The Clockwork Pastor and Big Tent Revue and on Twitter.  Feel free to contact him at dennis.sanders(at)gmail(dot)com.

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13 thoughts on “Purple Reign

  1. I vividly remember first hearing his work in the very early ’80s, pre “1999” even, and although it never really spoke to my ofay self, I recognized genius even then. Like Stravinsky, Joyce, Glass, et al., it is the nature of genius that it doesn’t reach everyone, it doesn’t have to, it just is.

    If there’s mercy in the universe, he’s found the afterworld he so desired.

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  2. I am still processing the loss of Prince. Obviously, when a celebrity dies it is nothing like the loss of someone close to you. What it is, is mostly a contemplation of your own past and your own mortality. A few random thoughts:

    – TNC has a post up at the Atlantic making a point that he’s made in the past about Prince’s sexuality. Prince was hyper-sexual, but also hyper-vulnurable in a way that removes the need to front. I don’t know if Prince was really that fearless in the other parts of his life, but he certainly put it out there like he was. And that’s a lesson.

    – Just like the sex thing, most everything about Prince is this magical combination of too much and not enough. How can you simultaneously overwhelm people with your presence while remaining aloof and ethereal? I don’t know the answer to that question, but Prince did.

    – Prince going overboard on the “While My Guitar Gently Weep” solo at the Rock and Roll HOF was a bit like Pete Rose bowling over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game, kind of a dick move but it only adds to the mystique.

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    • As someone who was largely on the outside looking in of the various contexts* where Prince made his mark, I always found him a fascinating individual… often for the dichotomy that writes about here. He seemed effortlessly cool but also incredibly weird. I had no idea if he was gay or straight or bi or something else but I had no doubt that he got his. He seemed confident in an almost impossible way, making me wonder if it was all an act (I strongly suspect it was not).

      * As mentioned below, I was a white kid who was never that into music and who came of age in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. And, for whatever reason, I tend to be more moved by singing and drums than guitars. I watched the video of the above mentioned guitar solo which seemed pretty cool but didn’t move or grab me the way an awesome drummer or singer will. It seems important to note that I have zero musical ability so this isn’t a function of my own particular skill set.

      Also, the analogy between that performance and Pete Rose is pretty brilliant.

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  3. Thanks, Dennis. Great piece. I’m curious how Prince was received by “non-weird” Blacks. I’m a little too young to have experienced Prince’s influence firsthand. All the Black kids (and many of the white kids, self included) I knew growing up were into mainstream hiphop or reggae (and usually only the latter if their parents hailed from the islands). Prince was more of a punchline/meme as “The Artist Formerly Known As…” But I don’t think that was specific to “non-weird” Black kids. Was he a divisive figure? Or did he tend to be embraced by all but moreso by weird kids?

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  4. A toast to Prince, who had a phenomenally awesome sense of humor.
    (So good, in fact, that he wanted to do the prank script one of the Simpsons writers wrote, that was totally making fun of him — rather than the actual script. This caused so much confusion (the other writers not having originally realized that Prince had a different script than they were looking at) that he didn’t actually do a Simpsons episode at all. Which was probably for the best.)

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  5. Very fortunately, Prince left us very clear instructions as to his wishes, instructions which I for one endorse:

    Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
    Electric word, “life:” it means forever and that’s a mighty long time.
    But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else.
    The after world.
    A world of never ending happiness.
    You can always see the sun, day or night.

    So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills,
    You know the one, Dr. Everything’ll-Be-Alright,
    Instead of asking him how much of your time is left,
    Ask him how much of your mind, baby.

    ‘Cause in this life, things are much harder than in the after world.
    In this life, you’re on your own!
    And if the elevator tries to bring you down —
    Go crazy. Punch a higher floor.

    If you don’t like the world you’re living in,
    Take a look around you: at least you got friends.
    You see, I called my old lady for a friendly word.
    She picked up the phone, dropped it on the floor. (Ah! ah!) was all I heard.

    Are we gonna let the elevator bring us down?
    Oh, no let’s go! Let’s go crazy. Let’s get nuts.
    Let’s look for the purple banana ’til they put us in the truck.
    Let’s go!

    We’re all excited but we don’t know why.
    Maybe it’s ’cause we’re all gonna die.
    And when we do, what’s it all for?
    You better live now before the grim reaper come knocking on your door.

    Vale, o Princeps.
    Nobis, qui relinquimur: vivere!

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  6. Thanks, Dennis. My wife is from Minneapolis, she likes to tell how tiny, tiny Prince was a basketball star in high school.

    I had a housemate in the 80’s, a white guy, who was really into opera and classical and the usual 80’s stuff, but also Prince (and Rocky Horror). Then he came out. There’s definitely a connection, I think.

    I’m hetero, but I have a streak of non-conformance that definitely connects with Prince. It doesn’t hurt that I’m short, too. (But not that short). I just feel sad that Prince apparently never got over his discomfort with actual homosexuality.

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  7. This was such a moving post, Dennis.

    One of the things I always loved most about Prince was how he caught people’s souls, one way or another, partly through the sheer exuberance and variety of his music. It was like there was nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to.

    Today I learned that Chelsea Rogers

    is one of those most-famous-among dancers songs, particularly in Taiwan, for example

    Which isn’t surprising, but then I never would’ve thought of it either, you know?

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