Thursday, June 13, 2013

30 Days of Birthday -- Day 13: Reality Check (Yes, this is Prince.)

Awhile ago, I had a weird conversation with what I'll describe as an Italian-American musician who angrily reassured me repeatedly that Prince wasn't really black. His proof? Several scenes in the movie Purple Rain, wherein a beautiful Italian woman portrayed his long suffering mother -- and a dark-skinned black man was his brilliant, tortured, violent, abusive father. (Surprise, right?) When I pointed out the fact that this film wasn't a documentary about Prince's life, he laughed.

"What about his skin, his hair?" he said flatly, waving me off.  "Come on! Just look at him."

Ok. Let's do that. Let's look at Prince.  (And while we're at it, let's take a look at his momma and daddy.)

For the record, Prince Rogers Nelson is 55 years old, he's 5'2" and he's African-American.  Because let's face it: creative and heavy-handed casting options may obfuscate the truth but snapshots from high school never lie.

This is what Prince looked like when he was a teenager. Now that's an Afro! (It was the 70s. Didn't everybody have a blowout?) Here's an interesting tidbit: his nickname as a kid was Skipper.

Here's another shot of him as a high school senior -- looking especially Italian, don't you think?

By the time Prince was 18, he had a record deal with Warner Bros. Here he is in his first photo shoot.

I don't know why but that belt is really doing it for me.

...and of course, this is his first album cover. This album came out in 1978 when he was 20. Remarkably, he's still rockin' that 'fro. What a trippy shot. (Why, it's almost as though he doesn't want you to see what he looks like...!)

After this, a strange thing happened: Prince got a perm. 

I distinctly remember seeing this poster of Prince -- with this perm and naked on a white horse -- on my cousin Leslie's bedroom wall when I was a little kid.  Our conversation went something like this:

Me: (sitting on the floor, playing jacks -- stops and stares at the poster) Who's that supposed to be.

Leslie: (propped up in her bed, leafing through a fanzine with him on the cover -- flabbergasted) That's Prince!

Me: He looks like he wants to be a Princess.

Leslie: (puts down her magazine, makes a disapproving face) That's not funny.

Me: (ignoring her) I wasn't kidding.


Me: (cont'd) Why doesn't he have any clothes on? Don't they wear clothes in his kingdom?

My Aunt Willie Dean/Leslie's mother passes by Leslie's door as I say this. She laughs so hard she hoots.

Leslie: That wasn't funny, either.

Aunt Willie Dean: (from down the hall) Yes it was!

Me: What does his music sound like.

Leslie: (getting excited) It's really funky.

Me: Well, that's good.

Leslie: (excited) You wanna hear it?

Leslie plays the album before I can answer the question. We both stop what we're doing and listen. Aunt Willie Dean comes to the doorway when she hears the music and listens, too. Leslie sings along softly. She's a lousy singer. She knows all the words.

Me: He sings like a girl.

Leslie: (defensive) No, he doesn't.

Aunt Willie Dean: (in a consoling tone) Yes, he does.

Leslie: (snaps) Well, what if he does? There's nothing wrong with that.

Aunt Willie Dean: (same consoling tone) No, there isn't.

Me: Of course there isn't. I love Sylvester.

Leslie throws a pillow at me as I start singing Do You Wanna Funk. Aunt Willie Dean laughs and walks off. End scene.

Ah, childhood.  Even as a tot, I was full of snark.

Here's the interesting thing. That first album could have gone the way of many debut efforts but the label wanted to make their money back and Prince wanted to be a star.  So he did what every budding star does: he focused on the visual and created a look for himself, amped up the sex (in this case, he decided to be pretty and somewhat effeminate -- way less of a threat to girls like my cousin and thus, more alluring) and last but not least, he took all of his clothes off. (And on album covers, no less!)

He also made himself into this racially ambiguous, hypersexualized creature and sealed that myth into the pop vernacular with an Italian mother in the ever-popular Purple Rain.  And now? Lots of people believe he's biracial. Mission accomplished.

Sorry folks -- a lightskinned momma and a black daddy doesn't make you biracial. Someone should tell that to the people who published this book.


Prince's singing and songwriting helped a great deal. But that wasn't enough. He himself had to hook the audience with a compelling visual -- and that hairdo, that nose and that skin tone wasn't gonna make it happen.  This tiny little man had to obscure his race to make it okay for anyone to find him attractive -- while toying with the idea of being a sexual behemoth of epic proportions, thus selling himself to the highest bidder. It's kind of hilarious, the way he woke up in the 90s after selling millions of albums and realized that he was a gigantic corporate tool.  His shock seemed genuine. What a hoot.

Clearly, his transformation didn't end with the look on his second album cover. Still and all, it's interesting to see exactly when he decided to turn that corner.  

The Afro he's sporting now is no surprise. What with his image being so clearly tied to a perm or a cold wave or whatever, wouldn't everyone be compelled to see him with new eyes if he went in the opposite direction?

He's looking a lot like Phil Spector in this shot, don't you think?

I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong but it seems that if you want to make it in the entertainment industry, what you look like matters more than just about anything else. It takes a lot of strategic planning and forethought and risk to make things happen, and gobs and gobs of money -- money that has absolutely nothing to do with songwriting or performance.


AJ Muhammad said...

Queen, this is perfect. I loved it. I laughed as I read it. It was just You have just written a 10-20 minute play that needs to be produced (at a venue such as E.S.T.'s Going to the River Festival which features plays by women of color, Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, Estrogenious Festival etc.) and you compressed so much into it: pop culture, African American families, music, gender and sexuality, teens, intergenerational relationships, coming of age, and I can go on. I know you can write a lot more or have written some gems.

Queen Esther said...

Yeesh! Thanks for the compliment but I honestly didn't think about it that way. I just let it blurt. *sigh* That's it. I'm writing a book. (Or something.)

AJ Muhammad said...

Queen, you may not have thought about it that way, but that's how you delivered it. I know because I've seen a few! With very few changes it's a brilliant 10 minute play. How many times have we seen the inner conversations of Black young women on stage or on screen that's written with the intelligence, humor and nuance? I can tell you not enough, and you've got to ad this to the cannon. You can still write your book and put this in the book but it's almost ready to go as a short play. And it's funny that you mention Sylvester because our Renee Monique Brown has a friend named Anthony Wayne, whom I met through Renee and Anthony has been doing this unbelievably amazing show where he plays Sylvester with a live band and back up singers. It is incredible! Anthony just did it recently at Le Poisson Rouge and the next time he does it, you've got to see it! The last time I saw it, I think it was last year and Lillias White came to see it and she loved it! Anthony is currently in the Pippin revival.

All that to say, your short play is a snapshot to that era in time (1970s/80s) and we can definitely see more light being shed on it!

I command thee to finish it and then we can make some phone calls or send some emails to get it out so we can see it on stage!