i was born in 1978. i know, i don’t look like a seasoned 37-year-old. black don’t crack is factual. i’m so happy i was born when i was. it meant i grew up in the magical 80s and matured in the golden 90s and i was blessed to have some of the best music of all time score my childhood. between luther vandross, michael jackson, whitney houston, and prince, i was shaped by some of the GOATs. that is why it is so hard to accept that all four of them are gone.
music is a heart language. it seeps into your consciousness and attaches to your emotions. no matter what emotion you find yourself struggling to make sense of, music understands and can either take you deeper into your connection to that emotion or lift you out of its depths. music can stromb your pain or help you find your voice. music can remind you how strong you are while helping you gain perspective. music can give you permission to cry when falling apart is the best thing you can do to heal your broken heart. music gives us the ability to be fully whole and fully human with all that entails.
when we lose these iconic symbols of artistry and creativity and bravery, we mourn on multiple levels. some people don’t understand why the loss of what are ultimately strangers impacts us so deeply. why do we feel like we lost a friend, family member, or close confidant?
Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.
— Juliette (@ElusiveJ) January 11, 2016
i can’t express to you how much truth there is in those words. even now, as i watch video after video, i think back to how i felt when i heard these songs, what my life was like when i memorized those words, what i internalized about myself when i saw the images. what i believed was possible when i saw how they were celebrated or rejected. it goes deep. so, i want to take a few minutes to honor the place of these music icons in my life.
luther vandross. when i was a little girl, my dad would put on his favorite records and sing to me as we danced around the room. i particularly cherish those memories because those moments were not a consistent thing in my life. my father struggled with addiction and there were large chunks where he just wasn’t there. i cling to the moments when he was. so, these dance lessons, where i was allowed to be the apple of his eye mean the world to me. and more times than not, the music we found ourselves spinning around the room to was belted from the sultry, smooth lips of luther vandross. when my dad sang to me (bless his heart he can’t sing), i knew i was loved. and those moments of dancing with my dad opened up the world of dance to me as a way to express love. the very first time i performed in a talent show, i was dancing to the luther vandross song stop to love. to this day, when i want to hear what it sounds like to sing of love and longing, i break out my luther collection and soak him in because a chair is not a house, and a house is not a home when there’s no one there. to hold you tight. and there is no one there you can kiss goodnight.
michael jackson. my first concert ever was to michael jackson bad. the concert was on feb 24, 1988. it was a wednesday night and i was at church like i was every wednesday night. my mom came and got me and my older brother from class early and said she had a surprise. that surprise was floor seats to see michael jackson. back then, the coolest thing in the world was to be michael jackson. not only was he talent personified, but he was black excellence. michael jackson was shattering records faster than new ones could be set. we hung on to every word, every move, every fashion trend. when i was in kindergarten, we sang we are the world on the front steps of city hall. like 300 black kids on the city hall steps in kansas city telling people to take notice because we were the future they were dealing and trading away inside those very walls. michael gave us permission to be seen.
whitney houston. i don’t care how tone-deaf i was growing up, i just knew i could sing like whitney houston. do you remember the first time you heard the greatest love of all on the radio? i believe the children are the future. teach them well and let them lead the way. show them all the beauty they possess inside. give a sense of pride to make it easier. let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be. how much truth there? black kids needed to constantly be told of our beauty and potential because the world was intent on beating it out of us. whitney said i’m going to live as i believe and no matter what they take from me they can’t take away my dignity. i internalized the hell out of that song. and what about when whitney sang the national anthem at the super bowl. there has never, ever been a more lit performance of the star-spangled banner. period. it was epic. here voice was epic. and for us little dark black girls, she proved that we could be epic, too.
prince. the first time i watched purple rain, i had no idea what i was watching. i shouldn’t have even been watching. but i did. and i remember thinking how weird prince looked and i wasn’t sure if he was a girl or a boy, but all my older cousins loved him so i loved him. prince gave black kids across the country permission to be weird and different and black. in the 80s, there was so much going on in our communities. some days it was like living in a war zone. dodging bullets wasn’t something we learned from gangsta rap. it was a survival skill. prince represented an alternative to the macho bravado of gangbanging. he said we could be sexual, gender-ambiguous, rebellious, and genius all while being black. there wasn’t just one or two ways to be black. we had options. we could be authentic to the beautiful souls we were given at birth and fuck whoever didn’t understand it. but the music. my goodness the music. i have zero musicality but what prince rogers nelson gave the world, i have no words. the last time i saw prince in concert was a few years ago in seattle. he performed at the tacoma dome and it was a nonstop dance party with a room full of people who just got it. we were in the presence of greatness and we all did our best to take it in. as i think on all the prince songs that have enjoyed regular rotation in my headphones or speakers over the years, i stop at the most beautiful girl in the world. i never really felt beautiful growing up. i had bad skin. my hair would fall out for no reason whatsoever. i was darker than practically everyone in my family. and i just always felt awkward. but this song dared me to ask if i could be the most beautiful girl in the world, the very reason god made girls in the first place. this whole concept was revolutionary for me.
obviously, these four legends are not the only artist who shaped my childhood. there were many more. some are still alive, others are not. but these four in particular hold special places in my heart. they were my artists. i invested in their music. i memorized their lyrics. i saw them in concert. they meant something to me. and now, they are all gone. the fact that they were all so young is not lost on me. this life we have is precarious it is not promised at all. when i think of all the things these four did accomplish in their short lives, i understand what it means to live your calling. they weren’t perfect, as none of us are, but what they had to offer the world, they gave so freely. i’m taking a moment to reflect on my own gifts. how freely do i share them with the world? not all of us are called to be legends, beloved by millions, but all of us are destined to matter. my life matters. your life matters. the time and space that we occupy together matters. we have to make it count because our time is finite. if we do life right, our impacts will be infinite in reach and span.
rest in peace prince. you are joining many who have come and gone before you. and like them, we will carry you in our hearts and our memories for ever.