What Prince Taught Us

Remembering a transcendent artist who changed the world with his music and art.

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Complex Original

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At 9:43 a.m. this morning, the Carver County crime lab, medical examiner, and police department were called to Prince’s Paisley Park Studios, in Minnesota, to investigate a death. Details are still hazy, but it has been confirmed that the deceased is Prince Rogers Nelson, known to his legion of fans as Prince. Multiple sources and reports corroborated his death, as well as his publicist, through a statement to the Associated Press. He was 57 years old.

The cause of death is not yet known, although Prince had been ill recently, and was rushed to the hospital earlier this week with flu symptoms. What is clear is that we have lost one of the most transcendent artists of the popular music idiom. Eulogizing such a remarkable, gifted man before all of the facts come out feels risky, like we’ll miss something, or misrepresent the odd gift we were given in the form of this man, and his work. But if Prince taught us anything, it’s to follow our souls. Our souls tell us to remember him, and what he taught us.

Prince taught us that “a strong spirit transcends rules.” In the history of pop music, you’d be hard-pressed to find a stronger spirit, or one who broke more rules with his art. As a songwriter and performer, he built a 35-year, 39-album career as an interstellar, omnisexual superhero, walking through the walls of genre, race, and sexuality like they never existed in the first place. 

We haven’t seen many musicians as innovative, visionary, or brave as him, but it’s possible that many of our readers may not have had a full understanding of his impact on popular culture until right now. In a way, this was carefully calculated: a quick Spotify or YouTube search reveals his glaring absence, a visionary rejection of a system that puts profits first, and artists second. In 2010, when he famously took his website offline, he cut directly to the core of the issue: “I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can’t get it.” 

Prince taught us that art and music are serious and valuable business, and anyone who gets in the way of that can be disregarded.

In this way, Prince taught us that art and music are serious and valuable business, and anyone who gets in the way of that can be disregarded. He once reportedly complained about “All these non-singing, non-dancing, wish-I-had-me-some-clothes fools who tell me my albums suck. Why should I pay any attention to them?”

Certainly, in his native Minneapolis, he is a sovereign figure. Born in 1958 to a pianist father and a vocalist mother, he developed an interest in music from a young age, playing guitar and piano in local clubs and parties. Originally influenced by classic soul and funk (Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic), he sculpted an androgynous​ visual aesthetic based on the out-there personal of Little Richard. His music became so popular in his hometown that his imitators often refer to it as “The Minneapolis Sound,” a composite of funk, rock, and new wave that Prince spearheaded in the late '70s.

He wrote countless hit singles, from “When Doves Cry,” to “Purple Rain," and “Kiss.” But it was his debut album, For You, in 1978, that introduced audiences to this singular talent for the first time. On this album, Prince played every instrument, and his first single, “Soft and Wet,” peaked at No. 92 on the US Hot 100 chart. It was later sampled by MC Hammer, one of many artists who has turned to Prince to sample his work: Kanye, Jay Z, and Tupac all mined Prince’s catalog for inspiration. He was also a film actor, albeit one unable to portray anyone but himself. His roles in the musical dramas Purple Rain and Under the Cherry Moon are legendary cult classics. As Marc Bernardin​ noted recently, “What Bowie was for white kids who didn't fit in, Prince was for black kids. A beacon in mascara who made it okay to stand up and stand out.”

He scoffed at the notion of naming conventions, and over the course of his career, he changed his name several times, from Prince, to Jamie Starr, Christopher, the Purple One, Joey Coco, and, most memorably, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, styled as a combination of the Mars (male) and Venus (female) symbols, with no standard pronunciation. Far from a far-out artist’s frivolity, it was carefully calculated around the philosophical beliefs of a terminally generous man attempting to separate himself from his music. “I was getting tired of seeing my name,” he once told biographer and journalist Michael Heatley. “If you give away an idea, you still own that idea. In fact, giving it away strengthens it.”

He was, however, not without controversy. Throughout all of his accomplishments, he maintained a penchant for bizarre sex. In court papers filed for a sexual abuse case, his former girlfriend Charlene Friend alleged that "he believed he was the Messiah and if you had sex with him, you became one with him. He would have me dress in his clothing at his whim. His staff were not allowed to look at me and I was not allowed to look at them." Friend claimed that he would make her call him the Messiah when they were in bed together.

In 2001, he famously converted to Jehovah’s Witness, and admitted to proselytizing by going door to door handing out copies of Watchtower magazine. In 2013, when he appeared onstage at the Grammy Awards with a cane, it was revealed that, as blood transfusions are not allowed by his faith, he refused to get a double hip replacement. But he was famously openhanded, and that cannot be attributed simply to his religion. Over the course of his career, he had donated generously to scholarships, AIDS foundations, musical institutions, and urban farming initiatives.

Since the death of Michael Jackson, we’ve gotten better at the way we deal with the deaths of the prime movers of our culture. Still, it’s an odd thought to consider our response when celebrities pass on. There will be many memories surfaced, tears shed, and tearful DJ nights in the coming weeks. In the spirit of Prince’s generosity, the entire Complex staff sends its thoughts and prayers to his friends and family, and to everyone he touched with his spirit, films, and music.

But mostly, we’d like to thank Prince, for everything you taught us. We see more depth in the world based on the strength of your art, and your death is a reminder that, at the core of our world are people like you, brave weirdos committed to individuality, no matter what anyone thinks.

As you once said, despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people. Thank you for this lesson, and so many others.

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