Prince Was Unapologetically Black Before It Was Cool To Be So

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Thursday night, I attended a screening of the Roots reboot at the Tribeca Film Festival. While in the van on the way to the post-screening reception, I met Alondra Nelson — Dean of Social Sciences at Columbia University — and a conversation about Roots segued into a conversation about her work in genealogy, which then segued into the current relevance and popularity of unapologetic Blackness. We both agreed that, for various reasons, it seems almost trendy to be a conspicuously pro-Black Black person today. Perhaps it is disruptive and dangerous to exist that way in White spaces, but now the possession of a high degree of wokeness when among other Black people isn't just nice, it's necessary. Expected. Shit, even Beyonce seems to be on board.


Of course, the news of the sudden and shocking death of Prince loomed over the entire evening, like music blaring through stereo speakers; pulsating, vibrating, and reverberating sounds you could either choose to attempt to ignore or acknowledge. And when his death was broached, of course there were acknowledgements of his artistic impact and the sheer surreality of this news. But something else was brought up (repeatedly) as well. Prince was Black as fuck.

To be unapologetically Black in 2016 isn't just to fully embrace Blackness. It's to do it without a concern of how this Blackness will be perceived by people — White and Black — who don't necessarily believe unapologetic Blackness is constructive, aspirational, or even necessary. And, if possible, it's also to maintain your agency. To be and to keep as much as yourself and your personhood as possible. And Prince did this — all of this — at a time when doing all of this wasn't the zeitgeist du jour. He was fearlessly himself — and unwilling to give any of that self up unless it was on his specific terms — when that type of fearlessness was revolutionary. Prince was, in the pro-Blackest sense of the word, woke.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



He was so unapologetically black and truly cared about everyday people. I can't count how many free concerts, $10 and $25 parties he hosted that turned into jam sessions - just because he wanted to share some love with his hometown. There's no way I can step foot inside of Paisley Park again without falling apart.