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Dearly Beloved, you are gathered here today to read our interview with a writer about a legendary performer. In this corner, Touré: Journalist and thinker for many an outlet (The New Yorker, VIBE, Time.com), and author of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now. You perhaps know him best for the incredible face he made when R. Kelly asked him “When you say ‘teenage’ how old we are talkin’?” during their on-camera interview for BET or the time he straight Son’d Piers Morgan on dude’s own show at the height of all that Trayvon Martin sadness.
In the other, Prince: a mystery wrapped in an enigma stuffed in an extra small woman’s blouse, guitar virtuoso, known lover of pancakes, and (maybe) Son of God. You know him best for not really knowing him at all. That’s about to change.
Because Touré’s excellent new book about Prince, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon, comes out March 19, and it’s a definitive, in depth look at the Purple One. (“I’m a Prince scholar and this is the ultimate Prince book,” blurbs ?uestlove on the book’s cover). In advance of the Prince Tribute at Carnegie Hall tonight, we rang Touré up to talk about the talented Lilliputian Seventh Day Adventist. Shit got real.
I Would Die 4 U is a deep analysis on Prince’s life and work, how did the idea come about?
Well, I was interviewing Skip Gates after my previous book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness and during the interview he said “Why don’t you come back to Harvard sometime and do a lecture?” and I said, “Sure I’d love to, let’s do the discussion on Prince and his relationship to Generation X.”
This book discusses how Prince is the voice of Generation X — why does Generation Y not have the same connection to Prince they do with Madonna and Michael Jackson?
Because ultimately Prince was pretty much done with the main part of his career when you guys started to become of age — in terms of when you were actively consuming music. And, generally, a generation is going to be most intense about people who are active music makers at that time, at their time when they are 15-16, 20-22 years old. They are aware of the past — I love Sly Stone and Al Green and Mile Davis and the Beatles — but you really get excited as a generation for the people who are having their moment as you’re going through those teenage years and early twenties. Prince was doing that for Generation X so that’s part of the reason he means so much to us in a way.
You opened up about the time you spent with Prince for the cover story for Icon Magazine, and how he didn’t allow you to use recording devices. Tell us about that.
It was pretty extraordinary. He was pretty much passed his musical prime at that point, but he’s still the extraordinary figure and individual. You could not tape record the interview. There was a given excuse as to why — something about not wanting to be extorted. But I think what was really going on was he just wanted to keep these journalists off balance. Because if he didn’t want to be distorted then he wouldn’t want people to be scribbling notes on what you say as you say it. The way for you to be certain with your words is to be quoted. It is really difficult to hear what he’s saying because he speaks in a very particular way, this sort of modern Shakespearian way. So you’re constantly writing notes as he’s talking and you’re not really getting all of it. I remember writing down what he said and then later on I looked at it and said, “I have no idea what that means.” At the time [of the interview] it may have or may have not meant something to me, but when I looked at it later, I don’t see it. I don’t know what this relates to, I don’t know what is going on. That’s the experience of this guy.
You named your last chapter, “I’m Your Messiah” insinuating that Prince is God-like, don’t you think that’s pushing the boundaries a little too far?
Am I pushing the boundaries?
Well no, what I’m talking about is how he presented himself as a God like figure or as a Jesus figure. Whether or not we accepted it, that’s up for the individual to determine. But he’s making the gesture of saying “Follow me. I am a spiritual figure. I have a spiritual or philosophical perspective.” In terms of a sexual but traditional religious framework. But there are several times that he clearly says “You want a leader? Let me guide you into the baptismal purple rain” or there are a couple of other songs where — is he speaking in the voice of Jesus or is he saying follow me? He’s sort of playing with that line of follow me, Prince, quite often. And I didn’t even realize where purple fits into all of this and of course we know purple itself is symbolic of royalty. But you know, this guy, surely he knew on some level in Jesus’ last moments they draped him in purple. It’s one of the many many ways he likens himself to Jesus, and for what purpose? There have been many other recording artists who went to that level, where they wanted you to think of them as these Jesus figures, from Jim Morrison to George Clinton. Perhaps Madonna is an iconic, classic version of that. But Prince took that further and articulated it better than anyone else did.
In that same chapter you do deconstruct his lyrics and notice that they have a religious undertone.
The religious aspect is real in his music. He talks about religion in a very traditional way — in a follow God, follow Jesus kind of way. Be a good person, push off the devil, don’t follow the devil. Where the Rolling Stones and Madonna and other people basically have sympathy for the devil. Prince has an extraordinarily traditional vision of God and Jesus and Christianity and how we should live our lives. That comes up repeatedly in his music which I find really interesting. Also, I spoke with musicologists who are noticing gospel tropes in Prince’s music. I hadn’t noticed that at all.
When you think of Prince you think of how overtly sexual his lyrics are, but when you break down a lot of his lyrics and what he’s trying to convey, religion is present and the way you piece it together really executes the idea really well.
Yeah, I really had to dive into his songs and went “Oh, it really is there.”
I noticed a trend with some of his protégées, Sheila E or Wendy & Lisa come to mind, they were all crafted into a certain mode and he was very controlling of them. Does this connect with the lack of relationship he had with his mother?
If you don’t have a relationship with your mother that would be a huge influence on your relationship with women in general, but he’s extremely controlling to everybody. It’s not just women, it’s everyone.
The song “Sister” implies that Prince may have had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. Do you think he did?
I don’t know if it’s true or not. I tried very hard to find out if it’s true or not and nobody knew. I think that it may be one of those things that’s a little bit exaggerated, but there’s some truth to it.