Thursday, October 4, 2018

"Tonight, We Video" - Interview with Scott McCullough

"His music is his prayers." 

Photo courtesy of Scott McCullough

At one point during his time working for Prince, director Scott McCullough made the mistake of telling Prince what he assumed they'd do.

"He stopped and said, 'Never assume anything,'" McCullough recalled. "And he just walked away." 

It was great advice, according to McCullough, and it applies to my book and all other writing on Prince. We have our theories, but we don't really know what was in Prince's mind. All I can do with my work on Prince's spiritual journey is interview as many people as I can, study his art and present the results for the public to interpret.

To that end, McCullough and I had a great conversation about the spiritual content in Prince's music, the vibe at Paisley Park and much more. As always, I have to save major details for the book, but I can share some tidbits here.

I was especially excited to talk to McCullough because he began working for Prince on one of the superstar's most spiritual projects, the 1990 film Graffiti Bridge. McCullough helped coordinate casting, but didn't interact with Prince.

"My only connection with Prince was that he used my cell phone on occasion through his security," he said. 

That quickly changed; McCullough worked as Prince's camera operator, cinematographer and director for more than 25 projects in the early 1990s. He shot music videos like "Sexy M.F." (leading lady Troy Byer is #stylegoals), "Gangster Glam" (one word: mankini), "Gett Off (Houstyle)," "Call the Law" and, my favorite, "Violet the Organ Grinder."

"I held back on showing people because of its nature," McCullough said of the latter. "It's almost x-rated."

McCullough and I talked about the juxtaposition of sexuality and spirituality in Prince's catalog, and whether it ever became a source of internal conflict for the artist.

"He likes the contradiction, from my perspective," McCullough said. "He wants to raise eyebrows."

McCullough described a workplace environment similar to Prince's ex-wife Mayte Garcia's description in her book: A lot of footage was shot with little knowledge of how it would be used.

"I asked, 'How is this gonna work?' And you wouldn't get an answer, so you'd have to just guess and make it look as good as possible," McCullough said. "Maybe he didn't even know, either. ... We shot like another whole big section for '7.' ... That was thrown to the side for some reason that I will never know."

For one assignment, McCullough was told to film the exterior of Prince's father's house. "We're shooting the house and his father just steps out and looks at us and says, 'Get out of here!'" McCullough said. "I'm like, 'You didn't call your dad to say we're showing up?'"

McCullough quit working for Prince after a conflict with a competing camera crew in London on the 1992 Diamonds and Pearls tour.

"The next morning, I told the producer to send me home because I was done," he said.

McCullough sent Prince a thank-you letter but wasn't sure if it was received. He moved on with his career, directing commercials and film and TV projects.

"I would listen to music that [Prince] would release, and I really felt like I would love to work with him again," he said. "I'd go see his concerts and wish that I could say hi to him or talk to him, but it's not like that. ... He probably forgot about me."

Like everyone else, McCullough was "devastated" after learning of Prince's death. But he'll always have fond memories of working with a one-of-a-kind talent. And being able to ask folks like McCullough to consider Prince in new ways has been a blessing for me.

"I was part of the process and part of the history of this genius," McCullough said. "And it's really interesting to go back and think, 'What did this mean?'"

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

"Big City" - "Prince from Minneapolis" Presentation

Back in April, I participated in the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium at the University of Minnesota. Check out my presentation, "Willing to do the Work: The Spiritual Mission of Prince, 1990-2016," and some more information below.

This is essentially part two of my research; I presented on Prince's spiritual journey through the 1980s at the Purple Reign Conference last year.

It was really interesting digging into Prince's spirituality during the 1990s. He studied myriad Eastern religions, as well as mystical and esoteric concepts before becoming a Jehovah's Witness.

Many fans are wondering how committed Prince was to the Jehovah's Witness faith before he died. I visited his Kingdom Hall in Minneapolis, and I was able to provide a bit more clarity on that in my presentation.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

"Eye No" - Lovesexy Symposium Presentation

Earlier this month I was invited to present at the Prince Lovesexy Symposium, which was hosted at NYU in celebration of the album's 30th anniversary.

As part of the Spirituality panel, I spoke on Lovesexy as Prince's first major declaration of Christian faith. Check out the video, and some additional details below.

I had a wonderful time, and learned a lot from the other presenters, as well as the keynote speakers, which included Ingrid Chavez, Cat Glover, Matt Fink, Chuck Zwicky and Joe Blaney. You can watch footage from the rest of the symposium at the links below.

Opening Keynote Day 1

Spirituality Panel Day 2

Style Panel Day 2

Saturday, May 19, 2018

"Cross the Line" - Interview with Ingrid Chavez

"It just seemed like, in his mind, he was always balancing that thing between love and sex and God."

Photo courtesy of Ingrid Chavez

It was Friday, April 20. I was sitting in a French bistro in Edina, Minneapolis, minutes away from the house Prince rented in the late 1970s. Just a couple hours earlier, I'd been crying my way through a tour of Prince's final home, Paisley Park. Days before, I was presenting my life's work--my research on Prince's spirituality--at the University of Minnesota.

And then, in walks Ingrid Chavez, Prince's "Spirit Child," who inspired a pivotal moment in his spiritual journey in the late 1980s. My life was a dream.

Of course Chavez knows all about alternate realities. She lived in Prince's world for an intense, three-month period beginning in December 1987 after they met in a club. They inspired each other through the art they created; Chavez shared her poetry with Prince, who, in turn, composed its musical accompaniment.

The fruits of their labor became Chavez's May 19, 1992 album, released in 1991. And Prince was moved to shelve the dark, explicit Black Album, and release the upbeat, spiritual Lovesexy project, which arrived in 1988 with his nude picture on the cover, and references to Jesus and "Spooky Electric" (arguably Satan) in the songs.

"I feel like somebody will blame me for his weird period," Chavez said, laughing and looking as gorgeous and vibrant as she did on the Graffiti Bridge VHS tape my family wore out in the 1990s.

As the fan community celebrates the 30th anniversary of Lovesexy (I'll be presenting at a symposium at NYU Tandon dedicated to the album in a couple weeks), it's easy to forget the album was not a resounding success. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, it was Prince's lowest-charting album in several years, and the accompanying tour saw lower attendance than previous outings.

And the aforementioned Graffiti Bridge, Prince's 1990 movie co-starring Chavez, fared poorly at the box office.

Still, both Lovesexy and the Graffiti Bridge movie and soundtrack were important spiritual statements for Prince, and the time he spent with Chavez was a catalyst. She characterized that period as an innocent exploration of "God and love and sexuality."

"We were like children who were free from all the stuff that we were taught, and so we got to spend that time remaking it for ourselves," she said.

Chavez and I talked further about Prince's beliefs on the subject matter, and his reaction when he first heard her spoken-word recording "Cross the Line," which he later used in his Lovesexy tour (more on that in my book).

"You could see that he was just wide open to whatever was coming to him," Chavez said. "He was just open to the signs like, 'I'm listening. What are you telling me, universe? What's next for me?' And I happened to be dropped into that."

But being in Prince's world wasn't without its challenges, especially when one is viewed as a muse. Chavez played the part of an angel in Graffiti Bridge, but Prince also expected her to fit a certain mold offscreen. Chavez and I discussed those limitations, as well as the capricious nature of the environment.

"When you're in and you're with him ... it's like heaven," Chavez said. "And then when you're not it's like you've been cast from heaven."

After parting ways with Prince, Chavez started a family and continued her music career (fun fact, she wrote Madonna's song "Justify My Love" with Lenny Kravitz). This summer she will release a new album, Memories of Flying. The track "You Gave Me Wings" is a tribute to Prince that recalls that magical winter 30 years ago.

"He gave me wings," Chavez said. "I took off after that."

Monday, May 7, 2018

"Up in Funkytown" - Prince from Minneapolis Symposium Recap

"I think God puts you in the place you’re supposed to be. Flying back from a concert tour from around the world and you look down over the land and all the beautiful lakes and it just feels like home, that this is where I belong." - Prince, Minnesota Monthly, 1997

Authors Daphne Brooks and Jeff Chang at the opening keynote of the Prince from Minneapolis 
Symposium, April 16, 2018

If it were up to University of Minnesota faculty member Arun Saldanha, the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium would have coincided with Prince's 60th birthday, and with the artist in attendance. But the Symposium was still an effective, posthumous honor for Prince; scholars, artists, activists and fans descended on the "land of snow" to discuss the superstar's lifelong connection to the city.

I was honored to be invited to present my research on Prince's spirituality, which was rooted in and near Minneapolis. He attended Glendale Seventh-day Adventist Church and Park Avenue United Methodist Church as a child, and later the Kingdom Hall of the St. Louis Park Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.

I'd met Saldanha at the Prince-based Purple Reign Conference at the University of Salford in Manchester, England last year. He mentioned his intention to plan something similar in Minneapolis, and it was a great experience witnessing him realize his vision.

Organizer Arun Saldanha speaking at the close of the 
Prince from Minneapolis Symposium on April 18, 2018

That the three-day event was a super-sized version of the Purple Reign Conference made perfect sense given it took place in Prince's lifelong hometown. In addition to academics, organizers brought in respected authors like Andrea Swensson (Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound), Duane Tudahl (Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984) and Jim Walsh (Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ’90s). Attendees also heard from people who knew Prince, including his ex-wife Mayte Garcia and band member Matt Fink.

Presenter badge for the Prince from Minneapolis 
Symposium, April 16-18, 2018

Overall, I had a nice time at the symposium, though it was quite overwhelming. It was impossible to attend each presentation, and I even missed some key moments because I was off doing research for my book--attending a Kingdom Hall service here, talking to a potential source there.

You can read a recap of day one--albeit with a twist of shade--from longtime StarTribune and Prince reporter Jon Bream. You can also search the #PrinceFromMpls hashtag on Twitter for some highlights.

Additionally, I encourage you to visit the Symposium website for a complete list of speakers and abstracts, and check out the Purple Syllabus of essential readings. What follows are some of my personal highlights.

What else is there to learn about Prince?

You would think after eight years of working on a Prince book, I'd know all there is to know about his music and life. As I discovered last year at the Purple Reign Conference, there is so much opportunity for further study, from fashion and gender identity to music theory and implications of his name change.

It really depends on the subjects scholars choose to tackle. I will say there were moments during the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium where I felt I was already familiar with the information. But there were still exciting moments of discovery.

For example, during the MPLS panel, which explored Prince's geographic, social and cultural roots, independent scholar Kristen Zschomler challenged some misconceptions about Prince's early residences. She also pointed out some inaccurate details regarding the busing of black students to predominantly white schools in Minneapolis during Prince's childhood in the 1960s.

Independent historian Kristen Zschomler (center) presenting at the Prince 
from Minneapolis Symposium, April 17, 2018

That work is extremely important, as many Prince biographers have been recycling the same incorrect details over the years. (Additionally, Zschomler is working to get historical protection for Prince-related landmarks.)

Another interesting topic from the panel included an overview of Minneapolis's historical investment in music education, which informed Prince's musical development as a child. There was also a discussion of the "Minneapolis Sound" pre-Prince, and the role of race in the ownership of that sound.

During another session, scholar Maciek Smółka gave a related presentation, "How Minneapolis became a sound: an analysis through the examples of Minneapolis, Palm Desert and Seattle." I never thought about why certain cities become known for musical sounds, while others do not. I'm looking forward to Smółka's forthcoming dissertation.

Scholar Maciek Smółka presenting on the Minneapolis Sound at the Prince from 
Minneapolis Symposium, April 17, 2018

I was thrilled to see extensive attention paid to Prince's spirituality. While I presented an overview of his spiritual development from 1990 to 2016, Chris Johnson talked about eschatology in Prince's work. Patricia McKee highlighted Prince's interpretation of biblical text through song, and Jane Jones explored Prince's "messianic desire in two senses."

Presenting as part of the "Spiritualities" session with (clockwise) 
Chris Johnson, Jane Jones and Patricia McKee.

There was also a Theology of Prince session organized by the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. In partnership with the University of Minnesota, the seminary accepted submissions of essays, academic papers, poetry, spoken word and visual art on Prince's spirituality. The winners presented their work at the Symposium. What stood out to me the most was a discussion of Prince's connection to African spirituality, which I have yet to explore myself.

Theology of Prince session at the Prince from Minneapolis 
Symposium on April 18, 2018

One of my favorite experiences was attending the Prince Alumni panel, featuring security specialist Harlan Austin (whom I later interviewed), sound engineer Scottie Baldwin, hair stylist Kim Berry, sound engineer Dave Hampton, dancer and ex-wife Mayte Garcia, designers Stacia Lang and Sotera Tschetter, and moderator Craig Rice (whom I'd interviewed years earlier).

Autographed copy of Prince's ex-wife Mayte Garcia's 
book, The Most Beautiful: My Life With Prince

Their stories about working with Prince were fascinating and emotional. I didn't expect to be in tears, but I wept in the audience after Berry's recounting of Prince's Super Bowl performance, which had a profound effect on me.

Autographed picture of hair stylist Kim Berry with Prince

Whose voices get heard in Prince scholarship?

During a 2004 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Prince responded to a question about the meaning behind his music by saying, "That’s for all of you to decide. I don’t intellectualize my music.”

But who gets to decide? Before there were Prince conferences, there were biographies upon biographies and articles upon articles about the Purple One. And they were mostly written by white men. And now, partly because black people do not have the same level of access to academia, there is a concern that, for a man who was firmly connected to his black roots, black voices are not leading enough of the discussion about Prince's legacy.

Of course impressive strides are being made. The recent Prince issue of the Journal of African American Studies featured many writers of color. And the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium invited numerous scholars and writers of color, including Alexander Weheliye and Greg Tate to lead panels on Prince's blackness.

University of Minnesota faculty member Zenzele Isoke introduces
panelists Alexander Weheliye and Greg Tate at the Prince from Minneapolis 
Symposium on April 18, 2018.

However, there is room for a lot more diversity, according to some Symposium participants. And that's why it's important I keep striving to get my book published, they told me. I was incredibly grateful for the encouragement that I received from other black women scholars in this respect.

Prince from Minneapolis Symposium scholars from left: Kim Ransom,
Sonya Green and Crystal Wise

There were interesting discussions about Prince's blackness, especially tied to queerness, but I thought there was room for even more areas of study. I also saw an oversight in the voices that get amplified as scholars, writers and reporters research Prince's life and music. For example, someone mentioned they wanted to hear more about Prince's mother, who was not discussed in any of the presentations I attended. I think there has not been enough written about the black women who played major maternal, romantic and musical roles in his life.

A slide from a presentation during the Prince from
Minneapolis Symposium on April 18, 2018

I think part of this responsibility lies with the passionate, knowledgeable fan community. I've noticed we've elevated certain women in Prince's life, and diminished other women for largely superficial reasons--because we don't care for their personalities, or we assume they weren't as important, but we don't have any evidence to support this assumption. I witnessed this marginalization firsthand during the conference--even during my own presentation--and it was very disturbing.

I also think this carries over into other areas of Prince's life, particularly religion. I think some fans minimize Prince's Jehovah's Witness faith for largely selfish reasons--some don't like organized religion, and/or don't like that particular sect, and prefer Prince's more universalist approach to spirituality.

"We are all building Prince," a friend eloquently said. However, we must be careful we don't build the Prince we want to see in place of the Prince who actually existed.

What's so special about Purple Family?

Much of the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium was a reunion for me; I made some special friendships with people from the Purple Reign Conference, and it was an amazing feeling to see them again in Minneapolis. I also made new friends, who have become my Purple Family.

Reunited with Purple Reign Conference alumni 

These folks understand my passion for Prince, and the impact he's had on my life. I don't feel embarrassed if I start to cry thinking about his influence; when I sobbed unexpectedly at the conference--and later at Paisley Park--I was consoled without judgement. I am so grateful Prince brought these wonderful people into my life.

Purple Family 

Thank you, P.

Did you attend the Prince from Minneapolis Symposium? What did you think?

Friday, April 27, 2018

"U Call 'Em Bodyguards But I Call 'Em My Friends" - Interview with Harlan Austin

"If you really want to know about Prince, who he is, listen to his music."

Photo courtesy of Harlan Austin

Decades before Prince was officially baptized into the Jehovah's Witness faith, he was exposed to Witnesses (former and practicing) within his own camp: Revolution bassist Mark Brown (aka Brown Mark), singer Jill Jones, hairdresser Earl Jones (Jill's uncle) and security guard Harlan "Hucky" Austin.

During a phone interview this week, Austin recalled his parents arming him with Jehovah's Witness magazines The Watchtower and Awake! to keep him centered in the midst of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

"And so whenever I had downtime ... I would read the magazines," said Austin, who worked for Prince from 1983 to 1991. He told me about Prince's reaction to the magazines, and recounted running into Prince at a Jehovah's Witness convention and Austin's Kingdom Hall in North Minneapolis years later (more on that in the book).

Although Prince didn't attend Kingdom Hall in the 1980s, the superstar was "spiritual," according to Austin, who was close enough to be a reliable judge.

"Anybody that was one of the bodyguards and security ... you're gonna be in that inner circle," Austin said. "I actually lived with Prince for years and so when you live with someone, you really get to know them."

I always ask folks who were around during the 1980s about Prince's "God segments" during the Purple Rain tour. Basically, Prince would cry out to God and lecture the audience about forbidden apples and life and death. He openly expressed his anguish over the explicit content of his music, and said he was responding to the demands of the audience.

If you ask someone like Prince's early music collaborator Chris Moon, it was just marketing. If you ask someone like longtime business associate Craig Rice, it was authentic expression. Austin agreed with Rice.

"His music told an awful lot about who he was, and it was never for show," Austin said. "I think those were really challenges that he was experiencing during that time."

Austin and I touched on other subjects like Prince's attitude toward commercial success, his relationship with his father, and his spirituality in his last years. Austin also spoke about the last time he heard from Prince, which was around 2005.

Prince had left a voicemail, a practice so out of the ordinary that Austin played it for Rice, Prince's former drummer Sheila E., and Prince's former manager Gilbert Davison.

"Everybody's like, 'Yeah, that's him,'" Austin said. "But somehow I lost that voicemail over the years. And that's one thing that disappoints me the most because I would've loved to have that."

Today, Harlan Austin owns his own security business. Learn more at

Friday, March 16, 2018

"The Love We Make" - Interview with Kat Dyson

"We have to make our energy. We have to lay in the bed that we make with our minds and our mouths and our bodies and our actions."

Photo courtesy of Kat Dyson

That is guitarist Kat Dyson's interpretation of Prince's song "The Love We Make" from the 1996 Emancipation album.

"He ended up keeping my guitar part [and] taking his off," Dyson said, "which I felt was very generous."

Dyson said the song was also indicative of the types of spiritual discussions she had with Prince. Though he began studying the Jehovah's Witness faith shortly after she arrived, that religion never came up.

"It was very much metaphysical, very much karma," she said. "It wasn't dogmatic at all. So I guess I was out of there before that happened."

Dyson left in 1998, and worked with Sheila E. on "The Magic Hour" talk show. She also went on to play for artists like Cyndi Lauper and Italian artist Zucchero (Adelmo Fornaciari), with whom she recently toured.

Dyson and Sheila E. rejoined with Prince in 2005 for, in my opinion, one of this greatest TV performances ever: The NAACP Awards show.

"He sent us the medley and we performed it exactly the way he sent it to us," Dyson said. "He was very much at ease. But that's the energy between him and Sheila. She knew what he wanted and there was a trust there."

I remember being so excited for that performance. I still have it recorded on a VHS tape:

But I digress.

My discussion with Dyson touched on everything from Prince's "creative restlessness" and humor, to how she addressed him, given his name change to the unpronounceable symbol.

"I'd be like, 'Hey, how you doing?' As long as we made eye contact, I never had any problems," she said.

When addressing her, Prince chose to say "Kathleen" or use her last name.

"He didn't ever want to call me Kat because of the other Cat that was there," she said, referring to dancer Cat Glover, who worked with Prince in the '80s.

We also talked about what it means to be a guitar player for Prince: how she supported him musically, and how she ordered him a guitar from Montreal, Canada (after he kept borrowing her guitar). It made me wonder why some of Prince's musicians get more recognition than others.

Of course the players who were there for the hit/iconic albums are going to be well-known. But beyond that, what roles do image, gender and race play in approval and appreciation?

Whatever the case, I was glad to learn more about Dyson, who considered the possibility that, because she played guitar--his primary instrument--and grew up with four brothers, she had a more amicable relationship with Prince than others.

"It was all jokes," she said. "I never got the [warnings]: 'Don't say that, don't do this, this is bad.' I never got any of those memos."

But when it came to his art, he was "relentless," Dyson said. "Always thinking, always listening always reading, always pushing himself forward."