On Prince by Robert Lashley

Editor Robert Lashley, Music, April 22nd, 2016

"...our shared cultural vocabulary in relation to the body and human expression."

essay commemorating the life of Prince and Prince's music by Robert Lashley for NAILED Magazine

When I was 9 years old, my grandmother gave me a musical education. I was just de facto hired as the drink man for her card games with my uncles and my grandfather, and she thought I should get a extensive course in culture. Her basement remains the most remarkable piece of housing I have ever been in. She had tended bar and ran a pool hall for over 28 years, on top of working in the Ft Lewis laundry room in the mornings, and wanted the basement of that house to be a “hip spot.” It had two bedrooms, a bar, a card table, a TV system, and a place for her 2,300 records.

We spent a hot early fall day in her decked out basement, as we listened to 4 of them while she taught me on how to use a tumbler and make a decent hoagie. The first three: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. The last one: Prince’s Sign o’ the Times. I remember being possessed by spirits I was too young to fully understand in that basement; but mostly I remember my grandmother feeling the spirit to “Play in the Sunshine.” Struggling with alcoholism and diabetes, she couldn’t walk that well. Yet by god, there was my grandmother dancing with me on that marble floor, all of 68 years old; taking my 9-year-old hands and spinning me to that joyous moment in Prince’s titanic double album.

That’s what I think of now. That and the realization that we just lost the Tennessee Williams of music. Like Willams did with his frank, brutal, tragic, yet essentially humane sense of lyric/poetic drama, Prince did so many things that had never been seen before in art, things so outlandish, so shocking, and so brilliantly crafted that you almost couldn’t look away. He was Black Music’s library of Babel, a conservatory of R&B, jazz, funk, pop, soul, and rock who would mix and match what he knew in musical colors never seen before or since. Also like Williams, Prince helped liberate and humanize our shared cultural vocabulary in relation to the body and human expression.

With the exception of Stevie Wonder, nobody in Black Music had a run like him. When I later played records as a little kid DJ, I remember thinking Dirty Mind, 1999, Purple Rain, Parade, and Sign as being somewhere above what people were listening to at the times, an early member of those Hall of Fame black artists that people revered in past eras. Yet I also remember him being essentially “ours,” of our time, never missing sight of the “one” funk beat in any of his explorations, never failing to include black-identified musical traditions in his gorgeous mosaic of sounds.

That intrinsic community mindedness intensified as he got older. Prince always had a political edge: Sign is so funky that you forget that half of it is a political protest album. A decade after his prime ended (and in this writer’s estimation, a decade where he wallowed in white Jesus bad jam funk band bullshit), Prince remade himself as a funkateer/culture figure. 2004’s Musicology wasn’t perfect, but it was thrilling to see him transform into this tight, shiny suited song and dance man scathingly committed to both being black and making you dance your ass off. He had sharpened the political/musical aesthetics of his later period so much that-by 2014’s Art Official Age, he was both being the most public-protest voice in black music and making music that was almost as good as his prime years.

There will be time to assess the full meaning of his records. Tonight, as I write this, I can’t leave my grandmother’s hands, and too be honest, I don’t want to. My grandmother made me listen to Prince because she wanted me to know that this was important. Dancing with her made me realize that Art could make you feel. That Art could mean something. Fare thee well, Prince Rogers Nelson. I can’t put a price on what you’ve meant to my life.

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Robert Lashley

Robert Lashley is the author of The Homeboy Songs (Small Doggies Press, 2014). A semi finalist for the PEN/Rosenthal fellowship, Lashley has had poems and essays published in such Journals as Feminete, No Regrets, NAILED, and Your Hands, Your Mouth. His work was also featured in Many Trails To The Summit, an anthology of Northwest form and Lyric poetry. To quote James Baldwin, he wants to be an honest man and a good writer.