The day Prince dies I find out this way: I’m supposed to do a radio interview in the morning and instead the interviewer texts, “Can’t do interview until I know what’s happened to Prince.” With a clutching stomach I write back, “What happened to Prince?” and she tells me and like everyone else I enter the social media vortex of first denial, then grief.
Later that day I sit in a café and try to write. I’ve written in this café for years but now it’s emptier than I’ve ever seen it. I check my Facebook feed hourly, it’s a glut of shock and sadness. No one can believe it; no one can bear to believe it. I wonder if the café’s empty because everyone has stayed home to mourn. The staff is somber too. They play “Raspberry Beret” and I hold it together. They play “Kiss” and I cry into my coffee even as I wonder why I am mourning someone I did not actually know.
Then I think, of course I did know him. Like everyone else, I met him in the space between him creating the music and us hearing that music. In that place some gorgeous alchemy happened, and in the specific way of the beloved artist he was known to us; he was loved by us.
I arrived in America in 1984 when I was 12 years old. I am Sri Lankan but grew up in a small village in Nigeria. When the threat of a military coup upended our lives in Africa my family ended up in the suburbs of L.A. We couldn’t go back to Sri Lanka because a civil war had started there in 1983 and would continue until 2009.
These various international conflicts were the backdrop of my life but what mattered much more to me as a 12-year-old was how to survive socially in my new almost-exclusively white American high school. I wasn’t the right color, I didn’t have the right clothes. I didn’t know how one was supposed to act or behave. Not much made sense.
One thing however, did make sense: music. We arrived in 1984, the year that Purple Rain was released. We lived with my aunt and uncle and my cousins as we struggled to figure out America. There on my cousins’ TV screen in videos, and later in the movie, was Prince. I felt it immediately: here was someone very different. Here was someone so outside the norm that he made rubbish of the norm. Here was a lithe, huge-eyed man-boy from whom a stream of musical genius was issuing almost effortlessly. Here was a man who looked like a sexy girl and who sang the most ridiculous and beautiful songs, who was redefining sexuality in a whole new way. Here was someone whose skin color looked somewhat like mine. He was riding a motorcycle AND wearing eyeliner and just not giving a fuck about the rules. Here was a man who burst open the early gates of my feminist consciousness by writing, “Women not girls rule my world.” And then following it up with possibly the best insult since Shakespeare, “Act your age, mama, not your shoe size.”
Prince was a respite from the rest of my life as a new immigrant. I watched the videos and danced to the songs at other peoples’ houses. Money in those days for my family was exclusively for practical matters, for setting down roots in this new land. There was no excess to spend on frivolities. Seeing him in concert was a luxury I couldn’t imagine, I didn’t even dream of it.
Decades later, I’m all grown up and haven’t thought about Prince in years. For my 40th birthday my husband tells me we are going on a secret trip. It’s only at the airport printing out our boarding passes he reveals that we are going to Las Vegas. I have visions of slot machines and buffets and wish he had asked me so that I could have told him that I hate Vegas. But I keep my mouth nicely shut. We fly to Vegas and are met by our friends Raj and Melinda. At the hotel’s pool a waiter walks up with a card that reads simply, “You don’t have to be rich…” and I realize we are going to see Prince.
The night is a series of miracles. Melinda is a lawyer and by chance her company happens to be handling the contracts for Prince’s tour. This means that if we are very lucky we might get to the front row. The thought is dizzying. We get to the venue and her boss marches us past 3000 people, not to the front row, but into the pit, a sort of moat right under the stage. I realize quickly that everyone around us is somehow personally related to Prince or has seen him numerous times. There are people in full purple suits, Prince tattoos and ankh jewelry. Everyone is thrilled, is gushing about the other times they’ve seen him. There is the feeling of religious devotion. We are about to have our minds blown, we are told. We take it all with a grain of salt.
And then of course, Prince struts out on his high-heeled boots and for two hours he blows our minds. We are star-struck, mesmerized, held in thrall. He is a rock-sex-god and we are worshippers at his feet. As I watch I think this is what it is like to witness complete creative power and passion. I think, he is a channel for something explicit and divine, a raw sexual divinity. It is impossible not to watch him, greedy for every second he appears onstage.
At the very last song, Prince says, “Where my dancers at?” and when no backup dancers appear onstage, we realize he means us. Whit and Melinda hang back but Raj and I grab hands and race around the back along with about thirty other brave and lucky souls. The bouncers escort us around the corner, up the stairs and onto the stage. And then we are on stage with Prince. He is about three feet away, singing and playing “Kiss” and the giant crowd is roaring in front of us. We dance like we’ve never danced before because this moment feels like life and love and everything good that has ever happened to us. Ten minutes later it is all over and they are escorting us offstage and as we go, Raj blows Prince a kiss and Prince catches it and slaps it against the side of his face and just like that we are offstage and Prince is gone. It was easily the best birthday of my life. I love Las Vegas now. I’d go back in a second if anyone asked.
The night of the day Prince died, I go to a tribute flash mob outside San Francisco’s Ferry Building. The moon rises fat over the glittering lights of the Bay Bridge. Our friend Deep rolls up on his tricycle playing “Purple Rain” off the speaker at the back and the gathered crowd roars. Once again there are folks dressed in purple, in concert t-shirts and high-necked white lace blouses. Here are the kids that grew up misfits in junior high and high school. Who saw in Prince a reflection of their own strange gorgeousness. Who with his ascent understood that if it was possible for a weirdo like him, it was possible for them too. This was his power; he let us be audacious.
None of us will ever see Prince again. Now there is only the beautiful, beloved heart-broken tribe singing “I don’t want to die. I want to dance my life away.” This is what a great artist does, they connect us to each other in a certain time and place and perhaps that’s enough. In this way we say goodbye sweet Prince, may flights of angels sing you to your rest.
Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the Commonwealth Regional Prize-Asia. The Huffington Post raved, “Munaweera’s prose is visceral and indelible, devastatingly beautiful-reminiscent of the glorious writings of Louise Erdrich, Amy Tan and Alice Walker, who also find ways to truth-tell through fiction.” Nayomi’s second novel, What Lies Between Us, a book about the darkest side of maternity has been hailed as one of the most exciting literary releases of 2016. www.nayomimunaweera.com