Communal singing used to be an integral part of American public life. There’s something profoundly democratic about it — a chorus of voices singing in unison, the crowd erasing the flaws in each individual voice. You can still get flashes of it here and there: at churches, protests, baseball games, any karaoke bar where Journey is playing. But none of these could compare to Thursday night in Brooklyn, where hundreds of strangers came together to remember Prince by singing his songs in the warm spring air.
I was in charge of writing Vulture’s first obit for Prince, an hour-long sprint to fit 57 years of life into a few hundred words. After I finished, I was exhausted. I put on all the Prince songs I had on iTunes — no streaming for him — and had a one-man dance party in my living room. You can do a mean shimmy-shake to “Kiss” if no one’s watching, but that’s not the right way to remember Prince. Prince makes you want to go out. Luckily, I live only a few blocks away from the offices of 40 Acres and a Mule, where Spike Lee was hosting a massive block party for Prince. “Follow the music,” a friend’s tweet said, and off I went into the night.
You could tell it was a scene right away. News trucks were parked at the corner of South Elliott and Lafayette, their giant lights illuminating the block, which was packed full of people everywhere: hanging from fences, jamming on stoops, sitting politely on the tops of cars. It was a crowd without a center; the crowd was the center. People held their phones up in every direction taking pictures, but there was nothing to take photos of, no stage, no screen. Off in the distance, Spike stood on a stoop, the master of ceremonies in a purple T-shirt and a Brooklyn Dodgers hat. You could take a photo of him if you wanted, just to mark the experience, but it wasn’t going to turn out good.
Prince’s music was blaring from speakers somewhere. We dipped our toes in slowly. Some of us bobbed our shoulders, pockets of people clapped, the drunkest guys tried to dance. I swayed back and forth and appreciated the diversity of the scene, which was New York in the very best of ways: moms and babies; hipsters of all races and creeds; every variety of natural hair; dudes who looked like they walked in off the set of Entourage; people who dressed like they came from the club; people who dressed like they came from doing laundry; at least one woman who was a dead ringer for Elizabeth Warren. In a neighborhood where there are still white bars and black bars, we were all together, because of Prince.
At one point, a young woman, used to the way things normally work in 21st-century New York City, ventured deeper into the crowd: “Is this the line to get in?” There was no line, we told her, no “in.” She was there.
We loosened up. At “Nasty Girl,” a woman in the crowd told her friend, “This is my getting-ready song!” At “Let’s Go Crazy,” the scream that greeted “Dearly beloved …” was so loud Spike had to start it all over again. Oh no, let’s go! Someone waved a Prince umbrella. A drone flew overhead. Two girls behind me made fun of someone — it might have been me — for only knowing the chorus to “1999.” If you craned your neck, you could see people in the apartments above us jamming out, too; our joy was swallowing every New York City story, even Rear Window.
Spike put on “7,” a cathartic song about death and rebirth. We clapped along in unison; like any large crowd, we were a half-beat behind.
I am yours now and you are mine
And together we’ll love through all
Space and time, so don’t cry
One day all seven will die
Now we were in it. A woman behind me, FaceTiming: “Kid, you’re missing this! It’s epic!” The hits were coming in rapid succession, and you could tell it was close to the end. During “Delirious,” a bunch of teens started a conga line to cut through the crowd. At “Kiss,” a spontaneous Electric Slide broke out. For “When Doves Cry,” the crowd took turns singing the lead vocals and the backup. You know-ee-oh-ee-oh he’s too bold!
Then the finale. I climbed up onto the fence of the bar next door and felt like I was 50 feet tall; a crowd always seems more majestic when you’re above it. People below waved constellations of lit-up phones as Spike played “Purple Rain.” We all knew the words to this one. As the song wrapped up, the woman on the other side of the fence told me she hoped he’d play it again. She was a mind-reader: He did. This time, at the end, he cut the music out completely so it was just our voices: I only wanted to see you underneath the purple rain. I grabbed the fence tight, swaying gently to the beat.