“You know when you imagine your future and you have certain soundtracks? ‘Purple Rain’ was mine,” said 27-year-old actress Lori Laing. She and her friend Myah Stone, both Harlem residents, danced on the outer ring of the impromptu praise party that has become customary when black music legends pass. Stone, 24, shredded on an air-guitar solo to “Baby I’m a Star,” her face screwed as if she’d caught a whiff of afterworld funk. “I wanted to be in that moment with him,” she said moments later, resting against a steel barricade along 125th Street.
For Laing, Stone, and many other black millennials who came to pay their respects, Prince represented a desire to inhabit an unbounded identity. For Harlem native Sherlly Pierre, Prince’s artistry signaled “the first time permission was given that there wasn’t one way to be black.” The 29-year-old was introduced to his music, alongside Culture Club and hair metal bands, by an older sister. Now a graduate student and sixth-grade teacher in Philly, Pierre had caught the Megabus into the city that afternoon. “In the village of Harlem, people come together, hold hands, and put their arms around each other,” she said. “It made sense to come here, ’cause I knew I’d find that sense of community.”
It also made sense because she’d been there before. The day Michael Jackson died, Pierre joined a makeshift gathering powered by an MTA worker’s boombox, fans’ iPod stereo docks, passing car radios, and — when all those failed — the indefatigable voices of those assembled. I know because I was there. I took photographs to try to preserve the joy strangers enacted in memoriam. Pierre, who I didn’t then know, appears in one, eyes smiling and mouth open in song. But Thursday night, as fans sang “The Beautiful Ones,” she wept. “I don’t know what comes after him…. Before the era of Afro Punk, before it was cool to be hip and do things just to be counterculture, there was Prince and he was doing it even when he was standing by himself.”
Jade Lopez came straight from her job in Downtown Brooklyn, with her best friend Jaleesa Dukes in tow, for the same reason. “This is the spot of soul music,” she said. “This is where it happens.” The 23-year-old Bronx native beamed as she performed the hand choreography to her favorite song, “I Would Die 4 U,” which was blaring from portable speakers stationed at either side of the box office. She was ten when her mother introduced her to Prince, and since then, she has delved deep into his catalog. “You can see him transform into different phases, but it was always him.” A neighboring old-timer playfully challenged her knowledge, to which she retorted, “No one is too young for Prince!”
To ethnomusicologist Aja Burrell Wood, the Apollo gathering was more than B-roll for the morning shows or a news package — it was demanded by Prince’s practice. “As mysterious and elusive as he was, he made it clear where he stood on the music industry,” she said. “Part of why it’s difficult…today is because we can’t run to YouTube and post Prince videos.” In other words, the live assemblage was in honor of Prince, but also dictated by him.
The work of Gayl Jones, the poet and novelist whose own literary star emerged just a hair earlier than Prince’s, offers a means for understanding Prince’s sound and the celebration around us. In Jones’s 1975 novel Corregidora, the blues-singing protagonist, Ursa, carries on an imagined dialogue with herself. To the question “What do blues do for you?” she responds, “It helps me explain what I can’t explain.” It’s a balm for those mourning Prince’s sunset and a forecast for black music’s horizons.