“Excuse me … are you Prince?” the hotel concierge asked me.
At first, I thought he was joking, the kind of slightly homophobic jab I’ve grown used to hearing over the years, so I laughed as I said, “No, I’m not Prince” with a tone of obviousness.
“Are you sure?” he doubled down. I couldn’t believe it. Had he never seen a picture of Prince?
Over my lifetime, I’ve admired many black divas and pop singers, from Tina Turner and Little Richard to Beyoncé and Lenny Kravitz, but Prince’s fierce, androgynous aesthetic completely changed my approach to my own body. Prince also made me queer. He was proof to my teenage mind that living outside the box is sexy, a kind of magic. Prince, for me, represented freedom.
On April 21, 2016, I boarded a flight from London to New York for a special performance-studies conference at Yale organized by my dissertation advisor. I hadn’t been back to New Haven since I graduated in 2012, so I was eager to see old faces and go to all my old hot spots—BAR (the bacon-and-red-onion pizza is to die for), 116Crown … and I really couldn’t wait to get a piece of Lithuanian coffee cake. As the plane touched down at JFK, still rolling down the runway, I took my phone out of airplane mode and was showered with a barrage of messages, from WhatsApp to Facebook, with the news that Prince died. Wait, what? I immediately felt numb. It was a shock to me because Prince was still so young, so active, and I guess I had believed he would outlive all the rest of us. I had left London in a world with Prince in it. Six hours later, he was gone.
When I used to pump around the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, a place you know of now only because of the 2014 riots, the place where I spent a small chunk of my early childhood years, kids who wanted to be mean called me Prince. I’d walk down the street really feeling good about myself, and people would just yell, Hey, Prince!—laughing, pointing, sneering. Even when I lived in New York City and actually even until this day, people still yell Prince at me as a homophobic insult. Over the years, I started associating the word Prince with faggotry—not Prince’s own faggotry but mine.
But for the longest time, I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how anyone could think that comparing me to Prince was an insult. Do people really think that insulting the way I dress by comparing me to one of the greatest artists of all time is going to hurt my feelings?
If you were black and in America during the eighties and nineties, of any age, you knew about Prince. Your family members loved Prince. You put Prince on at house parties, holidays, fish fries, barbecues, and birthdays. Your mom loved Prince. Your grandmother loved Prince. Your aunties and uncles loved Prince. But there was always something “not quite” about him, something unlocatable, dangerous, extravagant, fabulous. This is for sure what drew me to him. He was an outcast, a style rebel, who helped me feel free.
In my family, the term everyone uses to describe suspected gay people—though, of course, not me—is funny. Well, that or artistic. Different. It’s a way of noticing the big old faggot in the room, looking him right in the face without actually having to tell anyone the news. Prince allowed me to live as an open secret. Flamboyant as he was, he also gave me the space to play with my own sense of queerness, to be queer right now, to feel that it is okay to be different, funny. I was fascinated that he was able to be so famous, so celebrated, so loved—and yet utterly queer. From a very young age, I was obsessed with what Prince did to blackness and masculinity. His androgynous aesthetic changed how I thought about my own body, and he helped me connect to queerness. Prince gave me permission to wear heels, sequins, and earrings, and now I don’t need permission from anybody.
Prince was more than a musical genius. I discovered him at a time I was playing the starring role in the feature film Closeted Black Teenager, and I remember thinking back then that he was so weird, so strange. But fascinating. Unlocatable, artistic, fabulous—a no-no. Music superstars have a way of living on through album rereleases, costume parties, and biopics, and Prince will certainly live on at purple dance parties all around the world. But his legacy will also continue on in every queer person of color who discovers him for the first time, who sees in him a kind of style inspiration, a plan B to replace the dominant script. His legacy will always be musical, but his unique sense of style will also help generations of queer people of color learn to love their difference. And when I listen to all my favorite Prince tunes or every time his music comes on at a party, I will whisper, Thank you. Thank you for setting me free. Thank you for helping me accept my own identity as a black gay male, diamonds, pearls, and all.
madison moore, Ph.D., is a cultural critic, DJ, and creative director whose writing has appeared in Theater, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, Aperture, Thought Catalog, Out, Splice Today, and Interview. Born in Ferguson, Missouri, madison lives in London and Berlin.
Adapted from FABULOUS: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric. Copyright © 2018 by madison moore. Reprinted with permission from Yale University Press.