Ebony likes to talk, I think, but she especially likes to talk about Prince. She tells me about her first Prince song, the poster of him (the Controversy one, where he’s in the shower looking like filth) she had to hide under her jacket so her mum wouldn’t see. She tells me how important Prince was, and is. We’re standing outside First Avenue, the venue that is synonymous with Prince and Purple Rain, and there are 30-odd people hanging around. Some people are clearly on their way to work, trouser legs clipped for bike safety, backpacks snug on their backs. Some are on walkie duty with dogs, and a good number are not immediately classifiable, beyond having an interest in Prince, or the spectacle of public mourning. Ebony’s spent more of her last few hours here than at home. “I left about 5 and it was packed,” she says, her tied-back locs bobbing. “Somebody got in a little scuffle but they got him out real quick. I was snapping. I was like, ‘Uh uh! You finna disrespect my man?’ Let him rest in peace. We’re not gonna do none of that drama here. That’s my man!”
Rose is less animated than Ebony, but she’s got her purple T-shirt on, no jacket, even though the weather is the kind of grim cold that you can feel beneath three layers plus a snood. There is real sadness and passion in her voice and face when she tells me she moved to Minneapolis for Prince. She’s from Missouri originally, and came here 10 years ago because this is where he was from, and where he sang about. “For one man, I would travel this far. When I see what he was going through from his childhood up till now, I wanted to see what it’s like to make a change and a new beginning. When I see him do that, I know I can do it.”
Earl looks a little like Cuba Gooding Jr. His whole mien is of chill benevolence. He is The Dude, without the bathrobe. He’s on his bike, blasting out Prince on a slim canister of a speaker. His sunglasses never come off the entire time he’s there. He’s been a fan since the seventies (he was born in ‘70, he tells me) and his favourite Prince song is the one I expected him to say, decked as he is in a purple Vikings jersey: "Purple Rain". His voice takes on a dreamy quality when he talks about it. “One man,” he says, marvelling at all the people who love Prince. “Beautiful.”
At 4am the morning after Prince’s death was announced I pulled some purple lipstick across my face (Taboo by Iman) and got into a taxi to the airport to head to Minneapolis for the weekend. I don’t know what I was expecting when I landed at Minneapolis St Paul airport – whether “The Beautiful Ones” playing at ear-splitting volume, or the control towers draped in purple velvet, simultaneously the colour of royalty and mourning – but I wasn’t expecting…nothing. Was Prince not Minnesota’s most famous and favourite son? (Bless you, Bob Dylan. You too, Stifler.) But, there was nothing to denote his passing at the airport. Perhaps it was one of those private mournings where everyone knows what happened, and everyone is coping as best they can. I asked my taxi driver, an older gentleman whose keyring was in the shape of a tiny flip-flop in the colours of Ethiopia’s flag, about his feelings on Prince’s recent death. “Have you been to any events?” I asked. “Event?” he repeated, then pointed to a conference centre outside the window. “They have events there.” He didn’t know who Prince was. A couple of minutes later, he said into the awkward silence: “We’re almost at the hotel now.”
At 9:30am on Friday, a digital billboard above Mayo Clinic Square asks Minneapolites to “WEAR PURPLE TODAY” and includes the hashtag #PurpleForPrince. In the theatre district in Downtown Minneapolis, there are only a few people stopping to take photos of signs that commemorate Prince’s life. Fifty-seven years is not very long at all, but as another fan – in a swirly purple top – says outside First Avenue, he packed a lot in. “Thirty-eight albums,” she says, before adding, “and then there’s that vault.” She sort of knew Prince, she tells someone else, but no, he’d never made her pancakes. There are pancakes among the floral tributes outside the venue, an umbrella (purple rain is still rain), balloons, a couple of guitars, laminated photos of the singer, candles, and even a little plastic dove. A lot of purple flowers. One man comes along with a little boy in his arms; the baby has his chubby fist wrapped around a purple plant. They lay it down, and the man wipes his eye.
You can taste the genuine sadness, even as it’s mixed in with all the laughter and the stories. God, the stories. Some of them are really terrible, and I empathise, because I have my own shit Prince story, and here it is: In 2014, while I was working at the Guardian offices in Kings Place, we received word that Prince was playing one of his “guerrilla” gigs at the venue next door so we wrapped up for the day as soon as was decent and joined the line. Everyone who’d made it to an earlier gig had boasted about it; the air was thick with rumours of 10-quid tickets. When we finally reached the head of the line, we were told tickets were £70 (about $100), a price too rich for my blood at the time. I left. Today, Prince is gone, and I will never see him live.
There were lots of “I almost saw Prince...but then I didn’t” stories outside First Avenue. It’s a comforting ritual, and you can sense – nestled in the mild indignation of our tones – a small way for us to say we were real fans regardless. We loved Prince. And we were convinced he loved us back. At least a little.
Post-noon, Rose is still at First Avenue, still looking a little lost. The balloons have multiplied since I was there in the morning. They’re bigger and more buoyant than the ones that survived the overnight spring cold. Now there’s chalk on the sidewalk, too: art of varying quality and sentiment of varying depths. One small black boy shows his mum his work. “Great, baby,” she murmurs, distracted by her own personal grief, unknowable to her son. “You wanna write ‘I love you, Prince’?” a lady asks her just-out-of-toddlerhood child. She kneels carefully to scrawl her own affection in yellow chalk.
“This is dope, man. I gotta call my dad,” says a burly man walking his tiny daughter in a pushchair past all the people, the flowers, and the chalkings. More purple-clad people arrive. One man jumps in front of the wall of tributes, arms outstretched, peace signs at either end of his wingspan. Over and over, he says: “Forever Prince, forever peace!” It’s annoying after a couple of times – he keeps getting in people’s shots, and his volume jars with the relative quiet – but no one says anything. It’ll be hours before we hear anything official about his autopsy, and I can already overhear theories. “Well, he was only little,” one woman in a hi-vis fleece says to another woman. “Maybe he was taking one thing, and another one for something else.” Her companion already has a final stance: “I just don’t want to hear it was a drug overdose. I just don’t.”
A sea of purple at First Avenue (from left): Baby Beatrice in her purple cap; three friends pay their respects; Earl plays Prince hits from his bike.
I chat to a 29-year-old Minnesotan, soaking up the early-afternoon sunshine and good vibes alongside the Prince faithful. Her 5-month-old, Beatrice, has cheeks like full-size apples and is sporting a natty purple hat. Is this on purpose? Her mother says it very much is. For her, Prince was a late find. She’s almost apologetic for being here. “Not claiming to be the biggest fan, but, you know. It’s Prince.” I know, I tell her. There is a lot of purple around, but maybe Minnesotans like purple anyway? A Google search tells me the Minnesota Vikings’ colours are purple and gold and white. So I have to ask: Are you wearing purple for Prince, or is it just a coincidence? I feel foolish but every single person I stop says it’s deliberate. I spot three women in three different purples, all Minnesotans. He was special to them all. When I request an Uber to take me to Paisley Park, the little icons for the cars in the area are purple. I ask Twitter: Are the little Uber icons in Minneapolis always purple? Everybody outside Minneapolis reports that their icons are still black or silver.
Prince, man. He was magic.
After Michael Jackson died in 2009, radio stations went nuts playing his jams for a few days, before settling on "Man in the Mirror" as the tribute song. Twenty-four hours after Prince's departure, in Minneapolis we are still at the stage where all of his songs are getting played. It feels like all the cars passing us are blaring Prince. By 2pm I’ve heard the entirety of "When Doves Cry" in broken pieces from 12 different vehicles. But there’s early Prince and late Prince mixed in too. I’ve heard “Musicology”, and “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, and “Let’s Go Crazy”. When I come back to my hotel to recharge, the lobby is playing Controversy. From 6pm, local radio station The Current announces, it will play nothing but Prince – A through Z – for 26 hours.
Before that begins, though, I go to Paisley Park, Prince’s home-slash-studio, where his body was found in an elevator. My Uber driver is Abdirashid, a Somali man who moved here a decade ago (Minnesota apparently has the largest population of East Africans in the US). He turns up the radio when Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” comes on, and en route we talk about Prince, and how the musician was able to keep Donald Trump’s name off the radio for hours when his death was announced. Paisley Park is a sea of white news vans, plus cars marked “SHERIFF”, and police officers squinting in the afternoon sun. This crowd easily dwarfs the one at First Avenue; hundreds of people have gathered here. And then there’s all that purple. Shiny deep-purple helium balloons, reaching for heaven in the wind. Purple phone cases, purple socks, purple cardigans. There’s purple ombre hair, and felt purple hats (with black and white tiger stripes for the band). Purple bows and purple bags and purple eyebrows. There’s purple Mardi Gras necklaces and purple neckties and purple tutus and purple leg warmers. And around the neck of an intelligent-looking Border collie, there’s a purple bandana.
“It’s gonna be just like Elvis, you know,” I hear one woman telling her children. “This house is gonna become a museum.”
Briana, Tom, and their 19-month-old daughter Nia came to Paisley Park today because they’re fans – the couple went to see Prince live some months back. Nia is decked out all in purple, right down to her pacifier. “We never knew she had all this purple stuff!” says Tom. She looks smashing, fingers reaching for all those purple balloons.
I meet Valerie, and Edward, and Terri, who shows me, unsolicited, her profile picture changes on her social networks: all purple everything. They love my accent, ask incredulously if I’ve come all the way from London to Paisley Park, and then thank me for coming. When Valerie hugs me, she bursts into tears that in turn make me cry. She couldn’t bring herself to wear purple, she tells me, eyes wet. Not today. It might break her completely. Edward asks me to take a photo of him next to a photo of Prince. Each of us is looking for – and finding – comfort in one another. I can’t be cool. I’m a fan by nature, and of Prince specifically, and I just lost an important person.
The Prince video that lives in my skin is “Kiss” (That crop top! The silver waist-chain! The Cuban heels!), but my favourite song is a toss-up between “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “The Beautiful Ones”. And every time I hear “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” I cry. Prince was dirty, and cool, and confusing. Prince never felt safe – not safe to love, and not safe to consider a role model. When he changed his name to the symbol, my dad rolled his eyes, and so I did too. But I found the whole symbol phase fascinating – how dare he do this? It made no sense! He was the weirdo I wanted to be with, or just be. I fancied Prince, even as I knew he would devour someone like me – a generally timid, obedient person. Prince was everything. He was all the things. And this is something I had never thought to articulate before, because I assumed there would decades for me to gather all my thoughts and present them in prose.
After we all wander off, Edward finds me again. “She got you teary, didn’t she?” he says, chuckling. “She almost got me!”
My eyes leak again. And they keep leaking.
“I’ll take your photo if you’ll take mine,” a woman in a purple T-shirt says to a younger couple. “I don’t care who goes first.” (The couple go first.) I meet Tia and April, who are holding each other up and walking slowly to take in the many tributes. April has seen him all over the world. She is a wreck. Prince was her everything. “He is the centre of what’s made me happy, so my stability’s shaken right now,” she says, crying quietly. She speaks of him in the present tense. “What he does is just magical, and it’s one of a kind, and it will not happen again.” I meet Wayne, who is wearing a T-shirt with a photo of Prince performing his iconic set at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2007. He was born in 1958 too, he tells me, so he’s a lifetime fan. Michael Jackson was also a 1958 baby. “Michael gone, Prince gone,” he says. Just you left now, I reply unhelpfully. He nods and leans back in his wheelchair. “Yeah.” But he’s feeling good, he says. “The sun’s shining. This isn’t sad. Prince was here.”
It’s cheesy to say, but listen. The overwhelming feeling at Paisley Park is love. Every so often I make (reddened) eye contact with a stranger. For all the news crews, and the helicopters hovering overhead, and the SLR cameras and the phone cameras, there are spontaneous hugs everywhere. Group hugs, even. “I’m here just to say we were here,” I hear a middle-aged man in beige trousers say: “I thought there’d be more to it.” I think it’s perfect as is. The vast majority of us are just standing there, in purple clothes, clutching purple flowers or nothing at all. We’ve just come to commune with other Princely folk. That’s enough.
“I just want to go to Minneapolis,” says a beautiful woman at the train station at the beginning of the “Cream” video. I’d never heard of Minneapolis before Prince – it’s not one of those cities on the backs of perfume bottles. But Prince loved it here, and the proof of it is in the fact that he never left. “He could’ve lived anywhere in the world,” my second Uber driver of the day, Gregory, says on the way back to downtown Minneapolis. “But he didn’t leave.” Valerie said the same thing, and so did Wayne. He went all over the world, but he always came home to Minnesota.
“Last night,” says Colette on the front desk of my hotel, “there was so much purple on the ground, the sky was actually purple.” She nods twice when she sees my face. “Minnesota loves Prince.” At First Avenue, Ebony called his death “a punch in the stomach. It knocked the wind out of me.” This was a perfect love affair, in which everyone’s feelings were exactly equal, and perfectly reciprocated. Prince ❤ Minneapolis.
And Minneapolis ❤ Prince, even if people didn’t quite know – or refused to know – fundamental truths about Prince’s race. I overhear another conversation at Paisley Park, this time between two white men. “His father was black, his mother was Italian,” says one. “Yeah, he was definitely mixed-race,” the other agrees. They chat some more, but I wander away when the first guy starts talking about his Chinese girlfriend.
Whatever the fictions of Purple Rain, and those perhaps precipitated by the man himself in the early days, Prince was black. Like books, black lives, and albums, the truth matters. He was a black man, and everything he did was audacious. He was audacious and black. And that makes everything that he was all the more audacious. God bless his flawed human shell, but Prince was black. And standing outside First Avenue, and at Paisley Park, in a Midwestern city in America, I felt Prince’s blackness more keenly than ever. Prince knew he was black. All the black men and women and children who came out to pay their respects knew Prince was black. Those of us who loved “Black Sweat” knew he was black. The people who moved across state lines to live in Minneapolis, to be closer to him, to be in the place where he was from, they knew he was black. The people who acknowledge Prince’s ~problematic~ preferences for a certain hue and aesthetic when it came to his romantic partners, they knew he was black. Those of us who read about his insistence on having a black woman interviewer know he was black. The journalists he granted interviews following the National Association of Black Journalists convention knew he was black. Those of us who heard his idiosyncratic turns of phrase in his lyrics knew he was black.
Prince’s genius was his own, and it was also black genius. It was complex, textured, and layered. And it was black.
I love Prince’s blackness, and yours.
On Saturday morning, I begin to see reports that Prince was cremated on Friday. If true, it’s Classic Prince: a decisive end, and on his terms. I can’t be mad. No one can.
In the evening, I go to Target Field Station, to catch a free open-air screening of Purple Rain. It’s packed and, again, the purple is overwhelming. The hometown pride is even more warming than the mild night weather: Every time First Avenue comes into view, the crowd whoops. Next to me, a lady in a raspberry beret is fair bobbing with joy. It’s a quote-a-long, and people aren’t shy to join in: When The Kid tells Apollonia she has to purify herself “in the waters of Lake Minnetonka”, the crowd mumbles it too. And when she strips, we cheer at her bare breasts like we are teenage boys. We laugh again when he delivers the scene’s punchline: “That ain’t Lake Minnetonka.” During “The Beautiful Ones” we are all caught up, and when he writhes on the stage floor, agonised, we all applaud wildly, like it’s happening live for the first time ever. When he hits Apollonia, we gasp. When The Kid calls his father a motherfucker, we yell encouragement. “You never hear that on TV,” a man behind me murmurs happily. When The Kid and Apollonia ride off after knocking Morris on his arse, there’s full-on applause. It’s panto – and it’s glorious.
“He sweats pretty,” marvels another man standing near me. By the time The Time perform “The Bird,” the anticipation for the big finale is at fever pitch. “Shit’s about to pop off,” a tipsy woman behind me stage-whispers. “Purple Rain” happens, and we croon with the Revolution, our “whoo-hoo-hoos” off-tune and heavy with emotion. Some people are crying openly. All of us are smiling wide.
As we strut out of Target Field Station – and we are strutting – the PA plays “1999”, and our strutting gains new purpose. This is pop music. This is genius. This is black art.
Afterward, I go back to First Avenue, where the lights are purple, because I want to dance to Prince in a large room with other people who love Prince. There’ll be a dance party later, starting at 1:30am, an employee in a First Avenue T-shirt tells me, and the line tends to start forming at 10:30pm. I come back to join the line, which is about half a block away from the doors at 11:30pm, a fresh coat of blue lipstick on (I left the purple in New York). Downtown is buzzing so the people-watching makes queueing better. An hour later a small troupe of multiracial bikers come through on colourful machines. They noisily rev their engines again and again, and one plays “1999”. It’s like a scene from Burton’s Batman. But lines are boring, even when strangers named Johnny hit on you, and even when the “platonic friends” behind you sound like they want to be a lot more. And especially when it seems like everyone in Minneapolis is a chain smoker, making you constantly enveloped in smoke.
At 1:30, nothing happens. The two young black men who have been bashing away rhythmically on plastic buckets provide the soundtrack. By 2am, we’ve shuffled forward about 15 yards. At 2:20am, we can hear the bassline of "Kiss" and the streetlights keep flickering on and off. There’s talk of people pushing their way in at the front. The couple behind me fucked off long ago – “How about we go home and have our private Prince party?” she asked – and the people in front of me bow out just before 2:30, to catch a bus. It’s been three hours of standing, and I lean my screaming back (half-ruined by a career in retail) against the cool wall of First Avenue, somewhere beneath Alexander O’Neal’s star, and close to King Sunny Ade’s. I have taken no ~substances~ tonight, and that bad decision now sits in my lower back, killing me softly. My thigh is sporting a mysterious tender bruise. My jaw is grimly set. The people behind me are talking about getting a slice from a place close by. I break. It’s 2:40am.
Only Prince could’ve brought me to Minnesota. And really, only Prince’s death. I watched Purple Rain about four times this weekend, and was on the verge of tears every time, except for the last time, surrounded by Prince fans, when my tears flowed freely. I saw love on Minnesotan faces and heard love in Minnesotan voices when they spoke about Prince. People thanked me for coming, as if it were a burden, a particularly arduous task. But then I realised they were thanking me not as an etiquette thing, but as an acknowledgment of love. All of us, Prince fans, coming together to say thank you, and goodbye. We should all be so lucky to be so loved, so adored. I felt oddly proud to be a fan of such a singularly spectacular person. His legacy was everywhere this weekend, in the purple clothes, in the way we smiled at one another, and the way we pumped our fists in the air, proclaiming, “I WOULD / DIE 4 / U!”