At a recent gig, I asked the participants to talk about the music that was meaningful to them as a teenager, and three people who inspired them - one each from their parents' generation, their own generation, and a generation younger than them. These questions came to the fore that evening as I gathered with some friends to see Purple Rain.
We sang. We danced. We cried. We gasped at the misogynistic overtones of the film, which somehow seemed to bypass the social conventions of the 80's. Most of all, we were captivated by the incredible power that this ethereal artist named Prince possessed.
Afterward, we conducted an impromptu memorial service at a local cafe. Given that our ages spanned from 31 to 61, we each had a unique relationship with Prince. Juanita "had the folder" on Prince, knowing his full discography, the names of his lovers and collaborators, the awards he had won, and other sundry details. She was 11 years old when Purple Rain was released and it was clearly the soundtrack of her youth. Alex remembered when Prince first came on the scene in the 70's. "He was a kid, but you knew he was going to go places." Alex said. At 31, Berké and Purple Rain were the same age. Thus he had a more distant respect for Prince.
We talked about Prince and Michael Jackson - both Black men from the midwest, who came into this world in the summer of 1958. In many ways, they did not conform to gender norms of masculinity, and yet they had worldwide appeal. Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall" was one of the soundtracks of my youth. Berké asked me how these two artists impacted my life.
"It was Michael by day and Prince by night," I told my friends. I was in my early 20's, going to college and dancing. I taught a dance class at a high school in the suburbs where I choreographed pieces to Michael Jackson's "PYT" or Wham's "Wake Me Up." But when I went to my dance company rehearsals in the evenings, we'd warm up to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," and "Baby I'm a Star." Each artist had his own important place in my life.
Beyond Michael and the music, it was Prince's style that affirmed my very being. We were both small statured with big hair who didn't ascribe to gender norms. He gave me permission to wear eyeliner, four-inch heels, jeweled brooches, and my favorite color, purple.
Credit: Kevin John Fong Photo Archives, 1987 & 1985; Getty Images
Without my even realizing it, Prince became the "purpleprint" for my own personal brand. If you notice what I wear now, thirty years later, you can still see his influence.
As this group of friends reminisced, I noted that Prince was not just a trendsetter. He was a transcender. He transcended gender, racial, cultural, national, religious, and yes, generational boundaries. While we all came to him at different moments in our lives, he touched us and continues to touch us with his artistry and spirit. Though his life was cut short, he reportedly left us with a century's supply of music in his vault. Prince's commitment to his community (Minneapolis) and to his music is a testament that connection, not fame, was the motivation behind his work.
The following day, I witnessed that same spirit though my friend Meredith. At eighty years young, she just published a book and mounted an exhibition of her photographs - "She Could be Anyone's Mother, but She's Mine." These exquisite photographs from a women's center where she has volunteered for the past twenty years are but a fraction of the photographs Meredith has stored away. Upon my return from her opening exhibit, I posted this photograph of Meredith and Greg on Facebook. Within minutes, I received this message from a young colleague of Greg's,
"Wait a minute...is she affiliated with the Women's Drop in Center? I remember her from when I used to work there fourteen years ago. This makes my heart fill with so much love."
Credit: Kevin John Fong
Prince and my dear friend Meredith call us to reflect on how we can touch the lives of people across generations. They are transcenders of age, culture, gender, nationality, religion and sexual orientation. They have accessed the deep well of humanity and, through their creativity and loving spirit, brought it to the surface for all of us to witness and share. Thank you, Prince and Meredith. You both continue to inspire me and many others to become transcenders like you.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. What is the soundtrack of your youth? What musician, song, or album shaped your reality as a teenager?
2. Talk about a person you admire(d) who is from your parents' generation. From your own generation. A generation younger than you. What qualities do these people have in common?
3. What can you do to embrace the transcender in you?