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‘I Am Something That You’ll Never Comprehend’: Defining the Legacy of Prince

Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/The Root/GMG; photos via AP Images, Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/The Root/GMG; photos via AP Images, Getty Images

I still have a hard time processing the idea that Prince is no longer here. Now, I was never a super fan. I never made a pilgrimage to Paisley Park. I only saw him in concert once. And that was only because my bestie followed Prince around the country and insisted that I see him live. (Thanks, Portia. I appreciate that now.)


While not quite obsessive, I’ve been a faithful and dedicated Prince fan since Sept. 26, 1984, when the single “Purple Rain” was released. (It was my birthday. I wore purple head-to-toe to mark the occasion.) It’s telling that I remember the exact date and where I was because I’ll also never forget the date of his death and where I was. I was on a plane. An editor emailed me and asked me to write a story about Prince, and I had no idea she wanted an obituary. I thought he’d dropped a new album. I had to ask several passengers on the plane to confirm that Prince was gone. And even after I landed, I still had to call my closest friends to make sure.

It is the shock of his sudden death from an accidental drug overdose at the age of 57 that has made the first year without the Purple One tough to handle. He left behind a messy estate and no will, and there are no clear-cut recognizable heirs. In all, it’s been a year of confusion about what his legacy will be and who will maintain it.


And yet it’s also been a year of grieving and acceptance. His music reappeared, as does the music of most superstars in the wake of their deaths. And while it’s hard to say how his music will be consumed going forward, there are no doubts that he now joins the ranks of fellow superstars like Tupac, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, who continually reach fans old and new.

Loyal to His Fans 

What next? For Prince, it’s a tricky question. All superstars who pass on leave behind rabid fans. But Prince’s relationship with his community was always something different—and special. He was known for being more accessible and available to his fans. He knew hundreds of his fans by name, and his assistants helped him keep track of more throughout the world. In 2001 he debuted the NPG Music Club, a place to find new music and concert tickets and to connect in chat rooms. And true to form, he was hands-on. (When fans began to complain about the $7.75 price for a monthly membership, it was reduced to $2.50 per month.)

Tammy Sharpe, a die-hard fan, makes it clear that what he had with fans was unusual.

“There isn’t another entertainer of his stature—ever—who will invite his fans to his actual home and have a casual conversation and then perform a private show,” says Sharpe.


It’s likely that he would have continually performed intimate shows—both in arenas and in his home. But that is no more.

It’s a commentary on life as we know it and on how things change so suddenly. The fact that Prince died in 2016 only heightens the idea that his death bookends a definitive moment in American culture. The year 2016 was definitely one for the history books.


Celebrity deaths. The presidential election. Brexit. Orlando, Fla., shooting. Even the Summer Olympics were nearly overshadowed by concerns over the Zika virus. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll compiled at the end of 2016, 55 percent of Americans believed that 2016 was either below average or one of the worst years ever. Those polling numbers are the worst since 2012.

We’re definitely living in a moment. And Prince’s death is firmly in the center of that year and continues to reverberate. But like most newsworthy flash points, we all have a way of making sense of things and moving on. While Zika is still a crisis, knowledge about prevention is growing. American (and international) politics remain contentious—but are no longer novel. Violence, always a shock, continues to be headline news. Prince remains a memory—though not at all a distant one.


Historian Zaheer Ali teaches a class at New York University called “Prince: Sign of the Times,” which explores the artist from an academic standpoint, detailing how to contextualize his music and his musicianship through a greater historical lens. Also a longtime fan, Ali explains that because Prince was a prolific artist who normally put out at least an album a year, his absence this year is striking.

“Prince’s transition marks time,” says Ali. “Because his life marked time as well. Some of us can remember moments of our lives because of which Prince album was released that year.”


Indeed, Prince’s prolific nature will have an impact on his legacy and leave more of a hole than artists like Whitney Houston, who died without a huge catalog. (Houston released just 10 studio albums, including soundtracks. Prince released 44.)

“If we didn’t get an album one year, we got two the next,” says Ali. “We’re not used to a year without music from Prince. So now we’re looking at each album closely and appreciating them more. I’m listening to his music all over again, and I hear things I didn’t hear before.”


There will likely be an unending supply of “new” music from Prince’s estate over the coming years. But the era of approved original music is officially over. And even in death, it will be tough to override Prince’s musical wishes. This week, the Prince estate filed a lawsuit to block producer George Ian Boxill from releasing a six-song EP based on recordings he made with Prince over a decade ago. It is said that Boxill signed a confidentiality agreement that would make it illegal for him to release the music.)

Royal Estate

View of the NPG Music Club Room of Prince’s Paisley Park Museum (Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
View of the NPG Music Club Room of Prince’s Paisley Park Museum (Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

Prince fans, old and new, also benefit from the existence of a holy land of sorts: Paisley Park. Long known as Prince’s studio and creative and living space, it is slowly morphing into a proper museum. (The same company that oversees Graceland now manages it.)

Tourists from around the world will surely make the trek to Chanhassen, Minn., to pay their respects and commune with his music. But so far, according to early reviews, the area is not quite yet worth the trip for his most ardent fans.


Ali, who visited when Prince was still alive, is concerned about what the future holds for Paisley Park.

“I went in October when it opened,” says Ali. “But it was more mausoleum than museum. I didn’t feel his presence. It didn’t feel like his house. We were just looking at clothes on a mannequin and listening to sound clips. Moving forward, it’s important for us to understand the significance of this man to black America and the history of music. And Paisley Park will have to do a better job of that.”


Ali makes a good point. American culture as a whole will have to find a way to give Prince his proper historical perspective.

In 1987 Prince released Sign o’ the Times. The titular first single featured this lyric in the very first line: “In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.” At a time when even President Ronald Reagan was not openly discussing the AIDS epidemic, Prince was taking on the topic.


Ali cites that lyric as just one example among many that must be remembered.

“Prince destabilized the categories and identities that people had been confined to,” says Ali. “He anticipated gender and sexual fluidities. He radically transformed the way music was consumed and distributed. He did preorders from his fans in order to distribute the Crystal Ball album—long before Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms.”


His Influence Lives On

There will never be another Prince. That’s a universal truth. Whether it’s his talent or his business sense, he leaves behind lessons, but no musical heirs. But unlike Michael Jackson, who left behind entertainers like Usher and Chris Brown who heavily borrowed his style, there are no true Prince acolytes.


Alan Light, music journalist and author of Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain, agrees that all we’re ever likely to see are those who can do a good impersonation of Prince.

“You can’t even talk about a next Prince,” says Light. “With all due respect, there was a blueprint for a singer and dancer like Michael Jackson. There was no blueprint for a teenager in the Midwest turning down major record deals because he wanted to play every instrument and produce every song on his first album.”


Now, of course, we do hear Prince in today’s music. Even back in 1994, the first time I heard D’Angelo, I thought immediately of Prince. There are bits and pieces in artists like Bilal. But what about moving forward? It takes more than a falsetto or a high kick to be mentioned in the same breath.

There’s Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, Bruno Mars, all talented and paying tribute to Prince’s style in their work. But will they be a part of his legacy?


“There’s a reason why they chose Bruno Mars for the Grammy tribute,” says Light. “But he—and many other artists like him—haven’t quite found their voice. Who is out there that doesn’t make us say, ‘Ah, this sounds like a Prince song.’”

It’s a double-edged sword. If an artist’s sound is not precisely on point, he’ll be dismissed. If it’s too on point, it can be seen as an imitation instead of true talent.


“I would imagine most musicians don’t even want to be openly compared to Prince. That’s way too much pressure,” says Light.

As time moves on, the only Prince sound we’re likely to continue to hear will be from Prince himself.


Which is why it’s so frustrating that Prince seemingly left no will or clear-cut instructions to protect his legacy.

“As an artist who so fiercely fought for the rights of his work and for the work of others, for sure it’s a strange situation,” says Caulfield. “Will it impact the release of his work? No. But will it be exactly the way he would have wanted it to be? That’s unlikely. But then again, isn’t it possible that he left this world fully knowing that things would just work out however they would?”


Over the course of the last few weeks, as I’ve prepared to reflect on the one-year anniversary of Prince’s death, it’s a thought I’ve had often. What did he want? How would he want us to honor him?

Since his death, we’ve learned about his many philanthropic efforts, many done in silence. I’ve talked to many fans who told me about private concerts with a 25-cent entrance fee—as long as you bought a few used coats and canned food. Musically, we know how he felt about bootlegged music. He even once asked people to send in any rare bootlegs they came across. Even his super fans just laughed that one off (the heavily bootlegged Black Album goes for $15,000).


It’s the first year. We’re still adjusting to a new world on many levels. We’re protesting and staying woke more than any time in recent memory. Prince’s aura was so powerful and strong that for many of us, it’s still 1984 and Purple Rain is just about to rule the world. And for some of us, it’s still April 21, 2016, and we’re devastated beyond belief. For me, it’s both.

Tammy Sharpe told me to look up the lyrics for a Prince song called “Way Back Home” from his 37th album, Art Official Age. (Coincidentally, like Purple Rain, this album was also released on my birthday.)


I don’t believe these lyrics are coincidental. I believe that Prince knew what we didn’t. And I believe he’d made his peace, if not on paper, then in his heart, soul—and music:

I never wanted a typical life/Scripted role, trophy wife

All I ever wanted/to be left alone

See my bed’s made up at night/Cause in my dream I roam

Just trying to find/my way back/ back home.

Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books. She has written professionally since 1998.

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