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Prince Lived Outside The Confines Of Genre, Race And Gender


All around the world, impromptu memorials have been popping up to remember and celebrate the life of Prince. The music legend was found dead in his home outside Minneapolis, Minn., yesterday. He was just 57 years old. NPR's Andrew Limbong begins his report in front of an iconic New York musical landmark.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: There was a party last night beneath the marquee of the Apollo Theater in New York City.


LIMBONG: People sang and danced and celebrated Prince. But Tybee Smith called it a sad day for the world.

TYBEE SMITH: Because he is very inspirational to so many people. And he wasn't afraid to be himself, you know? And he helped me that way.

LIMBONG: ...To be herself. The cliches people use when they talk about iconoclasts - Prince lived up to all of those, fully. He didn't fit into a box. He blurred all sorts of cultural lines. He had a certain way of handling his public image.

By now, you've probably already heard he was born in 1958, in Minneapolis, as Prince Rogers Nelson. His parents divorced when he was a kid, and he was bullied and teased and used music to get away from all that. But he could also be funny, as you hear in a bit of an interview with the Dutch broadcaster TROS in 2009.


PRINCE: Once a person gets a firm grip of life and death, and they fully understand both, for example...

LIMBONG: He throws a question back at the interviewer.


PRINCE: You've had how many birthdays?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Me? What do you think?

PRINCE: Well, I know that you had one birthday.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. When was it?

PRINCE: You were born...


PRINCE: ...On a certain day. You had no more birthdays after that. So I don't celebrate birthdays. So that stops me from counting days, which stops me from counting time, which allows me to still look the same as I did 10 years ago.

LIMBONG: That sense of humor wasn't lost on some of the people he knew, like Vernon Reid, founder and guitarist of Living Colour.

VERNON REID: The band Living Colour, we had already been invited to a party at Paisley Park and had jammed with them. And this was sometime later. And I was walking around and this - I hear, Vernon. And I turn. And there's this yellow sports car, a Lotus, with black windows.

And he rolls the window down. And I can see it's Prince. And he just kind of goes, ah, and then rolls up the window and speeds off. And so my encounters with Prince were something along those lines.

LIMBONG: Reid says in addition to being a great guitarist and songwriter, Prince will have a lasting influence in the way he toyed with gender roles at a time when that sort of thing in mainstream music was pretty rigid.

REID: Prince came out with "I Want To Be Your Lover." One of the most striking lines in that song is, I want to be your lover, I want to be your mother and your sister, too.


PRINCE: (Singing) I want to be your brother. I want to be your mother and your sister, too.

REID: To blur those lines was really revolutionary, particularly in R&B and funk.

LIMBONG: And it went beyond the music, to the way Prince looked.

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: He is one of the most beautiful men in the world.

LIMBONG: Singer and songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello says she was heavily influenced by Prince's music.

NDEGEOCELLO: I remember the moment I heard the song "Soft And Wet" and the whole album "For You." It's what put me on the journey to want to be a musician. It had a profound effect on me. Those were the records I would sit and try to learn the baselines and teach myself how to play the bass.


PRINCE: (Singing) Soft and wet, soft and wet.

LIMBONG: Ndegeocello had a publicized spat with Prince when she signed to the same major label he'd fought to leave - though one he'd eventually return to. But she says he was a role model.

NDEGEOCELLO: For those who live outside of genre and gender and race - who live outside those confines - I mean, he was, like, my patron saint.


PRINCE: (Singing) Controversy - am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? Controversy. Do I believe in God?

LIMBONG: Prince played into the idea of the mystery of Prince in his image and his music. Here's Vernon Reid again.

REID: He was very self-aware. He was very aware of how much he was shaking up the musical landscape. And he was very - you know, he was very, very bold in his statements. And, you know, he was very refreshing. And by the time you get to "Purple Rain," I mean, it's like he had created his own kind of musical language


PRINCE: (Singing) She took me to her castle and I just couldn't believe my eyes. She had so many devices - everything that money could buy. She said, sign your name on the dotted line. The lights went out and Nikki started to grind.

SASHA FRERE-JONES: I think the most confusing thing he did was mess with the radio format.

LIMBONG: Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and a cultural critic. He says that there's a lot of rock in what Prince played, but...

FRERE-JONES: ...In some ways the most radical thing he did was force people to figure out what genre he was in. In some ways, he never settled on a genre other than Prince.

LIMBONG: Sasha Frere-Jones says Prince made some great records. Later on, some of the ones he released himself weren't so great. But none of that seemed to matter to the folks under the marquee of the Apollo Theater in New York City last night. Willah Smiley is coming to terms with Prince's death, but she's not sad.

WILLAH SMILEY: We have to relish and enjoy and accept and just feel good about what people leave us. Some people are on the earth for a long time - 92 years, 100 years - but there are some of us who just - they have a short time, and they do a whole lot. So no, because I can enjoy Prince.


PRINCE: (Singing) You got to not talk dirty, baby, if you want to impress me. You can't be too flirty, mama.

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News.


PRINCE: (Singing) I know how to undress me. I want to be your fantasy. Maybe you could be mine. You just leave it all up to me. We could have a good time. Don't have to be rich... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.