Before yesterday, I never gave much thought to the motive behind Prince changing his stage name from “Prince” to a “The Love Symbol,” and that this symbol, according to reports, is a conjoining of arbitrary sex-signs that embody masculine and feminine energy. Pretty much consistent with the inner, androgynous, genderless, barrier-breaking spirit that we’ve come to associate with Prince, who he believed he was, on and off-stage, and wanted to communicate to his fans.
As I kid, I do remember overhearing in snatches of conversation random adult people complain that Prince had “lost his mind” or dole out some other dismissive comment of that kind, mostly uttered callously by folks who preferred not to think too hard or too long or too critically about why someone with such a known reputation would do something soooo … out of the norm — the norm, that is, of his reputation.
I, too, was puzzled, but for different reasons. I wondered why more people didn’t have arbitrary signs as names. I wondered … why this particular sign … because, for so long, it was reputed in an off-handed manner as just some hokey piece of mindless scribbling. And then I thought, well, aren’t names in themselves — made of letters, made of words — arbitrary?
You go through this whole process of elimination before you arrive at the main point: we’re freakin’ talking about Prince. Nothing was EVER “normal.” Or, the abnormal is normal.
And that’s a good thing, a very, very good thing, actually.
We know the commercial reasons for his decision to re-name himself, which is the other intriguing part of the story — at least to me. Prince (or “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince,” as journalists began dubbing him by that point) had a falling out with his record label, Warner. Reports state that Warner refused to release any of his new music for fear that it would “saturate the market” and depreciate “Prince,” the brand. Upset, Prince’s chosen form of protest, aside from the name change, was to write the word “slave” across his cheek to mirror externally his inner frustration.
That’s the basic story, and I’ve linked sources where readers can find more small details on Prince’s relationship with Warner. It seems clear that why and how of Prince’s contractual struggles with Warner will be as consequential to exploring the latter half of his career as his anonymous financial donations to social causes.
But the signification behind the name change is all types of special. Here’s why.
As a Black male deeply concerned about “the man box,” about presentations of a rigid Black masculine identity, and about what these presentations signal to the world about the state of the black male body, I find inspiration in Prince’s willful decision to gender-bend. I find inspiration in the symbol that embodies that intention.
Prince was a different mold of Black male energy. He wore heels, ruffles, and make-up. And made that shit work! His style of singing, wide and powerful as it was, included squealing, linking him to another music legend who moon-walked his way into the people’s heart.
You didn’t know if he was heterosexual, metrosexual, or transexual. And you didn’t care.
Black masculinity looked and felt free-er on his 5’2 frame. And we loved him for that. I say that with excitement and trepidation, for I’m well aware of the reports in the webiverse that suggest he was “anti-gay.” God, I hope not. Because I know Black people can do better than homophobia. No, we’re not the only ones. But, at the moment, I’m talking specifically about homophobia in Black communities. In any case, as Ta-nehisi Coates points out, Prince’s feelings on homosexuality, strange as they are, may have more to do with religion than race.
Yet, as far as I’m concerned, that revelation does not subtract one iota away from his contribution to the pursuit of an alternative, progressive way of expressing Black masculinity. Prince was a care-free Black man who, if nothing else, made you feel that it was possible to wield and weigh masculine and feminine power in the same black body. His was applied his to music. But, there’s nothing stopping Black men from applying that wisdom of carefreeness to every other area of life.
Featured Image: The Freewheelin’ Nico Rijinders’s, via Flickr Creative Commons