It was the summer of 1984, I remember it vividly because we always spent the summers in Connecticut with our cousins Jennifer & AJ Rinella. And in an Italian family cousins are more like brothers & sisters. Jenn is two years older than me and I always looked to her, admired her and much to her chagrin at times, copied her every move especially when it came to fashion and music. After all, that’s what little sisters do to their big sisters. Right?
When Prince’s Album Purple Rain released, Jenn was the first to get it on cassette tape (yes, I know I’m dating myself). When the first few bars of Let’s Go Crazy began to play it stopped me in my tracks and when the song shifted into the faster tempo I could hardly contain myself. How can you stop yourself from dancing when Prince is cajoling you to get nuts? It was like I was unleashing lightening from my soul. As a child who grew up in the 80’s he became part of a musical trifecta for me. From that moment on it was all about: Madonna, Michael Jackson & Prince.
So when the news broke last week about his unexpected death my heart and soul sank. The first thought I had was: oh no! he was so young. The second thought was followed by a wave of sadness that overtook my entire body. Our world was robbed of another artist who would no longer create for us.
Digging a little deeper into who he was as a human being revealed something I didn’t realize as an eight-year-old child listening to his music: he brought all races, ethnicities, cultures and demographics together through his music. Prince gave us the space to question all our concepts & beliefs through an art form that not only made us shake our tail feathers but also made us stop and think. His music raised the questions that people were afraid to ask and even more terrified to talk about.
As far as music goes, Prince was the Mozart of our time. Young, prolific, revolutionary and sexy. He had a unique funk rhythm that was unmistakably his own. Bill Flanagan, reporter for CBS News said it beautifully: “Prince was a one-man Rainbow Coalition. He sang sweet soul ballads like Smokey Robinson; he laid down the funk like George Clinton; he rocked like the Rolling Stones; and he shredded on the guitar like Santana.
Prince transcended radio’s apartheid like a musical Mandela.”
As a professional who facilitates many discussions around diversity and inclusion, Prince, for me, stands as a beautiful example of what many organizations strive for: everyone is invited to the party and everyone has a voice. He did not just talk about diversity and inclusion he radiated the ideal standard. Prince’s parties were all-inclusive. Every human being was invited regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation. If you were human, you were invited and you were invited to have a memorable time. It wasn’t all fun and games for him. Prince shed light on societal areas that we wanted to remain in the shadows, reaching across race and musical genres. Shattering the boundaries of everything we knew or thought we knew. And in the 80’s, we thought we knew everything.
As we mourn publicly and await results of his autopsy, you may have “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry,” “KISS,” or “Purple Rain” on repeat, but the one song that I think illustrates Prince as an advocate for diversity and inclusion is “Controversy,” from the album of the same name. In 1981, “Controversy” was his third album, and well before the full blown mania of “Purple Rain” it was a foreshadowing of the greatness of Prince to come. In the opening lyric “Am I Black or White, am I straight or gay?” he addresses race and gender head on.
Prince broke down the barriers through his music. It was how he experienced the world without a mental model that excluded anyone.
As I look back on his life and all the gifts he selflessly gave the world, the one that I will hold most dear is how Prince modeled the way for us. Showing us how the world could be if we embrace and include everyone. For me, Prince’s lyrics from the song “Race” best sum it up:
In the space I mark human (Face the music)
Face the music
We all bones when we dead
In the space I mark human (Face the music)
Cut me, cut you
Both the blood is red
After all, in the end, we’re all part of one race: the human race.