Prince by George M Johnson
Illustration by Elena Durey
George M. Johnson is a Journalist and Activist located in the NYC area. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, EBONY, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News and several other major publications, covering race, gender, health, and pop culture. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram
My heroes that were stolen. The Heroes that taught me I was one too.
Who is your hero George? Oddly enough, I feel like I haven’t been asked this question in some time, and can’t even remember who I named as that person when I was a child. My assumption would be my mother, because she is the strongest person I know. However, as I got older I realized that she was mother, and now even better my friend so the “hero” category seemingly got erased for most folks I looked up to growing up. However, in a bittersweet moment, the day I found my hero was his last day on Earth, and for that I’m forever changed.
April 21, 2016 would be that day when I realized what it was like to lose someone you didn’t know but always held as the person you aspired to be. The person that saved you when you weren’t able to save yourself, and serve as a reminder that your existence was necessary and needed. When Prince died, I didn’t think that it would hit me the way that it did. I remember being at work going from office to office discussing it with my co-workers. Working at an agency of majority Black gay/queer fox, it was therapeutic as we all found a common bond in his loss. What I didn’t expect was for was the connection I would feel, not so much to his music as much as I did to his being.
From childhood, I’ve always known that I was different, and because of that I did everything in my power to protect myself from so many who couldn’t understand. I recall as a child seeing Prince in the infamous Yellow suit. It was during the 1991 VMA’s when he took to the stage in the ass-less pant suit that set the world of entertainment ablaze, as there was no social media back then. It resonated with me, as the infatuation began with me seeing another man be so carefree. I was just a boy, but I knew that people like me existed and that if I could make it to being an adult, I too could exist.
Prince was a radical music icon that often blurred the lines of sexuality, androgyny, and made weird cool. He sold over 100 million records worldwide, won 7 Grammy Awards, and even an Oscar for his film Purple Rain. He was defiant, unapologetic and took on the music industry; at one point changing his name to “The Artist formally known as Prince” and then a symbol after a contractual dispute with Warner Brothers. He was eclectic, over the top, wore makeup and heels without being defined by his choices in appearance.
I was about 7 years old when I really knew that life was going to be a little bit harder for me, after a situation happened at elementary school over my use of the word “honey child” to other students. I was smart but very sassy for a “boy”, and during the early 90’s that was not something people were used to. So, I retreated and did my best to mask it with the use of sports and academics, trying to be best at both so that people would be less likely to pick on me. I still never looked at Prince as my hero, but more as my reflection. I gravitated to female singers and celebs and friends who shared my same effeminate ways, but knew that my visibility would exist one very similar to Prince.
The day he died, I went through emotions I had never felt before. I recall calling my Aunt whose favorite artist was Prince. We were talking and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I began crying uncontrollably and said, “He was the first person I remember being just like me and now he’s gone.” It was the moment that I realized that as a Black Queer child, I wasn’t allowed to have a hero that was “weird.” I wasn’t allowed to have a life where I could publically idolize someone who wasn’t straight and masculine. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I had hero’s that had been stolen from me. From Alvin Ailey, to Sylvester, to Marsha P. Johnson there were these people who existed publicly and proudly like me, that I was never meant to see. Prince’s death however, taught me that if I didn’t continue to live my life publicly, some other child’s hero would be stolen too.
As a public figure living my life as a Queer person of color, it is important that I remain steadfast in my visibility and representation for next set of children who are deserving to have a hero in many of us. Our stories being shared in media will continue to drive and dictate the narratives needed to nurture their survival. They deserve to have a chance at having someone to look up to and idolize, as a direct reflection that people like them exist and that they too have people willing to takes societies blows so that they may have it a little bit easier.
It was only as an adult that I was able to learn about my hero’s, and now their stories, music, media, and lives continue to be a blueprint and roadmap for me. I like to think it was meant to be this way, and if it hadn’t been I might not be the person that I am today.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.