My memory really sucks. People in my life know this and have come to accept it. But the memories that I can always rely on are the ones marking points in my life in which music has affected me in some way. Having such a huge musical upbringing, I’ve always had the discography of an artist’s music on-hand like a soundtrack for my range of emotions. I’ve also witnessed how influential an artist’s work can be for other people as well. Some moments stick with you through music forever. My dad relied on Marvin Gaye and Al Green to articulate his highs. My brother connected with Jay Z’s coming-of-age and Babyface’s coy smoothness. I can even remember my mother shushing me because Whitney Houston was about to belt out the note. You know the one.
“I Will Always Love You” was a household staple that my mother held close. And when Whitney sat in the middle of nowhere, isolated with that build-up of silence, something big was about to happen. She sang like it would be the last time we’d ever hear her. Whitney was, for my mom and for many others, a temporary escape. When she passed away, my mother was sad, and understandably so. There are levels of nostalgia when an artist passes away that I have witnessed firsthand, and I don’t understand what’s wrong with openly being vulnerable to that loss.
This week we lost Prince. He was one of the most iconic, recognizable figures to ever do music but somehow I found myself in conversation with someone who couldn’t understand people’s sadness. The person couldn’t fathom how an artist, especially one that was so private, could affect so many with his passing when they didn’t personally know him. But that can just be chalked up to the power of music.
An artist that shared 39 albums with us and a lifetime of music that may have gotten some of us through some trying times, whether as an escape or as a mirror to our emotions. A talent that left his soul on the stage every time he performed, and exemplified bravery with his presence. Bravery that challenged his listeners to be comfortable in their skin. I wasn’t even allowed to listen to Prince, and that made him all the more intriguing. Songs like “Darling Nikki,” where he recounts meeting a girl who masturbated to a magazine, just weren’t gonna fly for my young ears. But when I grew up, I explored his discography like a lost art.
It’s a feeling of satisfaction to have a song, or better yet, an entire album, express emotions that you have felt but couldn’t articulate yourself. I’ve had this feeling time and time again. After a recent breakup, I delved deep into D’Angelo’s discography. Not necessarily because it was especially relatable, but because it took me to a place of Zen. I listened to Anita Baker because she sounded like comfort. She sang with an “everything is gonna be okay” tone, and I believed her because her vocals were assurance. We’ve all been there. So over time, what naturally happens is you form a connection with the person that you feel so distinctly gets you, or at least shares your sentiments. Whether it’s temporary or long-term grief, for your own reason, losing that voice can leave emptiness.
“Movies are real! Music is real! It affects people, it’s real.” – Prince
Following Prince’s death, Spike Lee held a celebration in Brooklyn for the legendary singer, where attendees celebrated his life through his music. MTV’s Gaby Wilson was on-hand to ask fans what Prince, as an artist, meant to them, and the emotion captured was a multitude of feelings. Each fan visibly displayed affection that was candid and overwhelming.
Walking through Harlem just two days after his passing, I could feel the grievance in the air. Fans of all different colors, background, and walks of life shared the same sentiments, with different reasoning for their attachments. As sad as it was, it was also a celebration for a man who brought people together with his craft.
If you are numb to the idea of artists passing away because it is “part of life” and “it happens”, as some have said, that’s fine. Just try not to scrutinize the ones that had a deeper connection. Music, for most of us, is therapeutic. A world without Michael Jackson, James Brown, Whitney Houston, and Prince, 15 years ago seemed unimaginable, but here we are. The great thing worth embracing, is that they selflessly shared their gifts, and I’ll cherish them forever. All it takes is one song.