purple reign

On Prince, blackness, and sexuality

Warner Brothers

Dig, if you will, a picture: The year is 1980. Many states still have sodomy laws. The radio is playing feel-good ear candy like Captain and Tennille and KC and the Sunshine Band. TV hits include the sunny, toothy blond shows Three’s Company and Happy Days. There’s no real word for “gender non-conforming.” But here’s what you see: A man. Clearly a man. Hairy, mostly naked body, cock bulging beneath a satiny bikini bottom. But those eyes. Rimmed in black, like a fantasy belly dancer. The full, pouty lips of a pin-up girl. Long hair. A tiny, svelte thing. Ethnically ambiguous, radiating lust. What is this? A man. Clearly a man. No. Not just a man. A Prince.

Prince. An heir to a kingdom—or in this case, some kind of mythical, carnal pleasure palace. Dirty Mind, Prince’s third studio album, hit stores in the fall of 1980, and over the next three years, his startling, contradictory image—one of filthy purity (or pure filth?) and a feminized masculiniuty—slithered into the American consciousness. By the time Prince had his first number one Billboard Top 100 hit—”When Doves Cry,” which held on for five weeks during the summer of 1984—it was obvious that he was indeed royalty, and that he did not fit the narrow, highly stereotypical mold of the sexualized black man in America.

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Picture this: 1984. Most of the other black men with pop hits that year—Lionel Richie, Peabo Bryson, Stevie Wonder, Billy Ocean—were, in a word, soft. Safe. Pastel-clad crooners at plinky pianos. Not quite asexual, but certainly family-friendly, easy-listening, non-confrontational. They had none of the hard edges, none of the danger, none of the swagger, none of the guitar growls, none of the cheeky innuendos a hairsbreadth away from being explicit references; Prince had all that and more. In 1984, he sang, “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand.” Prince was in a category all his own, pushing boundaries and redefining what an African-American man in pop music could be. (Note: Michael Jackson is another story altogether.)

It’s true that when Prince hit the charts in the 1980s, many Americans were already familiar with the pimp aesthetic of the 1970s: Platform shoes, flamboyant prints, elaborately coiffed hair, luxurious furs. Movies like Superfly, The Mack and Dolemite put theatrically styled black men in the spotlight. In the context of pimping, the black male, a true hustler businessman, is so secure in his sexuality he can indulge in traditionally female grooming, thus amplifying his masculinity.

But in 1984, Prince wasn’t a criminal caricature relegated to R-rated blaxploitation flicks. He was grinding his hips and humping the stage on MTV. He was moaning wantonly on Top 40 radio—the radio American kids were listening to. In July of 1984, he was on the giant screen, larger than life in Purple Rain, licking his fingers, smoothing his hair, shimmying, writhing. To watch him perform was to be in his thrall; to be stunned into barely breathing or even blinking as he stroked his long purple instrument like he was rubbing his cock, the guitar solo transformed into masturbatory act, his head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth open, each note building on the next into an explosion of indecent abandon.

A man. Clearly a man. A black man. Slight of stature, narrow of hip. Rising to global popularity in the 1980s, at the same time as another major American export: Hip-hop. A genre in which many black male artists releasing music on shelves alongside Prince’s albums—Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Ice Cube—projected an urban toughness. Leather jackets thick as armor, heavy gold chains, bold aggression. But Prince was a flirtatious, peacock pastiche made of diamonds and pearls, a dandy in paisley and lace. Some rappers’ personas aligned with the age-old oversexed, “primitive,” mandingo stereotype invented by white slaveowners. Prince defied stereotypes, period.

Regardless of how you feel about astrology, it’s important to remember that Prince was, and identified as, a Gemini. The zodiac sign of the twins. Duality was in his DNA and reflected in his music and persona; he was alternately shy and aggressive, tender and fierce, the seducer and the seduced. He could play delicate piano arrangements and destroy a hard rock guitar riff. Even his signature hue, purple, is one color made from two. (In the video for his 1989 track “Batdance,” he played a character named Gemini—half Batman-good, half Joker-evil.) And when it came to sex—a bedrock (heh) of his self-expression, from the lyrics that prompted the PMRC to paste warning labels on his albums to the crotch-outlining buttons on the tight-fitting trousers he often wore with high heels—he maintained a duality that unnerved, inspired, titillated and provoked.

As he sang in 1981’s “Controversy”:

I just can’t believe all the things people say
Controversy
Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?

Duality in sexuality. The ability to be two things at once. Rejection of the binary. These days we may be familiar with gay, trans and/or gender-fluid artists, but Prince predates this new attempt at tolerance. In 1981, the New York Times used words like “androgyny,” “fluid body movements” and “flamboyantly minimal stage costume” to describe his aesthetic during an on-stage performance. He wore heels. His hair was long. He wore makeup. His obsession with women and their bodies overflowed into a desire to be inside their skin. “Oh, pretty little whip,” he sang in 1988’s “Lovesexy,” “You got me dripping/Dripping all over the floor, the floor/If I come back as a woman, I want a body like yours.” He was self-assured, but also vulnerable; in 1987 he purred: “And I said, baby don’t waste your time/I know what’s on your mind/I may be qualified/for a one-night stand/But I could never take the place of your man.”

But wait. Black men don’t wear makeup. Straight black men don’t wear makeup. And women aren’t attracted to a straight black man in makeup. But he did. They were.

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Rock and roll, as a genre, was sexual from infancy, its very name sly slang for coitus. In the early days, there were plenty of gyrating men with guitars, making orgasmic faces while singing dirty lyrics—think Chuck Berry, Bull Moose Jackson, Muddy Waters—but when that kind of music made it to mainstream (white) audiences, it had been watered down and cleaned up, and was being performed by white men. (Case in point: Elvis.) Prince, fluctuating between raw, unbridled erotic energy (“Erotic City,” “Delirious”) and barely restrained intense sensual intimacy (“If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Darling Nikki”), broke new ground, showcasing black male sexuality in a way mainstream American audiences had never seen before. His style gave a nod to the past—deliberately curled locks a tribute to the fancy, processed and pomaded coifs of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, James Brown and even Cab Calloway; the frothy ruffled shirts and paisley frock coats a homage to Jimi Hendrix. But Prince was his own unique invention, firmly a product of his own time and place, of a world he himself constructed—a Paisley Park, accessible by a Ladder, filled with the dank, damp sweat of tangled bedsheets, the wet heat of a tongue dragged along skin, a place where around every corner lurked the potential for the ultimate, most epic fuck.

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Oh, but it wasn’t just about the fucking, was it? It was about the connection. Actual intercourse was just a slick sliver of the sexual diaspora. Through music, fashion, dance, and lyrics, Prince presented sex as a complicated, multi-faceted, amorphous, often religious experience that could be negotiation, prize, distraction, problem, solution, transcendent ecstasy or exquisite anguish.

He fetishized the stamina of newlyweds:

Let’s pretend we’re married and go all night
There ain’t nothin’ wrong if it feels all right
-“Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” 1999 (1982)

He was in awe of the effect sexually skilled women had on him:

I can’t tell you what she did to me
But my body will never be the same
-“Darling Nikki,” Purple Rain (1984)

He fantasized about a woman being as intimate with him as she would be with another woman:

If I was your girlfriend, would U tell me?
Would U let me see U naked then?
Would U let me give U a bath?
Would U let me tickle U so hard U’d laugh and laugh
And would U, would U let me kiss U there
You know down there where it counts
I’ll do it so good I swear I’ll drink every ounce
And then I’ll hold U tight and hold U long
And together we’ll stare into silence
And we’ll try 2 imagine what it looks like
Yeah, we’ll try 2 imagine what, what silence looks like
-“If I Was Your Girlfriend,” Sign O’ The Times (1987)

And though he clearly enjoyed being the star of the show, he was also delighted to be the audience:

Excuse me, baby
I don’t mean 2 be rude
But I guess tonight I’m just not, I’m just not in the mood
So if U don’t mind (Yeah, yeah, yeah)
I would like to… watch

“Alphabet St.,” Lovesexy (1988)

To say nothing of songs titled “Head,” “Cream,” “Sexy MF,” and “Pussy Control.”

Later in his life, Prince’s views shifted. In 2014, when asked about why he didn’t perform his sexually explicit and profane tracks anymore, he told Essence: “All you do is grow and change… A lot of things I don’t do [anymore], and some things I do more of.”

But Prince leaves us, as part of his legacy, a wholly unique case study for a black American male pop star. He didn’t have the put-upon polish or narrow repertoire of the smooth, seductive, quiet storm R&B guys. He wasn’t all braggadocio and brawn like the rappers. He had little in common with the slutty, sloppy, noisy rock gods. His sexuality funneled his feelings—emotional, spiritual, and intellectual—into a quest for physical connection, one twin’s craving to find, touch, and melt into his other half, which would then, finally, finally, make him whole. Two bodies coming together so that the minds and souls could follow. His sexuality was not monolithic; he was insistent and reticent, fragile and strong, curious, exploratory, experimental, horny. Not the typical American sex symbol. Not tall, not brawny. But deeply interested in the topgraphy of pleasure: Discovering its limits, giving it, taking his own, finding someone else’s. “Sexuality is all you’ll ever need,” he sang in 1981’s “Sexuality.” “Sexuality, let your body be free.”

Though his lyrics read like public pillow talk, Prince never played the lazy, lucky stud or the all-conquering hero—he always seemed to be chasing the dragon of fulfillment, as though suspended in a perpetual state of yearning. A deep-seated desire to be part of a pair, to have someone by his side: How can you just leave me standing? Alone in a world that’s so cold? From his first Top 40 hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” to his final tweet, containing just an image of himself at a piano (head thrown back, eyes closed), he was searching for ecstasy, for satisfaction. Each song part of the distillation process for the essence of need. His need, his thirst, seemingly unquenchable. He’s just a man, after all. Clearly a man. A black man. Look past the crop top and the painted eyes and see something else: his heart on his sleeve. Unvarnished hunger in his eyes. Can you, my darling, can you picture this?