Emil Guillermo: Prince--Beyond race, a genius' vision, an activist's heart
April 22, 2016 7:12 AM
For an Asian American guy like me, who has a penchant to go amok, Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," with its purple banana reference, was always a favorite.
But now the lyrics seemed to have a divine message:
'Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the after world
In this life
You're on your own
And if the elevator tries to bring you down
Go crazy, punch a higher floor
I still wasn't ready for Thursday's news.
Like almost everyone, I had the initial reaction that this was some kind of cosmic prank.
Twitter hashtag #PrinceRIP? Dead at 57? Did Prince punch out?
I reassured myself that this had to be an IHFKAJ--an "internet hoax, formerly known as a joke."
I still want to think that this is all some belated April Foolery.
But no, it's for real.
On the Queen's birthday, Prince died and the purple tears began.
On the news shows, it became the only song.
Not even the ridiculous North Carolina bathroom debate could get much airtime.
Prince was the man who could trump Trump--and Cruz.
Those two men may want to be the next president, but they could never hold a candle to Prince, an artist who influenced world culture for five decades.
As I saw the anchors on Fox News Channel report on the death, I kept thinking--if only their viewers actually listened to Prince's music, there wouldn't be such a tremendous racial divide in this country.
They'd have too much fun for hate. And the right soundtrack for love.
At least for the moment, Prince had forced Fox to keep things politically rancor-free.
Everybody seemed to get it, about how much Prince mattered.
Still, I wondered how many Ted Cruz evangelicals were home tapping their foot to Prince's 1979 hit, "I Want To Be Your Lover"?
Or rushing to iTunes to check out "Dirty Mind" from 1980, where Prince was evolving his identifiable rhythm in songs like "Head"? (Uh, that's not a song about Fox News head Roger Ailes.)
For me, it was the music and the style. In the '80s, I was a young permed Asian American of Filipino descent covering the entertainment scene for the San Francisco NBC station. The high point was 1984, when the music scene exploded with major tours from Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Prince.
All three stars were destined to become iconic. But for me, it was always the mysterious Prince who had the most mass appeal with his funky, sexy, androgynous fun.
Prince defied all the traditional categories. You couldn't segregate his music on the black stations. And he wasn't a traditional rocker. But just check out his axe solo on "Let's Go Crazy."
Prince had chops. And he was vegan.
He broke down all the barriers in music and in life, and created a unique blended package. Gender? Race? I know Filipinos to this day who swear he had some Asian blood in him from his Louisiana roots. In fact, the Guardian in England published an interview Prince gave to the New Musical Express that acknowledged his father was of mixed race, including Italian and Filipino.
So does that explain being 5-foot 2-inches? He was part Asian with a love for heels?
But as he sang in his song, "Controversy," "I said life is just a game, we're all just the same, do you want to play?"
Prince was simply free to play and be Prince, which in itself was an inspiring thing.
"He allowed himself to be himself, and encouraged others to be themselves," said Stevie Wonder on CNN.
"He was very free. . .to do what he did without fear, was a wonderful thing. Because it is always great. . .Always great when we don't allow fear to put our dreams to sleep, and he didn't."
There was a fearlessness to his art, and ultimately in his fight to recover the rights to his music.
Of all the commenters I heard, perhaps the most revealing was Van Jones, the CNN political analyst who was a close friend of Prince's. Jones could talk about the legal battle Prince waged with the help of Phaedra Ellis Lamkins.
But Jones also knew another side that wasn't just about the music.
"There was a core of genius that just used music to express itself, but he was also an incredible humanitarian," Jones told CNN. "He was a Jehovah's Witness, so he was not allowed to speak publicly about any of his good acts, any of his charitable activity."
Jones was one of those close to Prince who helped him back organizations like "Yes We Code," which helps underprivileged youth from minority communities get into high tech.
"Every time you see a black kid wearing a hoodie, you say: There's a thug. If you see a white kid wearing hoodie, you say: There's Mark Zuckerberg," Jones told USA TODAY last year. "I said, 'That's because of racism. And Prince said, 'Maybe so, or maybe you civil rights guys haven't created enough Mark Zuckerbergs.' "
On the night of Prince's death, Jones mentioned other projects Prince was involved with, such as "Green For All," a program that helped Oakland residents get solar panels.
"Anybody struggling anywhere in the world, he was sending checks, he was making phone calls, but he did not want it to be known publicly, and he didn't want us to say it," said Jones on CNN. "But I'm going to say it because the world needs to know that it wasn't just the music. The music was one way he was trying to help the world. But he was helping every single day of his life."
Earlier, Jones said Prince didn't call when you had a good day. But he was there when you had a bad day. And now Jones said he felt guilt over the death of his friend. "What could we have done? What happened?" Jones told CNN as he held back tears. "He was there for us when we were down."
Jones said when he left the Obama White House and was at a low point emotionally and professionally, Prince called and invited him to the Paisley Park estate to talk. "And he said, 'Go to Jerusalem, stay there two weeks and pray. Then when you come back, sit down with a blank piece of paper and write down everything you want to do that you think will help the community. And I will help you do it, OK?'" Jones said. "And so I went from working for a president to working with Prince."
Jones said the recent concerts in Chicago, Baltimore, and New Orleans enabled Prince to help local non-profits and their leaders. "He said, 'I can't be in this world and see all this pain and suffering and not do something. Don't give me the credit, don't give me the glory.' But he pushed all of us to do more. And we all did more. And I want him to be known for that too."
I knew Jones when he was an Oakland activist at the Ella Baker Center. At the time, I hosted a local TV show, "NCM-TV New California Media," and could always count on Van to come on to make his points eloquently and passionately.
On this sad night, Jones again delivered the truth, this time about Prince--humanitarian, activist, and philanthropist.
Quietly, Prince was going crazy for those in need in the community.
As it turns out, we weren't alone. Prince was there for many of us.
And now the music plays on without him.
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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.
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