There is a familiar pattern in how American’s sit shiva for pop icons.
Today it’s for Prince, but we saw this with David Bowie, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson.
Phase I: News breaks. Details sketchy. Montage. Writers write, broadcasters comment. Where does this person stand in relation to the greats? Remarks on how this person transcends the boundaries of their profession. How did this person influence fashion, politics, racial identity, or human sexuality?
There are public lamentations from politicians, and communal bereavement outside a gated home. There’s a social media boomlet, and a buying frenzy for their music. Some of us feel old and weary.
With Prince, we’re at phase II: the counter-narrative.
Writers and broadcasters scold the public that it is spending too much time mourning a star none of them knew rather than being outraged by the death of people in such-and-such-a-place. It doesn’t matter where these other people are because this really is more about your misplaced sense of grief.
There is a point to that. No need to leave the country. Between Friday and Sunday, six people were killed and 41 injured in shootings around Chicago. Looking at the Chicago Tribune’s data, the victims’ average age was 24; the two youngest were 16, the oldest 41.
Prince was 57. He died at home. The autopsy report has yet to be released.
Prince’s mark on the world was as a musician and showman. Genius is an overused term, but any cat capable of mastering 27 instruments is pretty damn prodigious.
Prince transcended his peers in the same way that other icons did by influencing his industry and affecting the views of his fans—and his detractors. In the early 1980s, politicians and commentators caterwauled over his androgyny, ambiguous sexuality, and explicit lyrics. Luis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Elvis, The Beatles, James Brown, Bowie, the Sex Pistols, P-Funk—they all were accused of corrupting the morals of youth.
For people like me in the 1980s, whether straight or gay, poor or rich, melanin enhanced or not, we found things about Prince to adore. I loved the lyricism; friends were absorbed in musicianship and production.
Others were fascinated, if not emboldened, by his uncompromising persona. We shouldn’t take that lightly. He was a rare being among black males—someone who did not bend to the pressure to reassure white people or reinforce stereotypes about black masculinity.
Prince’s first album, For You, was released in October 1978. HITnRUN Phase Two, his last album, debuted last December. In those years, the gap between black and white wealth and income has grown. The prison population exploded. How is one to see hope and justice in a headline that reads: “Black Americans are killed at 12 times the rate of people in other developed countries”?
Prince is mythologized today partly because he represents a brief, hopeful moment in American culture when it seemed like rigid race and gender norms were opening up and creativity and opportunity were expanding
American cities have become the dumping ground for bullet-riddled young dark bodies. And the same politicians who love Prince don’t have the backbone to do anything about it.
Fred McKissack Jr. is a writer, editor, and longtime contributor to The Progressive.