The “W” on my keyboard fell off two days ago. Well, it didn’t, actually. I took it off because it seemed to be stuck, not realizing that I couldn’t magically attach it back. I just tried superglue on it and it’s just hanging, loosely planted. And now it keeps jamming. There’s a reason for this story. This was Tiff’s computer. Her mother got it for her, and even still, I have Forgetting Sarah Marshall moments when I’ll look for a document of mine and find a pic of her I thought I deleted eons ago and so the distant travels down the rabbit hole begin. She loved him. Loved him in a way a woman could only truly love somebody that, at times, probably felt like her spirit animal. So it’s hard for me to not think of her when I think of him. There are songs that are now staples in karaoke, at weddings, at college bar nights…also, at black cookouts, or on urban R&B radio at 3 a.m. And a good portion of my affection toward him started with her and the countless times his songs would have to be added to a playlist or CD; or the times her iPod Nano would be low on space and albums and singles would have to be deleted, but his music would forever go unscathed, untouched. He had long ago earned a space in her heart, a deep, forever-orbiting one.
He was the rite of passage for many a teenage boy and girl learning how to use lips against skin, love against fabric, flesh against sex. Poster child for masculinity, full embodiment of femininity — he was both soft and strong, airy and solid, matter and gas. He wore platforms and ass-less chaps and licked lollipops on stage, and I’m pretty sure could have slept with any woman I dated, and I couldn’t have even been mad, I mean, look at him — Adonis with a perfect pitch. I messaged Tiff and asked her if she was okay. I know what he meant to somebody like her. Spike Lee shut Brooklyn down. People came out with lighters and vinyls and tears and memories and happy feet and songs, beautiful, epic, holier-than-thou musical masterpieces. They would scream lyrics at the full capacity of lung room given, reaching up with voices milking clouds and moon and night air full of humidity and remnants of a time before when we still had him here to claim him for our very own.
I was never his biggest fan. I hated Purple Rain until I got older and realized a naked Vanity was like the Holy Grail on steroids. But, she adored the man. Rightfully so. There is a timelessness in the music he made. He went by multiple pseudonyms in his career as a songwriter and musician. ?uestlove will probably handle any musical score accompanying a documentary. D’Angelo and Bilal could probably do a whole set of Prince covers in their sleep. Chaka Khan is probably full of tears. Morris Day, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Tevin Campbell, Janelle Monae, Miguel…the lineage of those who fall from his tree are long, far, and wide. Cali, I’m sure, wept like a baby. I told her I didn’t know what to write. You don’t want to try to speak for a moment, especially when there are those, like Cali, who saw him live, and know his catalog and b-sides like I know fruit snack trivia. And in her grieving, you also try and make sense of the loss on a scale that most resembles what loss of one whom you have never known feels like to you. And you might realize that loss needs no definition if it is felt. That feeling is human, and the human form is only a container house for the spirit. And the spirit knows all, which might be why the melody of “Little Red Corvette” still reverberates now like it did more 20 years ago.
It started on Twitter, because I flatly stated I had no words or thoughts; no essay, no pontificating on his career or life. Then it moved to Instagram because I needed to say something to quell the frustration I felt of being in a room where the significance felt lost. Where I felt the need to explain why my spirit and heart were both reeling with the sharp ping of despair and loss, because we are tired of losing the ones we love to violence or diabetes or drugs, or life. Black life is an invaluable resource, more so than oil or any other commodified and vetted American interest, especially black art lives. Beyoncé owes him. Taylor Swift owes him. Adam Levine owes him. Usher owes him. Ginuwine owes him (he did a pretty damn good “When Doves Cry” rendition). Jodeci, Missy, Timbaland, Diddy, Uptown Records…they all owe him. Any artist that can now stand on a stage with their hearts and words and songs worn heroically, sexually, artfully, honestly…they all owe a slice of their musical DNA, their merit and hubris, to him — the showmanship, the flare, the gravitas exhibited, the exhibitionist, the lover, the crooner, the beggar and pleader, the seducer, the prophet and speaker of truths…all in this small frame of a man. He put out a song pleading for peace in Baltimore. He spoke directly to a cause, for a cause. He birthed a nation through music; all current roads lead back to him. He is our North Star.
I was about 8 when the news broke: He was no was no longer who we knew him to be. He was going to now go by some very androgynous sign. He would write the word “Slave” on both sides of his beard, and it would serve as a symbol, to be symbolic of what it would feel like to be treated like cattle by a system. It was revolutionary. To an 8-year-old, it was stupid. And all I cared about were the jokes and jabs made at his expense by the likes of In Living Color cast member and creator Kennan Ivory Winans. Looking back now, Jay-Z can now have discussions about masters and why they matter, and can use that as leverage because of what he did for us. He did it for us. He did a lot for us. Soundscapes, landscapes, a full tapestry of music that will live on long after you and I and even him, even after he is already gone. The flavor of him will be in the child who decides to learn guitar and piano and drums and saxophone and harmonica; who can arrange and produce music and films; mastering scales and chords and arrangements and melodies and harmonies. He was also from the school of James Brown — stellar performer, amazing dancer, charismatic, a hit with the ladies. It will be unfair to attempt to group him with Michael Jackson. It’s not even fair for me to make mention of it here, now. He was then, and is now, his own beacon.
My daughter will grow up in a world where the physical embodiment of him will not exist for her. Someone will try to bring his hologram to Coachella. And that somebody will have to change their address immediately following. I don’t even know if I want my daughter living a world where she can’t see him in the present. I spent the latter part of my day wondering, “where do you we go from here?” I asked questions about death, to death, and watched the video of Stevie Wonder tell Anderson Cooper, no, he cannot sing one of his songs. Even if he could, how do you choose? How do you pick one song to properly demonstrate what he meant to and for music, for black music? Every black face that walked by me on the street, I wondered, “Are they humming his songs?” Or, “do you miss him like I do in this very second? Like, do you feel his voice in your core, like some secret black wizard whose spirit is in every dance and hymn and hum and drum beat and cadence of a tune stuck in the back of our throats like gum drops and cinnamon rain, and did you know rain had a color and a flavor, and if you didn’t, now know that it has always been purple, and will always be so, must be so, forever, because of him, do you?”
My mom told me she cried in the department store she was shopping in when she heard the news. She said they were playing his songs back-to-back and she wondered what was going on, because she knew his birthday was in June. My mom remembers things like that. She’s the mom that writes letters to President Obama and gets excited when she gets a response. Or she goes to Marshall’s or the man on the Concourse who sells black paintings, like one with Obama and MLK and Malcolm X sitting at a table like it’s the Last Supper. She pondered out loud if my uncle would be able to make a mix CD of him for her. She concluded that she had none of his albums even though she loved him so much. I never knew. She also had questions about his sexuality.
She also asked me if I was going to sleep, and I told her I as writing an article about him. She opened her door, slid me a thumbs up, and gave me a lightly peppered, “I like that.” I hope he does too.