“I‘m finally feeling better,” I told my mom over the phone. I’d just expelled a lot of grief I was experiencing in an hour-long rant to her. At that point in the day—around 10 to 11 in the morning—my grief wasn’t anything Prince related. In fact, like everyone else that day, little did I know the rest of my day would be consumed by the news of His Purple Majesty’s passing.
At the time, what I was ranting about was about personal stuff; my Sleepy Hollow post concerning Abbie’s death had become one of the biggest hits, if not the biggest hit, JUST ADD COLOR and my personal writing portfolio had seen. Even Variety‘s Maureen Ryan, a writer I’m a huge fan of, and Kelly Connolly, my Entertainment Weekly Community Blog boss, had read it, having found it organically (I had actually considered sending them the link to the article, but I figured that if they read it, they’d read it, and if not, then whatever.) Ryan even went a step further and highlighted a part of the article she was the most affected by and retweeted the article to her followers. I was flabbergasted and honored that I was now considered worthy to be retweeted by writing elite. That’s when the panic and fear set in.
Now that I had reached another plateau in my online writing career, what did followers expect from me? Would I have to write about every pop culture thing, even if I didn’t particularly care about it? Would I have to give my opinion on everything? And if I did give an opinion, would it be the opinion that would put me on the ever-present “problematic” lists of Twitter and Tumblr denizens? I’d already had my brushes with that before—those brushes exposed me a lot more to the hypocrisy of social media life than I would have liked to have experienced. How hypocritical was I expected to be? In other words: what kind of “self” was I now allowed to have on Twitter now that more eyes were looking at what I’d have to write?
These thoughts about self-preservation, self-representation, and the inherent fakery of internet culture had consumed me for days, leading me to rant about it to my sister the night before, and then to my mom the next morning after staying in bed for far too long, dreading to start my day and deal with my social media quandaries yet again. After that hour of ranting (so much so that I was putting my mom to sleep by talking so much) and letting off steam in the form of tears, I felt better and said so. “That’s good,” my mom said. “It’s good to get it all out.”
“Yeah,” I said, already feeling lighter and finally looking forward to writing some stuff on Underground and maybe even that pesky article about Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange. I got out of bed, remade it, did my morning routine, and started putting some laundry away while talking to my mom about whatever else had been rattling around in my brain.
Then my sister texted me. “Prince is dead!” she exclaimed. Angina, something I’ve never really had an issue with (despite my history of chronic stress and anxiety), flared up so badly I briefly considered if I needed a paramedic myself. As strange as it sounds even to me, the most recent time I’ve felt so directionless was about two years ago, when my uncle—another person I wrongly assumed would live forever—died. Instantly, I was trying to figure out if this was a hoax—it had to be a hoax, because Prince doesn’t just die—but as I switched between my mom and Twitter, I saw that it wasn’t a hoax. It was true. “NOT PRINCE!” I yelled to my empty room and my mom on the other end. “NO! NOT PRINCE!” My mom, on the other hand, was waiting on CNN or MSNBC to confirm it. Once they did, she sounded tired. “I was waiting to see if it was true,” she said. “That’s sad.”
Like the news junkie I am, I ran to my television in the living room to see what MSNBC was saying. As I watched Brian Williams say what we were all thinking at that moment—that we were all living what we thought would be a normal, uneventful Thursday only to hear the unthinkable—I started reflecting on things. It’s not unusual for me to think a lot; thinking is what jumpstarts this site every day, after all. But this train of thought, after the shock started subsiding microscopically, began to center around Prince’s way of life. More specifically, how Prince never let anyone define him; he was always in control of himself and his image.
My sister observed that Prince’s iron grip on his image might have been “a little psychotic.” But regardless of what kind of control issues Prince may have had (or probably did have, judging by how rigid he was with how Vanity 6, Sheila E., and Apollonia are all versions of the same dream woman archetype he fostered over the decades) Prince’s control over his outward persona and his introverted personal life is deeply rooted in two of his philosophical mottos:
This is why Prince was the originator of shade…. ☔️☔️☔️☔️pic.twitter.com/DqvaUfBxvB
— obi wan kenobi (@thebrokenrobotz) January 22, 2016
“If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”
The former is one of the reasons why Prince became known as the Prince of Shade on social media, and the latter is about his battles with Warner Bros. over owning the rights to his own music. But both also speak to how Prince carried himself and how he practiced the art of disregard for other people’s feelings about how he should live his life.
Prince became a star because of his musical talent, first and foremost. He was a musical prodigy, playing at least 27 instruments, not counting his own honeyed vocal cords. But what launched him into supernova-dom was his ability to be completely unique, particularly during a time in which everyone wanted to be unique.
The ’80s are best known for its androgyny, the pounds and pounds of makeup women and men would wear, the frantic, desperate desire to be something new and different, something no one’s ever seen before. You had Madonna, The Culture Club’s Boy George, Adam Ant, and even “standard” R&B acts like Shalamar played with beauty and androgyny (something Charlie Murphy hilariously highlighted in his infamous Chappelle‘s Show skit about Prince). All of them, though, have to pay homage to originators of androgyny-in-music, like Little Richard, David Bowie, and even James Brown to a certain extent. And while I’m certain David Bowie, who was steeped in soul music history, did know how his bread was buttered (and often said so), Prince (as it has been said so much over the course of these strange days) was one that relished in the path paved by his musical forefathers and sought to create alchemy with the tools they left behind. He certainly did, giving the world something that was both in line with the era’s play on sex and sexuality and much more than anyone could comprehend. (Indeed, Prince himself actually said so in “I Would Die 4 You”: “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something you could never understand.”)
From where I’m sitting, Prince’s legendary status wasn’t achieved just because he participated in the ’80s androgyny; it was because he defined what it meant for him and never apologized for it or explained it. Whereas most others were still defining themselves by labels, Prince used none. To use another song, he raps “My name is Prince,” and that is the summation of it all. He is everything you saw and then more, tons more. He wasn’t man or woman, and he wasn’t something we could comprehend. The fact that he was the only one who could understand his own mystery intrigued us and made us want to be in his quirky, fascinating, dreamscape of a world.
In his way, he invited us all to discover our own mysteries. When he sang “Paisley Park is in your heart,” he wanted us to find out what made each of us special and cultivate that, just like he’d figured out how to cultivate his own specialness. Prince, who had been bullied in school and suffered from epilepsy, wanted us to create our own Paisley Parks, our own personal universes that allowed us to be the spectacular selves we want to be. He had figured out the secret, and in order to join in on his fun, you had to be willing to search for the answers to yourselves. You had to build your own personal Paisley Park, a task that’s much easier to sing about than it is to actually do.
I’d say a direct parallel to the ’80s “gimmie more” culture is right now. The ’10s are a time in which we’ve got access to everything and everyone just by using our phones, tablets, or laptops. We are closer than we ever were to celebrities, dignitaries, and presidents alike. You’d think that would satisfy us. But instead, all of this access to each other has only made us more neurotic and more prone to wanting to fit in than ever before.
Article after article after article states how Facebook (and social media in general) has led to a dramatic uptick in depression, all because we’re posturing to each other. Most of what you see on social media isn’t real. Too much of the time, there’s someone lying to you about what they’ve got, who they know, how “woke” they are or how accepting or inclusive they are. If they’re not busy trying to convince you of how much more together they are than you, then they’re busy overloading you with opinions about how to get to where they are in life and why you aren’t there. Why you and your fave “will never.” (“Will never” what, exactly?) Why you should strive to be a #carefreeblackgirl, even if you don’t feel that carefree. Why you shouldn’t express why you don’t feel as magical as the #blackgirlmagic hashtag suggests you should (Dr. Linda Chavers, who wrote in Elle about how her debilitating illness has left her feeling like a shell instead of someone who feels magical and important, received a mountain of clapbacks instead of nurturing support from a community). There are too many people out there busy tearing down others to uplift themselves. Too many times in the social media world, having your own view on the world—whether that opinion is something the majority agrees with or not—can be seen as detrimental to your social standing, much less your career.
The “gimmie more” culture has evolved into a shaming culture. Are you feminist enough? Are you queer enough? Are you alternative enough? Are you black enough (and to that end, are you carefree or magical enough)? There’s even a specific uniform for the “alt” person; just go on Tumblr and Twitter and you’ll find that a lot of folks who want to be perceived as “special” all end up looking similar, depending on what brand of “alt” they aspire to. But is wearing a uniform actually being alternative? Is critiquing others for their personal Paisley Parks building up your own?
Prince didn’t tear others down while staying in his own lane. Instead, he worked on his own stuff and released his own personal stamp on life into the world for us to marvel at. What we saw in his music and artistic representation was a manifestation of his own high self-worth. As many have said online, what they loved most about him was his ability to be himself. While most of us are struggling to find peace with our identities, Prince seemed to casually live in it and mine it for inspiration. He was his own inspiration—how many of us can say that about ourselves?
I hate that it took Prince’s death for me to realize what was the most grand thing about him, and that he was the teacher of the most important lesson I need to learn in life. I’ve always struggled with just being myself; if you read my Mr. Robot piece, you’ll see that I’ve always had a bout with accepting my own sensitivity. But I’ve had other battles, most of them racially and culturally charged. The more I’ve become a part of the social media and online journalism/blogging spheres, the more I’ve realized how crucially important it is to have a strong sense of self-worth and self-understanding. Not only is it important just in life in general, but it’s comes in so handy when having to deal with strong personalities, a barrage of opinions, and others who are keen on tearing you down just to prove how special they are.
That’s what brings this article full circle; my rant to my mom was based in the fact that I still didn’t know how to grapple with the stress of being in a forum where almost everyone is trying to present their best, most perfect, most special selves. I couldn’t get my mind around how social media perpetuates the act of folks trying to prove their specialness by pointing out where others are “problematic” and never letting them live down whatever mistake they might have made. All I wanted to find was peace and the belief that I could be whatever and whoever I wanted to be without worry from what other people would have to say. I wanted relief from the stress of “fitting in,” a stress that I thought would have left me once I graduated from high school years ago.
Unfortunately, Prince’s death taught me that I have yet to own my masters, because the master—my fear—was owning me big time. I learned that I honestly don’t need to worry about what anyone else thinks of me, as long as I have belief and love for myself. If I work on becoming the version of Monique I want to be, then the stress of “fitting in” will go away. I will be me, and everyone else can be them, whether that’s them being their best selves or not. Like Prince, I can find my own Paisley Park and happily live there in my heart. Once I discover that, I’ll be able to attract others to me, others who want to know what my mystery is. That’s a lesson we can all learn.
To quote Janelle Monaé (who was also one of the people Prince called “friend”), “Categorize me, I defy every label.” Prince challenged us to not just define ourselves, but to defy the labels people put on us and the ones we put on ourselves. He wanted us to challenge others to try to put us in boxes, and he wanted those who tried to categorize to fail. We should try to learn from his example and try to truly accept what makes us unique; if anyone tried to play us, they’d soon learn they were only playing themselves. His name was Prince. My name is Monique. Who are you?
Other articles to check out:
“Whether Or Not Prince Knew It, He Was A Disability Icon To Me” | Black Girl Dangerous
Prince never apologized for who he was. For that, he was an inspiration. | Washington Post
Prince gave black kids permission to be weirdos | Vox
Prince Knew What He Wanted: Sex, Soul and You | The New York Times