When an artist you love dies, what do you mourn exactly? I can’t mourn like Prince’s family will mourn, his close friends and collaborators, his church friends, the people who knew and loved the person.
What I mourn is the possible generative future of a damn inconsistent and still wonderful artist—the next “Breakfast Can Wait” or “Black Sweat” or “1,000 X’s and O’s” that there’ll never be, much less all the stone-cold classics (I cleaned my writing studio just this morning to “Housequake” and “Slow Love,” danced just last night to “Raspberry Beret”) whose source will never conjure them up for us live. (Missed him last year here in Sattle; played four nights at a small club, $250 a ticket, extraordinary from what I heard, a 3-hour show of classics and B-sides and requests melting under the heat of his tireless energy and the crowd’s love.)
But mostly what I mourn is the projection of a possible way to be, a Prince I could live inside and love and shock myself as, a Prince that refreshed the courage of my community of weirdos queers artists mystics Christians and forever reshaped our big culture’s borders around racial and sexual identity and music.* I don’t know almost anything about what Prince was like personally. But I do know that an artist can be incredibly difficult in person but still, by extending their “I” to contain the longing and lust and will for freedom and psychedelic dreams and invention of the people who adore their art, give a gift of radical possibility. People could close their eyes and put themselves inside his music, his persona, his Prince-ness and be changed.
It’s different, I think, with the writers I love: the emptying of the personality into the written work means that there’s something primary, still-living, in their books even when they’re gone. (I still wanna take a moment and recommend round-the-clock health monitoring and security for Samuel Delany.) But Prince, now, belongs to a time that’s no longer quite reachable by the people whose lives and imaginations he changed. So that’s what I mourn.
*: Clarification added, after a few hours’ reflection, to the original post. Prince’s radical push against a homogenized white perception of black culture—his refigurement of blackness in the eyes of his pop audience—is a huge part of his art. And it’s an aspect of his work that, I wanna be clear, I can never “live inside,” as a POC fan of Prince’s music could. Prince was an artist of color in a racist society; I’m white. I can love this dimension of his work, and be challenged by it, and learn from it, but it’s not my role to inhabit.