From the moment that Prince’s death was made public, there has been much speculation about how the seemingly healthy superstar, who held a party at Paisley Park and wound up dead there 48 hours later.. Seemingly from the moment the news seared through social media, loose chatter began to circulate about was the cause of Prince’s untimely passing.
When Brian Williams interviewed Aretha Franklin on MSNBC that afternoon, the Queen of Soul contributed her own diagnosis. “They’re saying flu-like symptoms,” Franklin said. “I’m wondering if it has anything to do with this Zika virus.” In the forthcoming days and weeks, loose lips would declare that Prince was some kind of addict, that he had AIDS, that he was murdered or he was a blood sacrifice for the so-called Illuminati.
“It’s almost like the children’s game ‘telephone’ where one person says one thing, but by the time it gets to the last person it has become something completely different,” Tonya Pendleton, contributing editor for Black American Web, says. Since Prince’s passing, Pendleton, a fan since she was a teenager, has filed many stories covering the various death theories. “From the very beginning of his career, Prince has been known for his clean living lifestyle, but now there are all these contradicting reports about doctors and pills that are just crazy. It’s like some people are just trying to trash him. But, in the same way that the Beyhive rides for Beyoncé, the Purple Army is down to defend Prince and his music.”
While I’ve been a Prince fan since 1980, prior to Tonya mentioning the Purple Army, I’d never thought about what to call similar folks who’d been devoted fans for decades: buying B-sides, hanging posters on their walls, collecting obscure bootlegs, reading every biography on the market and trying to catch every concert.
In the wake of his death, while others were diving deep in the murky waters of accusations and innuendo, members of the Purple Army were losing themselves in the genius music Prince had made steadily since the 1970s. “Regardless of the rumors, whether true or not, the man was fierce,” former Klymaxx member/producer Bernadette Cooper says. “Prince set the bar and represented freedom of diva expression for me. He was our James Brown, Little Richard, and Jimmy Hendrix all wrapped up in a petite purple package with heels.”
Still, no matter how devoted we are to the music, the rumors are impossible to ignore. “The one that really got me was Sinéad O’Connor saying that Arsenio Hall was Prince’s drug connection,” singer/songwriter Daniel Chavis of rock group the Veldt. Hall has since filed suit against O’Connor for the accusations. Having first seen Prince live on August 3, 1982 in Raleigh Durham, North Carolina, Chavis remembers that first show well. “Prince came out on stage singing ‘Sister’ and that was it; I was completely changed. He was inspiring to me, but now it seems as though some people just want to demean his name.”
Graphic novelist Lance Tooks says, “I think if Prince had been, like the worst of the rumors suggest, an opiate junkie for 35 years, we certainly would’ve heard something about it before now. Prince was such a cranky little dude, he left behind more than one disgruntled ex-employee. Yet not once have we heard a peep about Prince and drugs before now. Being so uninhibited about his earthly desires was a major part of his output, so I doubt his muse would let him lie about narcotic satisfaction.”
In fact, in Rick James’ autobiography Glow, the Motown punk-funkster made fun of Prince’s famed sobriety when they travelled together on the Fire it Up tour in 1980. It was that tour where funk/soul expert Dr. Scot Brown, a professor of History and African American Studies at UCLA, first saw Prince perform, but it wouldn’t be the last time. “I went to them all: Controversy, Purple Rain. I remember the 1999 tour, because he came on stage to that robotic voice from the record saying, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you, I only want you to have some fun.’ And the place went into a frenzy. Prince always protected the live concert as a special place. There was always a theme and it was always worth seeing.”
Currently finishing the non-fiction tome Tales from the Land of Funk: Dayton, Ohio, Professor Brown (like many of us) has heard about the Illuminati videos and footage of activist Dick Gregory spouting conspiracy theories. “We have to ask, why are these stories out there and why are they appealing to people. Because, there is so much corruption in the world, these stories become believable to certain people. Prince wasn’t just a musician, he was a poet, he was a politically conscious thinker and he was about Black empowerment. Prince challenged the corporate structure at Warner Brothers more once. In that context, it’s a fertile ground for speculation and creative thinking.”
Thankfully all the negative press has been balanced with countless tributes that include magazine and newspaper covers, talk show salutes and countless unreleased tracks surfacing online. Prince, unlike many of his peers, kept making new music while preserving his legacy. Depending on who is controlling the rights of the tracks stashed in various vaults, the next few years could see a treasure trove of purple music coming our way. “He was just prolific like that,” Brown says. “Being a creative musician wasn’t a job for Prince, it was who he was.”
C. Leigh McInnis, an instructor of English at Jackson State University, has been a fan of Prince since the Mississippi native lived next-door to what he described as some hoodlum Black rockers who blasted Dirty Mind constantly. “Prince has stayed relevant all these years, because he never stopped growing as an artist and as a human being. He never stopped asking, ‘what is life and what is my position in this life.’ He was so great, because he worked so hard.”
While I’ve watched a few of the conspiracy videos and stared at the gaudy covers of supermarket tabloids, for me, the music is the only aspect of Prince’s life that concerns me.
“For true (Purple Army) fans, nothing will destroy his legacy as a musician, artist advocate and a man,” soulhead.com owner Ron Worthy says. “Prince is important because he stretched boundaries and his influence will only grow more over time.”