Prince was just 21-years-old when he got the chance in 1981 to open for the Rolling Stones -- a band whose frontman, Mick Jagger, had built an entire persona around blurring the lines between masculinity and femininity. But Prince took the blurring of those lines to a whole new level.
He wore high-heels, he wore eyeliner, he wore skin-tight lycra in shades of lavender and deep, deep purple. He was the quintessential male 80s pop star: unapologetically sexual, unapologetically complex, and exceptionally talented. But on stage during the West Coast leg of the Rolling Stones tour, as reported by The New York Times, the almost entirely white audience couldn't make the connection with Prince that they could with Jagger. They "pelted Prince with fruit and bottles, causing him to cut his sets short."
With the outpouring of grief and celebration that's happened in the wake of his death, it's hard to imagine a world in which Prince, in all his glory, was not always fully embraced. But it's stories like these that are an important reminder about who Prince was. Prince was a black man. And his blackness was an integral part of what made his persona so revolutionary, and so complicated.
Prince helped redefine notions about black masculinity by challenging ideas about gender and sexuality not only in his appearance, but through his music. He actively questioned the idea that presenting as feminine or androgynous somehow dictates one's sexual orientation. Prince was soft. He was all frills and satin, lycra and lace. He was all those things, and he loved women. A lot. His highly sexual, complex relationship to women (Apollonia, Vanity, and so on) challenged the idea that being "soft" meant being gay. It was the perfect demonstration of how gender expression and sexuality are not the same thing. It was a reminder that black masculinity, constantly policed and undermined, could be redefined.
The narrative around Prince, gleaned from his persona and his music, was that he toyed with duality -- masculine and feminine, black and white. But the beauty of Prince's pushing of societal boundaries was that he exposed our own preoccupations with placing people, especially black people, in boxes. His racial ambiguity didn't detract from his blackness, and his feminine aesthetic did not make him any less of a man. In that way, he represented a kind of freedom that paved the way for the Lenny Kravitzes, Jaden Smiths, and Miguels of the world.
But Prince's relationship with gender and sexuality wasn't perfect. Despite the images of sexually liberated women who populated his videos and songs, there were traces of misogyny in his music and his ideology (just watch Purple Rain, where he spends most of the movie being the ultimate f**kboy to Apollonia).
And later in his career, after he became a devout Jehovah's Witness, his stance on sexuality -- which used to be all about live and let live -- seemed to skew toward the side of homophobia. When asked in a 2008 interview of his views on homosexuality, he tapped his Bible and answered: "God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, 'Enough.'" There was an interview, also, where during a guest appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show," Prince recounted a story of being at an Oscars party and cringing every time a "dude" bumped into him, or so much as grazed him.
This complication doesn't necessarily diminish the impact Prince made. If anything, it adds to the fascinating conversation around blackness and masculinity that his persona and his legacy adds to. The fact that, even after all the brave and bold expressions of masculinity he introduced to the world, he still seemed to struggle with other forms of gender and sexual expression later in his life says a lot about the ways those boxes creep back up on us.
But Prince introduced us, for a fleeting, brilliant moment, to a world where black men and black people could be free in ways that we've rarely been able to imagine. He once sang, "I'm not a woman. I'm not a man. I'm something that you'll never understand." And that was the beauty of Prince's persona, and his blackness. It was something that was impossible to peg down.