Erika D. Smith

A lesson in naked honesty from Prince

Prince performs a benefit concert for the family of Charles (Big Chick) Huntsberry in Minneapolis in 1990.
Prince performs a benefit concert for the family of Charles (Big Chick) Huntsberry in Minneapolis in 1990. Associated Press file

When I think of Prince, I don’t think of what has been splashed across social media in the days since he was found dead, inexplicably slumped in an elevator at his estate in Minnesota. That’s not the image that comes to mind.

To me, Prince is the naked guy, water running down his body, suds strategically placed on his arms and legs, holding an even more strategically placed white towel.

That was the first thing I saw just about every Sunday morning for the better part of a year. Prince on a massive poster on the back of a door at my best friend’s house, inches from where I would sleep after a night of gossiping and sneaking ice cream from the fridge.

It was 1985. I was 8 years old. My family had just moved from one overwhelmingly black suburb to a suburb a few miles away that was overwhelmingly white.

I felt awkward in my brown skin in those days and often found myself at a loss at how to navigate my two worlds: one black, one white. That was Cleveland back then, a city of suburbs ridiculously divided along racial and ethnic lines.

My best friend, who is black, was obsessed with Prince because her teenage sister was. Me? I had no idea who the naked guy was. Not yet, anyway.

My parents had put me on a strict music diet of age-appropriate R&B and musicals. But I also managed to secretly splurge on cassette tapes of non-age-appropriate hip-hop. This was the mid-1980s, after all. The era of Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J and Doug E. Fresh. Of big egos and bragging on mixtapes.

In my world, one of know-it-all preteens and teenagers, you weren’t black unless you listened to hip-hop – and only to hip-hop. Maybe some R&B, but that was about it. For proof of this worldview, people pointed to the dial of radio stations solidly segregated into “rock” and “rap,” and, of course, to MTV.

That was the box in which I was supposed to fit or expect to suffer, to the 8-year-old mind, the seemingly awful fate of being teased mercilessly by my black friends for “acting white.”

One would think that moving to a school district full of white students would change that, but it only reinforced that box. All of my white friends expected black people to listen to rap, too, and thought of any black kid who didn’t dress or spew slang like the rappers they saw on TV was weird.

Problem was, I wasn’t into boxes. Never have been. Prince clearly wasn’t, either.

He was weird. In fact, he wholeheartedly embraced being weird. He knew who he was and didn’t feel the need to change that for anybody. “I can’t be played,” he once said. “A person trying to play me plays themselves.”

Prince played guitar and keyboards at a time when black people were fixated on beatboxing, freestyling and breakdancing.

He wore eyeliner. He had nails. He had straight hair, usually done up in such an impressive feathered coif that middle-aged black women would sit in salons for hours just trying to replicate his do.

He could wear high heels and get away with it. He liked ruffles. Not to mention fishnet stockings and leotards with holes cut in strategically sexy places. He was what people today might call “gender non-conforming.”

He was handsome. He was pretty. And yet no one ever seriously questioned his manhood. Prince was hypersexual and feminine in an era where black men were “supposed to be” hypersexual and masculine.

He was a sex symbol. The epitome of cool.

Prince was a black man who refused to be the going definition of what a black man should be, but managed to be wildly successful anyway. Much like Michael Jackson, he transcended all of the ridiculous baggage of race and gender because he was just that good. He was that amazing.

For an 8-year-old desperately trying to fit into a box that would never quite fit, Prince was a constant reminder that the contortions weren’t necessary. That being yourself, regardless of what the world thinks you should be, is a much better way to go about life. It’s a lesson in naked honesty that I will never forget.