In New Orleans’ historic Tremé neighborhood, a sea of “rainbow children” in purple wigs, sequins and sparkles saturated the streets. People of all ages, races, gender expressions and backgrounds followed the buoyant brass band horns and booty-shaking drumbeats of the second-line parade honoring the Purple One. We clapped, shouted and sang to the heavens.
There was no place I would rather have been to celebrate and mourn our collective beloved, Prince.
The Tremé is a birthplace to numerous aspects of American musical culture, specifically because of the African Diaspora and African-American contributions. The 1700s and 1800s Congo Square, located in this neighborhood, was where African slaves could gather on Sundays to dance, play music and sell goods. It was a place of resistance, freedom and holiness as they honored their traditional African spirituality, veiled under more “acceptable” Catholic practices. From these roots, jazz was born, and the city’s black culture has influenced every musical genre since. New Orleans is a city that can’t be separated from music.
Prince and his music are a direct result of this lineage. All four of his grandparents were from Louisiana; his mother was a jazz singer, and his dad was a pianist and songwriter. He grew up surrounded by music, and his father encouraged his creativity. Music was in his blood, along with this spirit of defiance against conformity. It is evident in his unmatched musicianship dominating the guitar and drums, among other instruments. We saw it clearly in his lyrical content, style of dress (or undress) and ostentatious stage shows.
The Crescent City is also known for its partying. The city’s motto is “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (“Let the good times roll”), and you’ll see that written pretty much everywhere. But Mardi Gras culture is more than beads, breasts and daiquiris to go. Beyond Bourbon Street, in black neighborhoods, the celebration reflects the history and culture of the city. Mardi Gras Indians with brightly colored, ornately feathered and beaded suits embody the ties between African slaves and Native Americans. You’ll see numerous “social aid and pleasure clubs” participating, organizations that were set up by black communities in the Jim Crow era to take care of one another. There are spectacular organized parades—and then there are more-impromptu second lines.
This merging of music and celebration comes alive through the tradition of the second line, brass band street celebrations that descended from jazz funerals. There I stood amid the official Prince second line, only four days after he passed, feeling raw like so many others around me. I quickly ended up next to a couple of “Baby Dolls,” members of a group started by African-American sex workers in 1912.
Vanessa, a petite, fiery woman perhaps in her 50s, was working her purple satin baby-doll dress with white ruffles and waving her white parasol. You could not stand still around her; she was life-giving because of her infectious energy. She was joined by another woman sporting a purple sequined fedora who is the daughter of legendary Baby Doll “Queen Mercy.” Together they danced on their friends’ stoops, chanting “Purple Rain,” and danced with passersby before they tag-team humped a motorcycle with the policeman still sitting on it.
The Baby Dolls formed in black Storyville, the segregated red-light district. According to Kim Vaz, historian and author of The “Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition, when the African-American women who worked in the area heard that their white counterparts—and competitors—were dressing up for Mardi Gras, they wanted to show out, too. They decided to dress in short skirts and bonnets like little girls to make fun of imposed gender constructs.
Just by “masking,” they were challenging women’s roles at the time; beyond being sex workers, it was taboo and dangerous for them. But to really cause a stir, they adopted other stereotypical male behaviors like “smoking cigars and flinging money at the men” to assert their independence. The early Baby Dolls sang songs criticizing the men who judged them. It wasn’t just about being rowdy in the streets—they were rebelling against the racial and gender discrimination that greatly affected their lives.
As I watched Vanessa and her dance partner in crime, I realized that Prince and the Baby Dolls came from the same spirit of free sexual expression that is particularly taboo for black people in America. Both used overt sexuality to disrupt and challenge gender norms. They made people uncomfortable by using sex to approach social issues. African Americans have always been hypersexualized but not allowed to be autonomous sexual beings. Both the Purple One and the Baby Dolls smashed that paradigm and gave zero f—ks about rules and respectability. Sex was on their terms, and their gender fluidity was on full display. They paved the way for burlesque dancers like me to use nudity for social commentary. Just like the Baby Dolls, Prince gave folks permission to be sensual, bawdy and entrepreneurial.
I eventually lost the Baby Dolls in the crowd as I stood back in awe taking iPhone videos and enjoying a woman with a bike-and-boom-box contraption blasting Prince jams like “I Would Die 4 U,” “Darling Nikki” and “1999.” She’d stop every once in a while, and a crowd would gather to sing along or grind.
As the party moved, we passed a column holding up Interstate 10 with “Big Up the Black Woman” spray-painted on it. Around the corner, an adorable young man in a G-string and devil horns twerked for partygoers using a gold-painted wooden cross to keep his balance as he bent over. Women slipped dollars into his sweaty black panties. This is Prince’s legacy, only one level of a multifaceted musical genius. He is a son of New Orleans, and he brought this city’s raucous, seductive and subversive cultural spirit to the world. It is now our time to carry on his Purple legacy “4ever” in our hearts and under our skirts.
Janna A. Zinzi is a storyteller and communications strategist specializing in arts, entertainment and social-justice communications. She is also a performance artist using movement and music to tell stories of women’s lives. You can find Zinzi dancing and documenting her travels on Instagram and Twitter.