Understanding the Politics of Prince’s Hair

By
Prince and his fire blow-out.

I remember when I first saw Prince. I was 7 or 8, and I was confused. My mind — naive, affixed to what society had told me to expect from men — couldn’t wrap itself around the idea that the velvety voice that sung about 1999 and red Corvettes came from the same man with the freshly laid hair.

As a child in a small town in Ohio, I knew few things for sure. I knew that men had short hair; men didn’t dye their hair; men didn’t do much at all to their hair, aside from brushing it so that it didn’t look messy. I knew from looking at my father that black men, especially, didn’t blow-dry their hair into fluffy masterpieces. Prince contradicted everything that I knew about men and hair, and I am better because of it.

Prince was royalty, and his hair was his crown. Photos of Prince in his teens show he chose to wear the popular hairstyle of the time — an Afro that grew concurrently with the years. He kept that hair for his first album cover, entering our world with the same picked-out, larger-than-life hair that he wore to exit it yesterday.

It was his second album, Prince, that I remember staring at as a child in bewilderment. His hair was full, straight but with body, and flipped at the ends. You might say it was the Farrah Fawcett do, but Prince did it better, and with a mustache. On the back of that same album, Prince is naked and riding Pegasus. He was good at so many things, and giving the middle finger to norms and expectations was one of them.

Some of my favorite Prince hairstyles took place during his curly-hair days. He wore it short with tight, bouncy curls. As a child, I saw the imagery for Purple Rain and it reminded me of my mother. For a time, she and Prince shared a hairstyle, like two pretty people might just happen to wear the same shirt.

It’s funny, because when I compare Prince to my mother, it sheds a light on the barriers that he so easily traversed. These days, if we say that Justin Bieber looks like Miley Cyrus, it’s meant as a joke because we know Justin wouldn’t like it. But when we say that Prince remotely resembled anyone, it’s taken as the highest praise, because, for him, crossing boundaries was a higher calling. He didn’t just climb over the wall that separates women from men; he rode over it, naked, on a winged horse.

I’m a black woman, so my understanding of what his hair meant to black men is limited, but I know that meaning was there. If I can guess, his freedom of expression — in hair, clothes, and style — was an invitation to others to bravely bend gender norms in a culture in which the laws of how to be a man are so deeply ingrained. For so long, little black boys have been told that they must achieve a kind of independent black manhood, one actively denied their fathers and grandfathers. This meant they must always behave a certain way, leaving no room for nonconformity. But Prince openly defied this notion and many, either consciously or subconsciously, followed suit.

For instance, when I look at Jaden Smith, with sprouts of blond at the crown of his head, I see Prince and his highlights from two decades before. When I see Lenny Kravitz embrace fashion and nonconformity, all the while wrapped up in being a sex symbol, I see Prince there too. Prince made it easier for everyone in his wake to be a little more open, and a little more weird. His eccentricity and willingness to shirk the benchmarks that were laid before him were gifts we never knew we needed, but ones that we thoroughly deserved.