Note on Process
There is great order in the universe, and in this order each human being’s life has equal significance. We currently live in a social order which engineers us all to appropriate our humanity through certain very important personages; we are set up to experience some people’s lives as more important than others, and further to find meaning in life through these more important people.
It is under these circumstances that it is the cross to bear of the living to discover the meaning in the life and death of Prince. I was not a fan of Prince. Therefore, when, on the day of his death, I got word of it, it surprised me that it overwhelmed me emotionally. Ultimately, it came to me that Prince made certain very important contributions to music, culture and to human beauty, and this gives us all the opportunity to learn something about ourselves through the meaning of his life and death.
Prince’ Most Important Contributions
A Fighter for the Rights of Artists Youtube is amazing. For this music lover who did not take good care of his albums, Youtube is sent to us by Allah. It became clear early in the first day after his passing that one of Prince’s greatest contributions was the way he fought the music moguls, the music industry, the monopoly capitalist music exploiters. I could not find Prince on Youtube. He protected his art work, he helped other people protect theirs, and he was an advocate and activist for freedom of expression and against the exploitation of artists and musicians. This seems to me to be an important and enduring contribution.
Gender Boxes Not being a fan and without being able to Youtube-him-up, I had to search. Ultimately, I found my favorite songs. Again, I was not a fan, but what stuck out was the songs which challenged gender boxes and heterosexual chauvinism: “Bambi,” “Conspiracy,” “If I was your Girlfriend,” and other songs in which he speaks of being someone’s “mother,” and says he wants “to be your sister…” During the ‘80’s I was in my 30’s, and I was not conscious that this is what drew me to these songs. Today, it is clear that this tendency on his part was a contribution to freeing everyone from heterosexism, machismo, and male supremacist gender boxes.
“When Doves Cry” is one of those songs, at least for people my age, where you know where you were when you first heard it. This guy critiques his mother and his father in this song — not in an exhibitionist or exploitative way, but in a way that I certainly could relate to. It sounded sincerely like his lived experience; and living in the world of entertainers, processing one’s life often takes place, not in therapy or with your family, but during engagement of your art form.
Falsetto I thought the subject of Prince’s challenge of gender boxes and the falsetto’s of African American men was important. In response to this, I heard it suggested that the falsettos of African American singers were a concession to White people, to help them feel more comfortable with us. With that suggestion, it became clear that this is more important to me than I originally thought.
African Americans have made manifest contributions as one people on planet earth to the treasure trove of human beauty. One of them is the falsetto of African American male singers, which I have experienced as challenging machismo, challenging gender boxes, challenging white supremacist assumptions, male supremacy and heterosexism, since I was a little child. I grew up with Lester the Molester. He was particularly hard on me because I was the only “nigger” child in the neighborhood. When I came to Boston’s Black community, on a mission, at age 18, older Brothers would see me in the street and say, “How you doin’, Baby?!”, sometimes in a falsetto. It was warm. I never feared that they wanted to molest me. It was a distinctly different feeling; it was welcoming.
Smokey Robinson, Eddie Kendricks, Marvin Gaye, Phillip Bailey, Michael Jackson, Prince, each are part of an artistic tradition that is uniquely ours. I grew up in an all-White upper middle class neighborhood. However, in the summers I would go to live with my uncle in an all-Black working class neighborhood in Queens, NY. They listened to soul music. When I was twelve-years-old, in the summer of 1964, Curtis Mayfield was singing:
If you had a choice of colors,
Which one would you choose, my Brothers;
If it was to be day or night,
Which one would you choose to be right?
That had an emblematic effect on my sense of self. He sang that in a falsetto. He was not trying to make White people feel comfortable with him. I don’t know any White people who even heard that song back then.
Funk and Soul Finally, in terms of contributions, Prince’s devotion to Soul music, particularly to Funk, in the 1980’s, was a support of a totally unique, and path-breaking sound that is enduring; Funk and Soul belong to the pantheon of our contributions to music; they bear the stamp of African America — they can’t be replicated or stolen. And Prince was up to the task. His Funk was on the same level of exquisiteness as that of James Brown (clearly the king of them all, y’all), Jimmy Nolen, Parliament, Sly, Chaka Khan, Rick James…
There is no desire to be disrespectful here but, Purple Rain may be the worst movie ever made. It seems that as the ‘80’s wore on, Prince relied more, moved more into, pop and away from his funk groove, and in this capacity he came out with very White images throughout.
It is, however, not only the exclusively White images (and oh, the fact that there is no story line…), that makes the movie Purple Rain terrible, but it is also the exclusively hetero images, which means that he let go of, as he figured out how to gain fame and fortune, his really strongest stuff. NPR reported today that Prince left $500,000,000 upon his passing. It is not clear to me that there is any circumstance in which it is healthy for one person to leave 500 million dollars on the table upon exiting the planet.
The Disease of Addiction On my way into my NA meeting on the day after I got news of Prince’s death, I was still quite sad. My Brother George asked me “How are you?”, and I got out the word “Prince” with tears in my eyes. George said, “It’s the disease of addiction. My son died from a heroin overdose four months ago. We have to treat the disease. That is the meaning of Prince’s death.”
This scribe cedes authority on these matters to the one-million-strong network that is Narcotics Anonymous. There are all types of conspiracy theories, theories about Illuminati (who are they?), corrupt doctors, and other projections surrounding Prince’s death. The coroner’s initial report, and the other official (lack of) pronouncements have, one week later, provided us with nothing definitive.
Folks in Narcotics Anonymous were unanimous in their observations of the life of Prince over the last few years; that he had been struggling with opioids. For the uninitiated (and it’s hard to see how anyone could be, given the ubiquitous nature of drug addiction in our society today), poppy seeds are the principal ingredient of opium, and therefore, contain the basic ingredient in heroin. Today, all across the United States, in addition to people being addicted to heroin outright, the pharmaceutical industry and the psychiatrists have seen to it that millions of people are addicted to prescription drugs, the most common being those based in opioids. The state of Massachusetts has 7.6 million residents. In the year of our Lord 2014, 4.1 million prescriptions were handed out to these residents (Boston Globe, 10/21/2015). It is in these circumstances that a short-hand way of stating the case is that millions of U.S. citizens are today suffering from heroin addiction and are overdosing from heroin abuse.
Prince was addicted to prescription opioids, and as this scribe tries to bear witness, however small a degree of witness, to the meaning of his life (not being a fan, it is only a meager attempt), the meaning of his death rests squarely with the disease of addiction, which, in accordance with great disorder in the society we live in, does not discriminate — the disease of addiction effects all equally. Everyone in the culture is susceptible, and even the most wealthy, like Prince, cannot get around it, cannot duck it, cannot avoid its purview.
To understand the death of Prince, we must observe one of the most deadly physical, mental and spiritual maladies of our time — indeed, the disease of addiction is unique to and all-embracing of the identity of the present decay of this culture. Like the deaths of all who have succumbed to this disease, we must take this lesson from the death of Prince.