By Deesha Philyaw
Our darling little Prince is gone.
When confirmation came via Twitter, I was on the phone with my friend Issa. What began as a frantic, sweaty-palmed text conversation dissolved into a voice call of keening. Prince, who sang of the afterworld, who seemed as ethereal as he was carnal, was gone.
As Issa and I cried, I remembered another time, another friend, another phone call, crying together because of Prince. My best friend Erika and I were not-yet-13 and Prince was on TV. The specific awards show, the specific song and details of his performance are long forgotten, but that moment of pure adoration has survived 30-plus years. We screamed ourselves hoarse that night.
The opening chords of "When Doves Cry" always take me back to that peak year of my Prince obsession and the not-yet-thirteen summer of '84. The summer when Erika and I snuck into the movie theater across from Gateway Mall four weekends in a row to see Purple Rain. For the first viewing, we sat way too close to the screen, our heads tipped back awkwardly, our bodies bathed in the light of Prince and his cinematic world. Those eyes, that voice, those James Brown-inspired moves, the flounces, ruffles, and lace, those high-heeled boots, and that ass.
Three years earlier, "Controversy" had been my introduction to Prince and I wasn't sure what to make of him. I had no frame of reference for the fullness of Prince. At 10, my musical world was divided neatly into black people music and white people music. For sure, this was black people music — funky, bold, and familiar. But this black man wore black bikini underwear.
A year later, I was belting out "International Lover" on the school bus with my classmates. Because none of us had ever actually flown on a plane, Prince's wordplay — "upright and locked position" — was lost on us entirely. No matter. "Do Me, Baby" made it plain, an ideal soundtrack for slow dragging on the basketball court during impromptu summer dance parties hosted by a local radio station. The following year, "Little Red Corvette" with its jockeys and Trojans gave me a lesson in metaphor better than any I got at school.
Getting into the theater had been easy. Technically speaking, Erika and I hadn’t snuck in; rather we passed for 17 or older. Erika was tall and model slim, and I was what insensitive old people called "big for my age." We bought tickets, popcorn, Raisinets, and drinks and no one questioned us.
The Purple Rain album had come out the month before, and several singles before that. So by the time Erika and I settled into our terrible seats and Prince appeared before us on the big screen — all beautiful teeth and lips and curls — we were already huge fans. I listened to Purple Rain on my record player while getting dressed for school each morning, taking care to turn down the volume when "Darling Nikki" came on — low enough so that my mother wouldn’t hear it, but not so low that I missed out on the mind-blowing lyrics. Masturbating with a magazine... A song about grinding? I'd done that, and here Prince had gone and made a whole song about it! The intense, sweaty chaos of "Darling Nikki" matched my grinding experience perfectly, even if I didn’t yet know the word "orgasm."
As I watched The Kid gyrate on his invisible Nikki on the big screen, my many years of sitting through Baptist sermons and Sunday School classes kicked in. I decided that Prince was, in that moment, possessed by the very spirit of sex itself. At almost 13, and very much thinking myself a woman, I knew what I wanted: I wanted to be wanted. I wanted someone to want me the way The Kid wanted Apollonia. And wanting, it seemed, meant sex.
And sex — when you’re big for your age and the smart girl in the neighborhood, not the pretty one or the light-skinned one — is the great equalizer. Good girls didn’t, but I was a good girl who did. Baby, I was much too fast. But because I got good grades in school and kept a low profile, I didn't have a reputation for being what the old ladies in the neighborhood called fast, a code word for girls they considered to be promiscuous.
The next three times Erika and I went to see Purple Rain, we had some boys with us. In the midst of fumbling in the dark with these boys whose names and faces we wouldn't remember 30, or even three, years later, we continued our love affair with The Kid, so cool on his motorcycle, his mirrored sunglasses hiding his eyes and emotions like a real man. I wanted to be Apollonia, her perfect naked body splashing in some lake that wasn't Lake Minnetonka. I wanted to be Apollonia lying beneath Prince, breathless. Even when The Kid slapped her, I didn’t stop wanting to be Apollonia. I assumed the anger, the occasional slap, and the possessiveness to be the price of men.
But Prince was not The Kid. So many of his songs feel like church to me: seeking to reconcile love, salvation, forgiveness in a "land of sin aplenty." Me seeking to reconcile them within myself. Human works in progress. But what was unwavering was Prince's celebration and adoration of women in his music — our beauty, our worth, even the smallest details of our lives, like helping us pick out our clothes. Lust was easy. But love was in layers of the ordinary and the extraordinary. I wanted to be wanted, but what I really wanted was to be loved.
The Kid reflected what I had learned that women could expect from men: bits and pieces of their best, all of their worst. But Prince's music, at its best, gave desperate-to-be-wanted me a first glimpse of how I could be, and deserved to be, loved.
Since Prince has been gone, lyrics from "If I Was Your Girlfriend" are the ones that play most consistently on the unbidden loop in my head. It's a love song. A funky, freaky, forever Prince love song.
I no longer lust after the body, but my love for the man endures.
Deesha Philyaw is the senior editor for Maximum Middle Age's pop culture vertical, Back in the Day. She co-authored Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce with her ex-husband. With her latest husband, she shares four daughters. She's a bio mom, stepmom, and adoptive mom who writes about race, gender, and parenting. In all her spare time, she's working on a novel and a collection of short stories about church ladies.