'Black-Ish' Creator & 'Barbershop' Co-Writer Kenya Barris on Prince and His Own 'Purple Rain' Moments

Kenya Barris 2016
J. Countess/Getty Images Portrait

Kenya Barris poses for a portrait at the American Black Film Festival on June 14, 2015 in New York City. 

A year ago, Kenya Barris, who created the hilarious and daring ABC sitcom black-ish, made a $100 bet with the show’s executive producer, Jonathan Groff, that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for president.

“Sadly, Groff has to pay me now. He said he was gonna Venmo me the money. I was like, ‘No. I want cash. I don’t want to use that hipster shit,’” Barris says with a raucous guffaw.

Barris, who was born in South Central L.A., has an acute, wary eye for the machinations of pop culture. He climbed his way up the TV-writer ladder, from the Showtime series Soul Food to network sitcom gigs and finally, his own acclaimed show, which addresses verboten themes of racism and racial consciousness through the lives of the Johnsons, an upper-middle-class black family. (It’s not just a bold show, it’s also one of the funniest series on TV.)

In addition to black-ish, Barris, who’s 41, co-wrote the screenplay to Barbershop: The Next Cut, the fourth feature film in the Barbershop franchise. The movie, which opened six days before Prince died, includes a reference to the singer that now has additional resonance for ticket-buyers. Prince was a big part of Barris’ life for 30 years, and unsurprisingly, he has keen thoughts and insights about Prince’s death, sexuality, and wardrobe.

Billboard: What is the Prince reference in Barbershop: The Next Cut?

I don’t know if it was [producers and Prince colleagues] Jimmy Jam or Terry Lewis, but a while ago, one of them said, “Prince was the only guy in a blouse that could steal your girl.” That stuck with me, and it was the impetus for the line in the movie.

In the barbershop, they’re not sure whether or not Lamorne Morris’ character [Jerrod] is straight. He has a girl, Bree [played by Margot Bingham] who becomes a possible love interest in the film, and he says, “I’m straight – I just embrace both sides. I embrace my feminine side. Look at Prince – he wears heels, and he can still get it.”

That was the amazing thing about Prince. The lane he created for himself was I don’t give a fuck what anybody says about me. I’m uniquely original and confident, so yeah, I’ll put on a blouse and heels, and feather my hair. But I'm still the dude you don't want to turn your back on. I'm the dude that can hoop. I'm the dude that can play guitar.

In Purple Rain, you see Prince literally put on eyeliner and mascara. And he has, at the time, the baddest girl on the planet. There wasn’t a moment when you thought, “Why is she with him?” It’s almost counterintuitive: the makeup wasn’t emasculating, it only made him more masculine.

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It wasn’t the first time we saw a male singer in women’s clothes and makeup. So how was Prince different?

It harkens back to those Minnesota vibes of pimp shit. Pimps wear boots and hats, and have their hair pressed. It was like seeing pimp shit in a rock star.

White culture has Metallicas, Aerosmiths, and Rolling Stones. Black artists had to be a little more buttoned-up. Even in rap, for all the pompous braggadocious nature, it still is concerned with how other people feel about us, or what other people think we have.

Also, because the codes of masculinity are different, doesn't it take more balls for a black man to do that than a white man?

One hundred million percent. Blacks lost out on the counterculture movement. We were worried about civil rights at that time. Androgyny was not part of our fight and our struggle – we were on something else.

Even though Prince leans pop, he was an urban artist. He crossed over, but he was not Michael Jackson; he was funk.

So many things after him became derivative. And the whole metro[sexual] thing became pervasive. People tried to be Prince and wear the heels and a blouse, but it never quite worked like when he did it. When you see D’Angelo and Maxwell, people like that, they always seem derivative.

Warner Brothers/Courtesy Everett Collection
Prince in Under the Cherry Moon in 1986.

Did you ever meet Prince?

I met him several times. I've probably been to 20 concerts, including two of the living room concerts he did out here in L.A.

The last time I saw him live was at a hole-in-the-wall speakeasy called The Sayers Club. It’s a club behind a club, with live music on Friday nights. About 1 a.m., with no introduction, this dude comes onstage with huge sunglasses, a picked-out Afro, a jacket that looked like something a host in a Chinese restaurant would wear, and a broach.

He played the piano. He played the drums -- I didn’t know he could play the drums! And we kept looking at him, like, “Is that Prince?” ‘Cause you were not expecting it.

Another time, he was honored at the NAACP awards and he brought some people back to his house for an after party. I said, “Thanks for having me,” and he said, “Thanks for coming, enjoy yourself in my home.” He’s much smaller than I imagined -- I mean, Tom-Cruise-small -- but with an unbelievably deep speaking voice, like a 6’5” dude.

He came out in house shoes that had a heel on them, and in the middle of the living room, performed for 2 1/2 hours. And it was honestly surreal. I kept telling myself, “Be cool. Act like this happens all the time.”

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What was Prince’s house like?

It was the house that [NBA player] Carlos Boozer owned. People say Boozer got mad because Prince painted everything purple. The house was very white, very pristine, and had a Moroccan feel. If someone had kidnapped you and not told you where you were, you would’ve looked up and been like, “Is this Prince’s house?”

Also, he did a series of concerts at the Forum [in L.A.], maybe 25 concerts [starting in April, 2011]. You could get front row tickets for, like, $100. It was almost like, “What are you doing this weekend? Let’s go see Prince.” So in the last five or six years, there was a lot of Prince in my life.

Those who grew up with him always appreciated him, and now other people are catching on, too. I have a young friend who’s 23. He’s like, “I don’t know Prince.” He calls me and says, “Have you heard this song?” I’m like, “Are you playing ‘When Doves Cry’? Yeah, I know the song. The f--k are you talking about?” (laughs) Like most great artists, he’s appreciated more in death than in life.

When Purple Rain came out, you were only 10 or 11 years old. Did you see it in a movie theater?

I saw it about a year later, on Betamax at home. It was unbelievably inappropriate! But I also remember feeling moved by it, even at that time. You felt the passion that he had for his music. You felt the struggle.

He was living what we could only call a free life. He fucked whoever he wanted to fuck, he sang whatever he wanted to sing about, and he danced however he wanted to dance.

For kids, music and movies are clues to what adult life is like. You must have thought, “Wow, adults are crazy.”

Yes, that's a great way to put it. Ride around on a motorcycle, make love in the waters of Lake Minnetonka -- is this what my life is going to be like? It was the ultimate version of freedom. Oh my God, that movie was significant to me: I knew I didn't want to be a corporate guy. I knew I wanted to do something artistic, something that at its core was cool.

Last weekend, as inappropriate as it was, I made my two oldest daughters watch the movie with me. Of course, it’s never fun watching a dude have sex while you’re sitting with your daughters!

He wasn't the greatest actor, but he was himself. There was a naturalness and effortlessness. Even during the years when you didn’t feel his music as much, you never were like, “It’s wack.” You thought, “Oh, he’s on his Prince shit.”

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Barbershop: The Next Cut opened on April 15, and Prince died six days later. A lot of people say they cried or got chills when they heard him mentioned in the movie. You’re part of his death.

I'm not a real backpacker type dude, but I am into energy. I read a book recently about coincidence – it said we created the word “coincidence” because we could not understand why things happen. But it's been mathematically proven that coincidence is impossible.

He had started writing his memoir and he had been performing again, on a piano and a mic tour. If the movie is spawning feelings like you described, maybe it speaks to that idea of “coincidence.”

You mentioned Michael Jackson. Wasn’t his music as much of a touchstone in people’s lives?

The debate was always, who’s better, Prince or Michael Jackson? It became pretty clear that Prince won. He was the people's champ. He was a touchable star, and I think that probably brought with it a lot of pressure. As devastated as I was about Michael Jackson -- and I was -- Prince’s death felt more unreal. I felt closer to him. It's f--ked up to say, but I kind of saw Mike’s death coming, He had some troubled times. Like when Charlie Sheen announced he had AIDS, there was no real shock. He almost didn't have to announce that. He could have Tweeted it.

But with Prince, it seemed like he was going to grow old with us.

So has your adult life been just like Purple Rain?

F--k, no! (laughs) But I will say this: I’ve had my Purple Rain moments. As a black guy, he was our rock star. There are moments when you feel like you’re making a movie in your own life, and you say to yourself, “This is my rock star moment.” As a black guy, when you call yourself a rock star, you call yourself Prince.