The day of Prince’s death, I, like you and everyone you know, was distraught.
For hours, my despair was haughty and demonstrative. But late last Thursday night, there was a pause in my grief. It came around 11 p.m., which is just about the time that my aunt said this:
“But I never hear you play any Prince songs….”
Her voice trailed off, stopping short of a direct accusation. But the implication had been cast, and it was damning enough to stop my mourning in its tracks.
Was I not enough of a hardcore Prince fan to be in such hardcore distress?
In the wake of a famous musician’s death, the only thing worse than being outed as a non-fan is being outed as a semi-fan acting like a fanatic.
I know diehard Prince fans. Fans who go to the annual Prince vs. Michael Jackson Soul Slam dance parties. Fans whose homes are decorated with lithographs en homage to the purple one. Fans who can tell you every member of every one of Prince’s offshoot bands from The Time to The Family.By your late thirties, you are made of music. You know more songs than you can ever think to play on your iPhone.
In 2016, music lovers cannot help but dabble in Prince appreciation. And there’s a not-so-thin line between diehards and dabblers. Diehards have seen Graffiti Bridge and own the soundtrack, while dabblers probably only remember hearing the movie’s biggest hit, “Thieves in the Temple,” on MTV from time to time. I am somewhere between a diehard and a dabbler; I not only know and can sing along to Graffiti’s “Thieves in the Temple,” but I also know “Round and Round,” the underground track that Tevin Campbell performed in the movie.
Yes, Prince is not my go-to artist. (That distinction is reserved for Stevie Wonder.) But the older I get, the more selective I am about calling favorites. Which might also be why, the older I get, the more I bristle anytime someone begins a get-to-know-you line of inquiry with “What kind of music do you listen to?” There’s no damn way to sufficiently answer that question. Catch me on a bad day, and I’ll answer it like this:
What do you mean what kind of music? Do you mean what kind of music as in what category? In which case, if I say “pop” will you know I mean ‘80s Madonna and not early aughts Carrie Underwood? Do you mean what kind of music as in short songs or long songs? I mean, because I could easily say “I listen to long music, like any song that’s more than five minutes with a three- or four-minute reprise — that’s my jam.” Do you mean what kind of music as in mood? Because I could say, “Oh, I listen to angry music. A lot of angry music. The angrier the better. You know that Kelis song ’I Hate You So Much Right Now’? Yeah, like that.”
Here’s what I know: My list of most-played songs or most-downloaded artists won’t tell you the entire narrative of my music appreciation story. Everyday, I write a new chapter. Sometimes, the chapters don’t begin with me; they begin with a forgotten but familiar song blaring from someone else’s headphones that I overhear and get so much joy from it’s as if I were the one who queued it up.
That’s the thing about being a woman who’s almost 40: By your late thirties, you are made of music. You know more songs than you can ever think to play on your iPhone. You memorized the hand choreography to “I Would Die 4 U” and the two-step-slide in the “When Doves Cry” video, but neither of them come to mind until you hear one of these songs blasting from someone’s car windows.
“But I never hear you play any Prince songs….”
I know, right? And shame on me. But God bless my mother who took me to see Purple Rain in the movie theater (though at seven years old I didn’t really have any business seeing Purple Rain in the first place). And God bless my college roommate Raina for her scratched-up copy of Prince’s Number 1s, the best-of CD that she would play in the mornings. And God bless her, too, for the happy way she bopped around our dorm room singing along to “Pop Life” and “Soft and Wet.” I can’t listen to either song without seeing her hips shake in my mind.
For the past few days, I’ve been trying to reconcile my guilt about grieving for an artist whose music I stopped playing. But then I saw a video of a 2011 Prince performance from his Welcome 2 America Tour.
Around 2:46, while singing the vamp on “Cool” (a song he wrote and produced for The Time), he takes off his blazer and tilts his head backward. His mouth is downturned, his eyes are closed but looking toward the sky and his face is overcome with emotion. His countenance in that moment is so incredibly familiar because what Prince is doing is making The Holy Ghost Face.
The Holy Ghost Face is an expression I’ve seen a lot in black churches. It’s often marked by a downturned smile — not an unhappy frown, more like a pent-up hallelujah wail. It’s a tightlipped grimace that makes you look distraught. And that’s because you are. When you make that face, you’re torn, you’re troubled. But you’re torn and troubled by the goodness of God. You’re torn away from earthly reasons to worry, troubled by how the presence of God makes no sense. How sheerly beyond it all it can seem sometimes when you believe in divine power. The Holy Ghost Face happens when you show up to be you and God shows up there, too. And living, if you let it, turns into something for which there are no words. That’s why you make the face. It makes you want to wail. It makes your face turn ugly beautiful.
Preachers sometime say that “when you know that you know that you know” to describe the faith of the believer.
Watch Prince on stage and, trust me, sooner or later, you’ll see the Holy Ghost on his face and you’ll know it when you see it.
When I saw it, I cried and I got the ugly beautiful Holy Ghost Face, too.
I realized the power of Prince, why so many were in love with his music, his persona and his passion for his craft. He had a generosity of spirit that tapped into the divine — sex songs and all. And that was well worth grieving for.
I didn’t have to look in the mirror to verify my tears. Because I knew.
Better yet, I knew that I knew that I knew.