- Obituarizing Black Maleness, Obituarizing Prince
On April 21, 2016, I was leaving a three-hour graduate seminar on Atlantic slavery when I noticed multiple voicemails, text messages, and emails from my editors at the Guardian. I had already spent enough time steeped in Black death for a day, but while I had been in class, the Purple One had passed away.
Prince Nelson Rogers had already given us a scare when his plane made an emergency landing a few days before. But this time the Kid danced offstage for good, leaving our world a little less colorful, a little less soulful—and a lot lonelier. In both my journalism and academic writing lives, I deal with race, Black culture, and sexuality, but the temporalities couldn’t be more different. It is possible to work on an academic article for two to three years, but in responsive journalism, I sometimes get two to three hours to turn out an article, if I’m lucky. Writing obituaries isn’t just for information in digital journalism; it is expected to play an immediate role in people’s ability to mourn emotionally.
Processing that Prince had actually died, with the clock ticking to pump out a reaction piece, was daunting. I tried to get out of it. I told my editors, Alex Needham and Lanre Bakare, that I didn’t have anything of value to say. I questioned myself and wondered if Prince had really had enough of an effect on my life to justify my writing anything at all. I thought with intimidation about the most beautiful piece of musical-feature-writing-as-racial-political-eulogy I had ever read: Greg Tate’s “The Man in Our Mirror,” which was published on the cover of the Village Voice just days after Michael Jackson died. Jackson was arguably the closest person to being a musical sibling in genius talent to Prince, and Tate was a maestro of music writing. Music writing is not my forte, but that did not excuse me, my editors gently encouraged me, from taking on the assignment. I had a relationship with readers in writing about race and sexuality, and I needed to see what I could say to them in this profoundly sad moment of American history. [End Page 9]
Tate opened his Michael Jackson eulogy by writing,
What Black American culture—musical and otherwise—lacks for now isn’t talent or ambition, but the unmistakable presence of some kind of spiritual genius: the sense that something other than or even more than human is speaking through whatever fragile mortal vessel is burdened with repping for the divine, the magical, the supernatural, the ancestral.
Like Michael, Prince was such a vessel, and losing him is a stab to Black America when we need such spiritual guidance in the face of daily attacks on our bodily vessels as much as ever; indeed, both singers’ deaths were memorialized in New York City with multiple dance parties, from Brooklyn to Harlem, with an excuse for Black bodies to dance when we had felt able to march, but not dance, after the deaths of so many other Black men in recent years. If Michael and Prince embodied the spiritual genius of the ancestors in spades, Barack Obama has been in many ways sorely lacking it. It is worth noting that two of Black America’s most cherished artists have passed during the administration of the first Black president. Obama has been a champion of Black artists, but he embodies the talent and ambition Tate is writing about far more than he, as the American president or even as a post-president, can or will ever embody a spiritual genius of the divine.
I am glad that my editors pushed me. I went home, saw that I had no fewer than seven Prince LPs in my record collection, realized Prince had indeed touched me greatly, lined up the LPs next to my record player, started playing the first one (Around the World in a Day from 1985), tried to channel Patron Saint of Music Writing Tate, and got to work writing about that sexy motherfucker. In a couple of hours...