‘Prince was a light, a star, a beacon’
From the exhibit Portions of the Re-Possessed: Fiber work by Xenobia Bailey. Photograph by Mike.
The death of Prince Rogers Nelson, grandchile of Louisiana Creoles, occurred on April 21st, 2016, just about at the end of the semester for my friends, my students and I, in academia. It’s taken me the whole summer to be able to write about it. The 4th monthly anniversary has just passed (the mournful “17 Days” after this monthly dirge, fast approaching). The day after he died I was doing a show at the Whitney Museum with the great percussionist Susie Ibarra. We were performing an homage to the giant, and enduring, Cecil Taylor. I reached out to Susie, despite having lost touch almost 20 years ago. I thank goodness that she took my call, and that our gig was on April 22nd. I’m a talkative yet private person but I knew that keeping this grief to myself would choke if not “the” then “some” life out of me. Prince was a light, a star, a beacon, a lighthouse. I was adrift, but I was, luckily and because of my collaboration with Susie, not submerged.
An early sound check meant I had a moment to catch Fred Moten and Chris Funkhouser’s closing comments before I went to go “underground” before my set. I happened to catch Fred concluding some music from Cecil before surprising everyone with a “bonus track” of Prince’s Alphabet Soup. Fred had the audience get up and dance with him. (Fred’s a great dancer, btw. And as cool as you would expect.)
The air was heavy with something(s). Susie and I noticed the variation of color in the audience. (“The crowd was all purple…”) It wasn’t the majority but I think the majority of the Black folks in the house had something purple on (but that could just be my projection: a woman on the train who sat across from me that day, was wearing purple lipstick and I asked her if it was for Prince. She said “no.” But I knew the brother I could see through the transparent subway door pane, wearing an ill-fitting violent collared day shirt was wearing last night’s impulse buy, a few of the factory creases evident across the back.)
After the show I felt connected but after the show I was undone. I had prepared an intervention. The day he died (akin to O’Hara’s poem of Lady) I called a long-time friend and colleague Lumumba Bandele who, in addition to doing serious community-based activist work, is a helluva DJ. (That’s old-school Brooklyn.) It was at the tail end of the semester and we were able to make it work, despite his busy schedule. The crowd was sparse and folks trickled in and out. I decorated the room with purple balloons, feather boas, candy and things. The folks who came played with the balloons and danced. Lumumba played a set no different than if there had been 1000s of people there. His mixes were slick and sick. Not only did he play Prince tunes but he played people Prince directly influenced, including desperate knock offs from the 80s (Hello “Ready for the World.”)
Being a back-in-the-day Brooklynite, hosting a party in the BK (I’d hosted a few in the projects when I was a kid too), I knew, as Lumumba did, that it wasn’t just for the folks in the place, it was how it bounced off the walls.