by Emile DeWeaver

I’m not sentimental, so it surprised me that Prince’s death struck me as much as the death of a family member would have. My cellmate woke me up to break the news, and I began my denial stage by grunting and returning to sleep. For the next couple of days, I tuned out all conversations about his death and changed the channel when it came up in the news. Eventually, I decided to face it and watched 20/20’s special on Prince’s life. By the time I needed a tissue, I’d moved past sadness. I was re-experiencing the joy he and his music had brought me.

I saw Purple Rain when I was six years old. Movie time was sacred to my family, a safe time, and taking us to movies that were highly inappropriate for children usually fell in my father’s domain. He lived by a tacit credo: Life is Rated-R, get used to it. After much coaxing, my mom took my brothers and me to see Purple Rain—in her defense, she spent much of the movie trying to cover my eyes, and I never again broke the PG barrier in her company.

I’m not sure why my brothers and I marshaled to convince my mom to take us, because we weren’t huge fans at six, seven, and ten years old. I think it began with a seed my sister, who lived with my mom full time, planted over the telephone. She probably associated him with Michael Jackson, and as the Jeri-Curl hair and sparkling glove I would wear to the premiere attested, I thought everything associated with Michael Jackson was awesome. Wherever the idea began, I imagine that when our mom asked my brothers and me what we wanted to do on our next visit with her, we began the Purple Rain campaign.

“But Mom, we love him!”
“Please Mommy, we’re not babies anymore.”
“Dad would take us.”

My mom only had every other weekend to express her love for us. She agreed to take us.

My mother and father were opposites. For him, life was an exercise in frugality. When he took us to the movies, he scheduled for matinees. He bought movie snacks at Safeway for us to smuggle into the cinema, and he forbade the use of air conditioning in the car to save gas. For my mom, life was a production. When she took us to see Purple Rain, you’d have thought we’d been nominated for the Grammys. She took us to a salon where we giggled at the novelty of pedicures. She dressed us in tiny suits, and we arrived at the theater in a limousine. Stepping out of the only limousine I’ve ever been in, I’d never felt so warmed by family membership. I love Prince for Purple Rain, but I also love him for that feeling my mother gave me to carry into the theater.

After we watched Purple Rain, my brothers and I started a band with our neighbor. We wanted to be stars; we wanted to be actors. We wanted to rise stark naked from a dry bathtub and slowly catwalk toward the camera. We didn’t because in the small corner of the world where we lived, black boys stumbling their way to black manhood, only Prince could get away with that.

We loved Prince because he was a symbol of liberation among the oppressed … it’s the only explanation I have for why males in a hyper-masculine, homophobic culture worshipped a man who wore eyeliner, fishnet, and heels.

Prince evoked a special kind of celebration. In the culture where I spent my teens, “sissy” was a fighting word. Masculinity was emphasized to the point of distortion. Yet the same guys who ridiculed effeminate boys for wearing pink would react to Prince’s androgyny with a shrug, chuckle, and “that’s Prince.” Prince could do anything, and naysayers were shouted down and relegated to the rank of village idiot. In his art, in him, we experienced something for which we yearned, something it would take me decades to realize: freedom to love myself enough to be myself.

I’d never known many people who could be themselves. When I lived in the milieu of African-American middle class, we couldn’t speak loudly because somehow volume was a function of intelligence. When I lived in impoverished ganglands, we couldn’t be forgiving because somehow compassion was a function of effeminacy. In both worlds, we loved Prince because he was a symbol of liberation among the oppressed. He seemed free, and even if we weren’t aware of it, we lived that freedom vicariously. Although I can’t rightly speak for millions of urban Prince fans, it’s the only explanation I have for why males in a hyper-masculine, homophobic culture worshipped a man who wore eyeliner, fishnet, and heels.

I love Prince because he was trying to liberate me from patriarchy before I even knew what patriarchy was. I love him because “Insatiable” runs seven minutes, and it’s still not long enough for me. Because I can’t listen to “Kiss” without feeling GQ. Because I play guitar, and you can’t be a musician without breaking through a new ceiling of admiration for Prince’s musicianship. I love him because although wearing assless pants on the red carpet is a tentative item on my bucket list, Prince did it first.

Emile DeWeaver is a columnist for Easy Street. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Lascaux Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Nth Degree, Drunk Monkeys, and Frigg. He lives and writes in Northern California.