I spent a lot of years wanting to feel the holy spirit. I tried all the religions in North Carolina and never happened upon it until a Prince concert in Greensboro, NC.
Genius was as close as I ever came to god.
There is the kind of genius that works hard. You see Michael Jackson’s sweat and tears. Beyonce wears her hard work like a badge. They tell you that with hard work you could be great, too. You put them on your playlist to suit for the game.
Then there’s genius that makes the impossible seem inevitable. It is effortless. You can never attain it. You can’t earn it or deserve it. You can only float in it for a time. That was Prince Rogers Nelson.
Even when he was sweating he wasn’t working; he was channeling. Spirit, magic, wonder, awe, grace, the holy spirit — he was both a master and a vessel. You could work hard all of your life and never be his kind of genius.
Today, there doesn’t seem to be any of Prince’s kind of genius left in the world. The wonder is gone. All that’s left is the hustle. I don’t knock the hustle but it is a very particular strain of creative genius. It is neoliberal, if you’re into that. It’s Reagonomics and Thatcherism and moderates and centrists and incrementalism with a beat. It’s the genius of our time.
Prince’s genius was another time, when it still seemed possible for greatness to use the system without bowing to it. Neoliberalism was still just one fork in a road when Prince made his first album. We weren’t jaded yet. I didn’t know what weaves were. I don’t think there was any photoshop. We didn’t know the ins-and-outs of music economics or have celebrity social media.
Genius could incubate, like schools could teach music and hip hop could still maybe revolutionize the hood. Borrowing from Lester Spence, Prince knocked the hustle that’s taken over our cultural imagination:
The ideas represented in the “I’m a business, man” lyric strike Spence as an instance of popular culture reproducing a political idea and story: Successful people work hard and get ahead by investing in their human capital, and people who aren’t successful simply aren’t working hard enough to do that. Recall President Barack Obama on the 2014 midterm elections campaign stump, lamenting that “if Uncle Jethro would get off the couch and stop watching SportsCenterand go register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics.” In other words: The problem with black people is not that the economic and political infrastructure has anything wrong with it, but that they’re not doing enough for themselves.
I am distraught at the loss of genius. Prince isn’t just gone, his death is an ending. I am sure every generation feels this way and it is only just my turn up at bat. In thirty years today’s young people will eulogize Fetty Wap and Beyonce the same way. They’ll say it is an end of an era.
I’m sure they’ll be right. Still, the end of Prince’s transcendent genius feels like we have taken the fork in the road. There are no more unknowable geniuses. I know what stars eat for lunch and what they want me to believe that they shop. Celebrity may donate to social movements and causes, but it doesn’t sacrifice its peak earning years by branding themselves slaves to free others. Performers honor street culture and put their new artists on, but they don’t build an infrastructure for creativity where new genius can incubate. Prince did these things as an act of radical love. Love. It’s the only thing that can knock the hustle.
We took the road most traveled and there are no detours for the foreseeable future. That kind of genius died today and with it went my faith.
Love come quick/Love come in a hurry/There are thieves in the temple tonight -Prince