2016 continues to be a year highlighted by loss in the arts community. The morning of April 21, beloved Minneapolis artist and music superstar Prince Rogers Nelson was found dead in his home and recording studio, Paisley Park, in Chanhassen, MN. At only 57 years old, Prince’s loss has shocked fans and music lovers around the world.
In the weeks since his passing the mysterious circumstances of Prince’s death, although not suspected to have involved foul play, have been the subject of a police investigation.
Speculation has surrounded Prince’s health in his final days. The Friday before his death, Prince’s plane reportedly made an emergency landing in Moline, IL to take him to the hospital. The official statement was that Prince had been fighting the flu, and the following night The Purple One assured fans at a show (which he reportedly appeared at but did not perform) at Paisley Park, “Wait a few days before you waste your prayers.”
Prince was always known to be a highly private person and downplaying possible illness for a crowd is nothing out of the ordinary. Prince’s words were tragically prescient that night, and fans are still shedding many a tear and prayer for the music icon. Pilgrimages to Paisley Park in Chanhassen, MN and all night dance parties in The Purple One’s honor are still going.
The mystery surrounding just how Prince died seems to only expand as investigation goes on. Prince reportedly had prescription opioids on his person and in his home at the time of his death. According to reports from law enforcement a valid prescription for the medication has not been found. Whether the opioids were involved in the death is not yet known, and autopsy reports have still yet to be released.
What is known is that Prince’s team reached out to an opioid addiction specialist, Dr. Howard Kornfield, whose son and colleague, Andrew Kornfield, traveled to meet with Prince on the day of his death to assess his health and possible treatment. When Kornfield arrived at Paisley Park, Prince had already been found unresponsive in an elevator.
Information will continue to come out surrounding the circumstances of Prince’s heartbreaking and premature passing, but it may never be known exactly what factors contributed to his death. What we do know is Prince was an inimitable force in the music industry who constantly defied convention.
In his career Prince recorded 39 studio albums that defied genre and blended styles so fluently that to categorize his music as a whole is impossible save to call it simply his. Prince’s sound combined Blues, Soul, Funk, R&B, Rock and Roll, Hip Hop, Electronica… There isn’t a style or sound that Prince didn’t experiment with. He was a virtuoso guitarist and played 26 other instruments. His voice ranged from sweet and smooth to fierce and raw. A lot of artists can play a breadth of styles, but no one ever sounded as good in all of them as Prince did.
Prince was always progressive and fiercely individual not only as a musician, but in his personal life as well. Mr. Nelson prided himself on being radically different to the point where many saw him as reclusive and more than a little odd. But that persona was something Prince embraced and cultivated, capitalizing on his unique spirit and sound to become one of the most prolific artists of his generation.
That artistic individuality was something Prince took so seriously that his entire career stands tribute to respecting artists and paying musicians fairly for the works they create. His zeal for artists’ rights and artist ownership led him to the well known and often scoffed “artist formerly known as Prince” situation in 1993. To end a rights dispute with his record label at Warner Brothers, Prince changed his name to the unpronounceable “love symbol” and kept it that way for seven years before reverting back to his given name in 2000.
This was not the last time Prince would fight for his music. In fact, The Purple One made a big move in the recent years, removing all unauthorized recordings from YouTube and other streaming services. To this date you can only find Prince’s music physically or on the often problematic Tidal streaming service.
Prince’s obsessive control over his music was often seen as eccentricity but there is a lot to be said of the way the music industry steamrolls artists financially. Prince refused to let anyone tell him how to distribute his music or how much he ‘deserved’ to be compensated for it. Towards the end of his career Mr. Nelson not only took control of his music, he took control of his entire music business, owning every aspect of his work including publishing, recordings and copyrights. Paying for music may be a drag in the era of torrenting, but artists deserve to be paid for the hard work they do and the art they create. No one knew that better or fought for it harder than Prince.
His innovative spirit, his individuality and his fierce need for control were incredibly important to who Prince was. But no tribute to the life of Prince Rogers Nelson is complete without discussing his sex appeal.
Prince exuded sex from his very soul. He didn’t just not shy away from the dirtier side of himself, he put it on center stage in everything he did. With song titles ranging from ‘Do Me Baby’ on ‘Controversy’ to ‘Orgasm’ on the album ‘Come,’ and even more provocative album covers, Prince made no secret of his sexual desires. With such an open dialogue about the traditionally ‘obscene’ in so much of his music, Prince was a symbol not just for sex but for sex positivity – for everyone, all the time.
Without ever explicitly stating it outside of his music, Prince started a dialogue about sex and gender. He legally changed his name to “?.” It was a stylistic overlaying of the traditional symbols for male and female. In his song ‘I Would Die 4 U’ he sings “I am not a woman/I am not a man/ I am something you will never understand.” It’s difficult to be much more open about sexuality and gender as Prince was, and yet he never made a public statement about it. Prince’s philosophy was “I’m different, I’m awesome, here’s some music, it’s awesome too,” and that was the end of it.
Still, losing Prince, especially so soon after the death of David Bowie, is losing an icon for the queer community. Like Bowie, Prince’s work and his persona challenged societal barriers for gender, and more than Bowie it challenged barriers for sexuality. Prince was undeniably sexy. It was part of who he was and presenting it in the bold way he did was another way he rebelled against norms and the “rules” of society and music he held such disdain for.
Prince was a genius in every sense of the word. His intellect and his mark on the world go so far beyond the music he made. He was an advocate for Black Lives Matter and a philanthropist to many, many organizations. He was a musical and technological innovator, and he always sought to better not only himself but the entire industry he worked in. He mentored countless artists and gave back to the community so much.
Prince was a legend. An icon, a powerhouse, a sex symbol, a creator, a genius, a saint. There is so much to be said for the mark Prince left on the world, and far too much for any one article to express. He was a lot of things to a lot of people. And for a small time musician from Minnesota he was a hero. He will be sorely missed.
Prince, wherever you are I hope there’s a lot of purple, and I hope we see you again. In the meantime, down here we’ll be dancing in the Purple Rain for you.