The age-old adage “Whatever is old is new” is appropriate for the memorable style of Prince. When the guitar wizard and pop music icon passed away suddenly last week, (amid reports off ill helath and the cancellation of several concerts in Atlanta) images of eye liner, feather boas, fur coats and high heels tended to refresh our memories of his iconoclastic fashion tastes and how his stage public persona may have even topped his astonishing musical fluency.
Did Prince invent flamboyant performance? No, not by a long shot. In fact, Prince was just the latest reincarnation of a style that has helped to propel some of the biggest names in pop music into superstardom. Early rock ’n roll stars like Little Richard and James Brown took the raw sexuality of the music and applied it to their respective acts replete with pancake makeup, lip gloss, nail polish and bouffant hair styles crafted by the most critical coiffeurs. They looked so pretty that even Beau Brummell, the 18th-century British trend setter, would have been diminished by their foppish facade.
Prince burst upon the world music scene near the end of the 1970s, but earlier that decade an assortment of androgynous artists became idols for the pop music set. It was the “Glam Decade” highlighted by David Bowie, The New York Dolls, Kiss, Elton John, Alice Cooper and Queen. Prince was in the middle of the gender-bending, cross-dressing trend and ultimately provided his critics with more questions about his sexuality than an acceptance of his sultry lyrics and admiration of his instrumental prowess. For instance, on the back of his 1980 album “Dirty Mind,” he poses languidly in black thigh-high stockings, bikini briefs … and little else. He was a dainty dandy on the cover of 1981’s “Controversy,” this time sporting eyeliner and blush. There was more. His “Parade” album of 1986 saw him in mascara and a stomach-baring top that cuts away just below his nipples. Fans may have been jaded by the time of 1988’s “Lovesexy” cover, when he appeared as an angelic nude hovering amid lush blooms (one of the flower’s stamen—close to his crotch—mimics the arc of an erection).
Prince transformed Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze” into, arguably, his most famous tune in “Purple Rain.” Even the color purple is said to have gay overtones. Some say the color represents gay pride (its paler hue lavender was once code for homosexual pulp fiction). Over the centuries, the color has also connoted ambiguity, royalty, artifice, pretentiousness (“purple prose”) and, reputedly, is the color most identified with Satan. These and other attributes apparently applied to Prince in abundance. He wielded his guitar as though he were luring the audience into a full-on sexual encounter, mimicking a phallus as he unleashed onto the cheering throngs a flood of blazing noise. He wrote a song about his idea of sexual overload (witness “Cream” from 1991).
Music writing on sex and androgyny began long before rock ’n roll. In the latter part of the 20th Century, stars like Annie Lennox, Grace Jones and Suzi Quatro traced their transcendence of gender norms to the days of blues divas Bessie Smith, Lucille Bogan and “Ma” Rainey, who in the 1930s exploited the then-fluidity of the blues community to sing about Black lesbians. In Ma Rainey’s immortal “Prove It On Me Blues,” she opines:
“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and a tie,
Makes the wind blow all the time.”
Not to be out done, Bogan explained the Black lesbian lifestyle this way:
“Comin’ a time, BD (short for bulldagger) women ain’t gonna need no men.
Oh the way they treat us is a lowdown and dirty sin.”
These blues greats—30 years prior to the hey day of rock ’n roll—left a trail of (female) broken hearts that Prince, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson and Boy George would have been proud of.
From Cab Calloway’s sex appeal, to the Duke Ellington/Billy Stayhorn partnership, right up to Elvis Presley’s bump and grind and Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano humping, there was—and is—a sexual frankness within dance music (i.e. rock ’n roll) that makes your dignity dip and your backbone slip. Prince capitalized on the euphoria and ecstasy of rock ’n roll and left within his audience a host of indelible memories for this and the next generation of teenyboppers; tweens and “teens of all ages.”
nThe psychology of androgyny
Prince could play guitar like Jimi Hendrix, sing like James Brown, and when it came to androgyny, he took it to the next level. With his recent passing (and on some level always) some individuals have questioned his sexuality.
On Prince’s 1981 album “Controversy,”—released days after he opened for the Rolling Stones dressed in bikini underwear and got booed off stage—the singer quipped that he was asked constantly if he was Black or White, straight or gay.
Prince made his acting debut in “Purple Rain,” playing a sexy, androgynous young musician on the cusp of fame.
Androgyny has been associated with fashion long before Prince and has existed in different cultures, throughout the Holy Bible, Ancient Greece, and even 10th century Japan. Its existence has been found on etchings and plate engravings found in antique books.
Edward Porter, a researcher at Fuller Theological Seminary Biblical School stated scholars have even had debates about the devil, Satan, being an androgynous angel.
Porter says the angel Lucifer, as he was originally named according to the Bible, is depicted with feminine beauty in book art created between 1400 and 1500. During this same time period, paintings have depicted male characters from the Bible all with masculine features.
Images of androgyny within African American culture have been more subtle.
One of the first images I was able to find was Josephine Baker wearing a men’s tuxedo on stage in Paris, France, pre-World War II.
Music historian Daniel Walt describes James Brown, Little Richard, and Jimi Hendrix, as entertainers who have dabbled in androgyny and caused rumors of homosexuality.
Nelson George, author of two books, “Hip Hop Nation” and “Post Soul Nation,” believes James Brown and Little Richard’s style is different from the androgyny that existed in hip hop during the 1980’s.
In “Hip Hop Nation,” George uses the example of women in hip hop. Originally, and still to some extent today, women couldn’t compete in the male dominated genre filled with machismo and rampant sexism. In order to break in, female artists such as MC Lyte, Lady of Rage and Da Brat, began to dress in male clothing such as plaid shirts and baggy khaki pants, and hardened their lyrics and delivery.
Prince, regarded as a pop culture icon, played with gender and sexuality in his own way, always defying convention. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the way he dressed.
Shauneil Evans, an image consultant at #shauneillhair, believes Prince was using the ancient art of “seductive attraction” and his androgyny was just as much part of his attractive sexuality as his music.
Evans may be onto something. Most females polled between the ages of 25-55 believe Prince’s feminine display was “sexy as hell,” many claimed they have imagined making love to him while at a concert or listening to his music.
According to Evans, seduction will always be the female form of power and warfare, evidenced throughout ancient history. She believes the male who uses this form of power on a woman without losing his masculine identity will attract more women. “The more subtly feminine he becomes, the more effective the seduction,” she theorizes.
“Prince was able to almost hypnotize his female fans with his androgynous sexuality because he knew what they wanted to see on stage was a familiar, pleasing, graceful presence, mirroring female physiology. Prince was serious about his appearance, and had an acute sensitivity to detail with a hint of male cruelty (bad boy image)… Have you seen “Purple Rain?”
“You have to understand that we women are narcissists. We are in love with the charms of our own sex. Showing female charm to us can disarm and mesmerize us, leaving us open to a bold masculine move,” Evans continued. “It’s mass scale seduction; no single woman can possess him, he is too elusive, but all can fantasize about doing so. This is what happens at a Prince concert.”
nBlack masculinity today
Black masculinity today continues to evolve and has seemingly become as ever-changing as the popular “fashion of the day,” and the public figures and celebrities who are bold enough to create and embrace them.
The term masculinity simply means “the qualities that are traditionally associated with a man.” But today, as the lines that define those qualities and conventions are continually blurred, we find that the association has become more difficult to pin down. Although “style of dress” is the most outwardly obvious (though entirely subjective) method of determining a man’s level of masculinity, one must consider how significantly gender roles have evolved over the last several decades and the affect that has had on the societal view of what it means to be a man.
While it used to be customary for men to go to work, and be the main source of financial support for the family, while the women kept the home and reared the children, that societal standard has evolved, and in many cases, has reversed. The U.S. Census reports that 32 percent of married fathers (approximately 7 million dads) are “a regular source of care for their children under age 15, up from 26 percent in 2002.”
So, if 7 million men are taking a more active role in taking care of their children, and quite possibly doing the grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry—what many would still today define as “woman’s work”—are these proud papas perceived to be less manly than their working counterparts?
According to research by Almudena Sevilla, Ph.D., of the school of business and management — the University of London, and Cristina Borra of the University of Seville, fathers overall are spending seven times more time with their children than they were in the 1970’s. Suggestively, making them more sensitive to the needs of today’s youth.
Now, being a husband, and being a father are two characteristics that would prove quite difficult to dispute when it comes to innate “man-ness,” but gender fluidity among young men—and particularly young Black men—seems to be much more popular today than it was years ago.
Jaden Smith, son of actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, has recently been thrust into the spotlight as the newest poster child for androgyny, being seen in public wearing dresses, skirts, and the like. It became such a trending topic, that it influenced Louis Vuitton designer Nicolas Ghesquiere to feature Smith in an ad for womenswear, which sent the Internet into a frenzy. The youngster, who is intent on raising a big F U to societal norms was quoted as saying, “I’m just expressing how I feel inside, which is really no particular way because everyday it changes how I feel about the world and myself.”
Smith isn’t alone. Another young socialite, EJ Johnson—son of Magic Johnson—is a 22-year-old Black voice shattering perceptions about gender. Not only does he style himself in gender non-conforming fashions, but he also uses his social media platform to advance conversations on personal style.
Although it’s common for individuals to lump them together, androgyny and sexuality are not necessarily connected. It could be inferred however, that the increase in awareness, support, and acceptance of LGBT causes in urban communities has at least, in part, paved the way for African American men to “test the waters” in terms of self-expression when it comes to bending traditionally accepted gender associations.
Black women (and all other women who date Black men) needn’t worry that they soon will be fighting their men for the last mini-skirt in the closet. Studies show that regardless of the changes in gender roles and sexuality, Black men are still perceived—even if stereotypically so—as the most masculine of any race. According to Lisa Wade, Ph.D., in her article entitled “How Different Races Intermarry,” based on to American cultural stereotypes, Black people, both men and women, are seen as more masculine than White people for the same reasons. They are seen as more masculine on the grounds that they are stereotypically more aggressive, more violent, larger, more sexual, and more athletic.
nPrince’s musical and social impact
During a 35-year career that included 32 Grammy wins, Prince Rogers Nelson served as the creative spark that helped launch, direct and motivate numerous artists.
But the Minneapolis native, who died last Thursday at his home, was so much more than a musical genius—he was a transformational spark who understood that sometimes it took more than music to move the social dial.
It’s easy to see where he touched and changed lives in music.
Two of his earliest connections were made in high school and included Andre Cymone and Morris Day. Cymone, a bassist, played in a high school band with Day and Prince that was managed by Day’s mother and initially called Grand Central. Cymone would go on to be part of Prince’s touring band from the late 1970s until 1981 when the two parted ways due to creative tensions.
In 1985, they reconciled and Prince wrote and produced “The Dance Electric” for Cymone’s album “AC.” The tune would go on to hit number 10 on the Billboard R&B charts.
Day, too, would later circle back and become lead singer for another band Prince put together called The Time.
Drummer and percussionist Sheila E., is a singer/songwriter who worked with Prince in the 1980s. He produced three of her early albums and helped her to launch a solo career after she was featured singing vocals on his 1984 single “Erotic City.” She was also part of the “Purple Rain” recording sessions and eventually went on to serve as the musical director for his back up band in the 1980s.
Mayte Garcia, Prince’s ex-wife was another former member of his band as a background singer and dancer. She was hired to work on his Diamonds and Pearls tour, and the two married in 1996. They formally divorced in 2000.
Among others Prince helped were Sheena Easton who contributed a number of songs for her albums over the years including the top 10 hit “Sugar Walls;” Carmen Electra was featured as a backup dancer on his tour and music videos in the early 1990s. Prince also produced her self-titled album in 1993.
Jimmy Jam, a fomer keyboardist for Prince’s band, The Time, formed an award-winning producing team with Terry Lewis who also played bass for The Time. Reportedly, The Time was the most successful side project Prince produced. The group created four albums from 1981-1990, and spawned the producing team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who would go on to become a bedrock in the industry during the 1980s.
Apollonia 6 was a girl group Prince formed in 1984, after Vanity left Vanity 6—the first girl group Prince created.
On the music front, Prince was much more direct with his activism. The artist signed on with Tidal, a digital music video streaming service backed by Jay-Z.
Prince said in a Rolling Stone interview that artists needed their own resources to distribute their works, and artists like Jay-Z who spent $100 million of his own money to build a video streaming service, needed the support of other artists.
According to Stephen Hill, president of programming for BET, Prince was very proudly Black and a lot of the music he played such as funk, ballads and even rock and roll was about making the connection with Black folks.
From almost the beginning of his professional career, among the topics his music addressed were social issues such as police brutality—including commemorating the memory of Freddie Gray’s death in Maryland with a song “Baltimore” for the city. He also turned the musical spotlight on the actions of Wall Street, child hunger and poverty in the African American community, and the intersections of race and class.
On the social side, Prince supported People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the family of Trayvon Martin.
He also lent his name and celebrity to help activist Van Jones establish the movement #YesWeCode. This organization was created to get more minorities into tech jobs and to help teach technology skills to 100,000 young men and women from low-opportunity backgrounds. He helped with the initial funding for the project and lauched it with a performance at the 20th anniversary of the Essence Festival.
Prince’s persona, from his massive impact of music, fashion, sexuality and social activism will undoubtedly leave an indelible mark in history.
Merdies Hayes, William Covington, Juliana Norwood, and Cynthia Griffin contributed to this story.