Prince and the revolution of the ‘Black Male Identity’

As we celebrate Pride month, I can’t help but reflect on how the fight for visibility and representation of the LGBTQIA+ community has impacted me personally.

Having seen staunch gender roles be dismantled by gay and non-gender-conforming characters like Will Truman or Chandler Bing on TV, I had an idea of the progressive direction this country was going. But at the same time, I saw a lack of visible Black representation in music or the arts, which made me feel like maybe the world was moving on without me. 

An introduction to Prince — his outfits, his confidence, his music, the way he blurred gender lines and didn’t care if the world had to adjust to accommodate him, because he was certainly not going to change for the world — changed everything. Many artists incorporated androgynous themes into their work, most notably the late David Bowie and Iggy Pop — but Prince offered something the world never saw before. More demure than his predecessors Little Richard and Sylvester and with more relevancy and power than his early competitor Rick James, Prince was an explosion of a new, confident Black male identity I had never seen, culminating in an ever-so-talented vessel of performance arts and musicianship.  

His songs not only redefined pop music but also presented a new way of artistic expression for Black singers. Prior to his entry into music, much of R&B offered the stunted blues of men who loved and lost, who cheated and squandered and would do anything to get their relationship back. Prince offered new narratives of men who experienced heartbreak of which they were not at fault, who expressed insecurity and uncertainty in themselves and not their lovers and who were ultimately willing to wear their hearts on their ruffled silk sleeves.

You can’t escape the imagery of Prince. Whether you love, hate or love to hate the larger-than-life wardrobe of Russell Westbrook, Cam Newton or Lil Nas X, they were all influenced by Prince.

Modern musicians such as Brockhampton and The Weeknd are inspired by his greatness. The Weeknd had even prepared to collaborate with Prince before the “Purple Rain” singer’s untimely death, and he dedicated his Hot 100 Artist award to Prince at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards. 

But Prince’s work even transcended music genres. His openness to exploring heartbreak and love may have also given way to what we see today in hip-hop lyrics. For what is Kanye West’s “808’s & Heartbreak” or JuiceWRLD’s “Goodbye & Good Riddance” without the guiding blueprint of Prince’s career? What is any modern, emotional Black male role model without The Purple One? 

Prince somehow became the patron saint of every Black man who was an “other.” For the Black nerds who played Pokémon and watched animé, he was the first sentiment of cosplay. For gay Black teens, he was proof that “it gets better,” inspiring initiatives such as “Faces of Manhood” on Morehouse’s — a Historically Black College and University — campus. For the Black men who grew up in predominantly white areas whose Blackness or masculinity may have been challenged, he was a reminder that we are no longer druids of that dreadful dichotomy but, rather, fascinating, multilayered individuals. 

For me personally, he was the justification for every hairstyle I ever rocked, from the S-Curl to the man bun. As a writer and creative, I saw Prince as my first breath, the strength I needed to push myself beyond the fear of perception and persecution. He is the Nirvana in my quest for self-actualization and agency over my own voice, my own narrative. And I, like millions of Black men, owe him a debt of gratitude for every performance, every purposeful statement and every strut in his purple suede platform shoes that have led to me having a platform of my own.

The physical vessel might be gone, but Prince’s impact thrives not just through his music but the culture it has birthed. He lives on in every Black Lives Matter rally, every Tyler The Creator concert, every season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and every Lil Uzi Vert meme. Prince has been a shining example for generations of Black men who, regardless of their sexuality, are free to explore their true identity in depth and with pride.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you should also check out this etymology breakdown of how drag culture influenced today’s slang.

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