When I heard Prince died, my first thought was, “My daddy would be having a fit if were alive.”
In my house, the “Purple Rain” VHS tape my parents kept on the one of the shelves of our media cabinet was played at least weekly. When “Graffiti Bridge” was released on VHS, it was added to the rotation. Prince’s albums had their own shelf dedicated solely to the Purple One’s vinyls. If anyone made the mistake of bumping the record player while Prince was playing, things got ugly. Rolling my eyes and sucking my teeth after my father had rewound “When Doves Cry” for the fifth time on the drive to school was futile. To my daddy, Prince was not a musical go but the God of music, and his supremely majestic awesomeness was not up for debate.
At 6’4 and nearly 250 pounds, my father exemplified America’s idea of masculinity. His voice was so deep it vibrated. For as long as I could remember, a hearty beard accessorized his face. With shoulders built for playing linebacker, he had done just that, becoming the star of his high school football team. One of his prized possessions was a huge toolbox filled with all the screwdrivers, pliers and hammers he needed to fix anything. Up until the day he died, I never saw my father shed a tear. About anything. He was by all accounts a man’s man.
His belief in the dogma of American masculinity was uncompromising. Men behaved like men, and there was no room for even the slightest deviation from the script outlined for the proper performance of manhood and masculinity. Once when I was about 7-years-old, my cousin and I were playing in my mother’s closet. My father came in and caught us and yanking my cousin reminded us both that, “Boys do not wear women’s clothes!”
The glaring irony of my father completely endorsing toxic masculinity while being a Prince fanatic wasn’t lost on me even as a child. Once while watching Prince perform on an awards show, my father’s eyes never moved from the screen. This man, in heels and a hot pants, his hair pressed and flowing, gyrating his hips and switching around the stage, mesmerized my father. This man, the antithesis of the masculinity my father held sacred, captivated my daddy. I couldn’t understand it.
I decided sometime within the five or so minutes we were watching Prince command the stage that I’d ask my father why — or rather how – he loved Prince so when he dressed in the women’s clothes he’d admonished my cousin for donning. I waited until the performance ended (I couldn’t risk the punishment certain to follow if I’d dare spoken during the performance.) and tried to work up the nerve to interrogate him.
Finally, I asked, “Daddy, can I ask you something?” “Of course, baby,” he replied. “How come you like Prince when he dresses like a girl?” Stunned, he just stared at me. “Because he’s Prince,” he finally answered. I wasn’t satisfied, but I didn’t probe further. I resigned myself to believing that it was just one of those things I’d understand when I was older.
Decades older and infinitely wiser, I still don’t understand though. My father, even in his hyper-masculinity, appreciated Prince’s without ever questioning his masculinity. Oddly, the markers of effeminization — makeup, a soft voice, “women’s” clothing — that it disgusted him to see common men indulge in were inconsequential to his acceptance of Prince. Maybe Prince’s highly publicized relationships with beautiful women allowed my daddy to reconcile his feelings about Prince’s feminine presentation. Maybe Prince’s embrace of his femininity provided my father some much needed relief from the pressure he felt to always perform his own masculinity within the rigid confines he’d committed himself to espousing. Or perhaps Prince’s musical genius was just that transcendent.
Or maybe my daddy really just aspired to be as free in his black manhood as Prince. After all, he had grown up the 60s and 70s. Many of his favorite musicians had worn eyeliner and crop tops. Seeing men in flamboyantly feminine attire wasn’t a foreign phenomenon to him. But those men, even in frilly blouses and skin tight pants, still presented mostly masculine. They still walked hard and spoke in deep voices. They still respected the core tenets of Western masculinity.
Prince, though? He didn’t just wear femininity, he exuded it. He was sassy, sexy and androgynous. He was tiny and fabulous. And maybe that was the appeal. Prince wasn’t afraid of being vulnerable, and somehow, his delicacy translated into power. Women – the kind of women men like my father dreamed of – adored Prince. He walked hand-in-hand on red carpets with stunning women, just as pretty and made-up as they, and no one ever questioned the dynamics of the relationships. They just knew that Prince was outside whatever norms to which we deferred.
I wish my daddy had the kind of courage Prince had. I wish that he had been able to enjoy his life on his terms. I wish he wasn’t always trapped in the exhausting prison of his own subscription to the doctrine of manhood. I wish that he could have allowed himself to exhilaration of being uninhibited. I wish that he did not feel constant pressure to be what he believed the world needed him to be. I wish my father had known freedom. And I wish that he’d known Prince’s brand of self-preservation and self-fulfillment. I wish he had been able to himself, whatever self was trapped inside the frighteningly frail shell of his uber masculinity.
I guess that’s what Prince really represented for my father. Every time my daddyplayed a Prince song or watched one of his interviews or saw him concert, Prince signed my daddy’s permission slip to be free. That’s how I’ll remember his Royal Purpleness. I’ll forever be grateful that his commitment to living his own destiny kicking through the box the world had fitted for him gifted my daddy moments, however temporary, of supreme freedom.